For many of us, the path to marijuana legalization has stretched out over a lifetime.
An introduction to cannabis at the age of 14 led to the immediate realization that the smoke made by burning the leaves and flower tops of Cannabis sativa—Cannabis indica if you were lucky and Cannabis ruderalis if you were easily duped—in a pipe and inhaling that resulting sweet smoke into the lungs led to feelings of relaxation, acceptance, wonder and sometimes even transcendence.
But it didn’t help that one had to hide such proclivities from the general public. In the 1960s, 1970s and ’80s, being in possession of even a very small amount of the plant—a joint, a seed, even a resin-coated pipe—could spell disaster for the casual user. If you were a person of color coming up during those halcyon days, then the price one might pay for getting busted for holding could be much worse; it’s a well-known fact that Nixon ordered his stooge J. Edgar Hoover at the Justice Department to concentrate on arresting and convicting small-time urban users as a means of manipulating and thwarting the Civil Rights Movement.
Let’s take a look at how a drug once considered a societal scourge by dark forces has come to be accepted by a whopping 75 percent of the nation’s adult population. Smoke ’em if you got em during this interesting and informative read.
Zoot Suit Riot
By the middle of the 1960s, the cultural revolution that would shape the rest of the 20th century was well underway.
Marijuana—a legitimate cultural accouterment in Chicano, African-American and the growing, post-war underground music scenes—had already suffered in reputation due to the plant’s portrayal as a corrupter of youth by California businessman publisher Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s grip on the media extended deep into the growing group of middle-class consumers settling in sunny Cali after the the end of World War II.
They widely assumed that the pictures Hearst painted with sensationalist stories in his newspapers were the god-awful truth. Marijuana was dangerous, it caused licentiousness, violence, unrelenting apathy and besides those youth-strangling characteristics, cannabis was also a gateway drug whose indulgence generally and inevitably led to drugs of abuse like heroin and cocaine.
Then came the assassination of a young heroic president and a protracted, for-real youth-killing war in the faraway and cannabis-soaked jungles of southeast Asia.
By the middle of the 1960s, youth culture had eclipsed the old guard and Hearst’s beliefs, once entrenched in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, began to come apart under the watchful eyes of America’s youth. That didn’t stop the establishment for continuing to push outdated ideas about cannabis.
During the summer of love, July 1967 to be exact, Life Magazine—then the dominant depiction of culture in the United States—published an article and photo essay on the issues surrounding cannabis. Titled “Marijuana: Millions of Turned On Users,” the article aimed to show both the rising tide of youth movements entrenched in the sweet smoke and a combative federal government hellbent on forbidding the use of what they believed was a dangerous drug.
The authors of this sea-changing article wrote that, “Pot is not physically addicting, nor need it lead to crime, immorality or stronger drugs.” They also got hardcore, far-right former federal Narcotics Commissioner Harry Ansliger to admit that “current penalties are unrealistically severe for youthful offenders.”
For the editors at Life, and a million or more hippie kids, too, it came down to this: “They turn the whole pot scene into a protest tool which they use to mock a middle-class culture they disdain,” an effect that the magazine ultimately described as “disturbing,” and as a cultural “insurrection.”
Attitudes—and ostensibly some laws—began to change in the ’70s. Nixon resigned under pressure, the mission in Vietman failed and thousands of American soldiers returned home to a world changed as much by flower power as it had been by Altamont and the Manson murders.
Between 1973 and 1978, several states began the slow move toward decriminalization, some of them making possession of less than an ounce a misdemeanor or even decriminalizing small amounts altogether. As cannabis became more accessible and less of a legal burden to users, those who indulged came to be viewed as consumers.
The result was the introduction of High Times Magazine as well as a growing network of head shops scattered across the US. During this same period of time, the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research published a study that said that cannabis use among high school students in America was on the rise.
But despite economic validation and a growing number of youth who were hip to the plant, a backlash followed. By the end of the 1970s—especially here in Albuquerque—laws had been passed that prevented newly minted cannabis consumers from mentioning what the implements they were purchasing were to be used for while they shopped for T-shirts with strange and unmentionable leaves printed on them.
As the ’80s came into view, all those kids who had to quietly sneak around head shops—fully aware yet flummoxed by laws that still brought stigmatization to cannabis use—had grown into pro-legalization adults. New Mexico began an experimental medical cannabis program—that Democratic operative Jeff Apodaca participated in as a teen—in 1978. Activist groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) gained popularity mostly due to the maturation of Baby Boomers whose personal experience with marijuana was positive.
By decades end, they had enlisted the support of subsequent generations of cannabis users who had also mostly positive experiences with the plant. As Gen Xers and Millennials jumped on the bandwagon, marijuana legalization really did become a function of time and age.
As members of the virulently anti-hippie—yet ironically also anti-fascist and pro-
In the Year 2020
The end of the millennium saw the rise of medical marijuana. In the aughts and throughout the teens, cannabis became known as a commonly used recreational intoxicant as well as a potent medicine for a variety of physical and psychological ailments. As of this writing, 33 states provide legal medical marijuana for patient-citizens while 11 states have taken the road all the way home, legalizing cannabis for recreational use.
In New Mexico, the state legislature is currently meeting about a measure to legalize recreational marijuana and over 80,000 citizens of The Land of Enchantment are enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis program.
That sure beats hiding your bag of brown, seed-filled, gasoline-smelling, flattened-by-a-trash compactor nugs in your sock so you don’t have to spend the next 30 years in stir for a half-gram of dirt weed.
The next step toward freedom is up to you, though. Stay active no matter the outcome of this year’s legislative session, and vote, vote, vote if you smoke, smoke, smoke.