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The Origins of Cannabis Legalization

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Chris Elcock, an adjunct professor at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 in Lyon, France. His dissertation on the history of LSD in New York City is currently being expanded into a monograph. Here, his post deals with the early days of cannabis activism in the 1960s, and expands on the work he presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference held from April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Enjoy!

It’s only a matter of time before the United States fully legalizes cannabis use on a federal level. More than thirty states now authorize medical marijuana and a handful have decriminalized it altogether, creating a lucrative business in the process. For the most part, this has been the result of popular initiative.

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Chris Elcock presents his work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, on April 19, 2018. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

The right to smoke pot not should be solely equated with the right to have fun, however. For many Americans, accessing marijuana for a variety of medical reasons seems like a fundamental right after decades of harsh penalties for possession of a plant that many Americans view as quite innocuous. Others believe that pot should be altogether decriminalized on libertarian grounds: the government should not tell them what they can and what they can’t put in their bodies. Still others think that states should remain sovereign and legislate on pot without the interference of the federal government.

In this context it seems surprising that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a passionate prohibitionist, should instruct federal prosecutors to crack down on marijuana use and distribution in states that have decriminalized or that are clearly looking the other way in order to concentrate on what they perceive as greater social issues. Some say it’s a bad policy. It’s also bad politics.

Such a move appears like a blip in the grander scheme of things and it’s safe to say that pot smoking is fast becoming a trivial issue in the United States. The patient and legal struggles have given the pro-cannabis movement an aura of respectability. But what if we go back to the origins of the movement?

Back in 2013 I was doing research on illicit drug use in New York City during the 1960s. Through a university professor, I received an invitation for a pro-cannabis event on the Lower East Side. As I entered the venue, the doorman pleasantly opened the door to let me in. No ID check, no cover charge. I was immediately hit by a potent scent of grass that filled the café.

I found myself surrounded by long-haired and bearded old-timers partaking and reminiscing about the popular scenes of the time. I struggled to understand most of the informants (heavy American accents under the influence) but I did manage to see David Peel perform that night.


David Peel, legendary street musician

Peel, who died recently, was a legendary NY street musician who never stopped playing his guitar and singing his pro-marijuana songs like “The Pope Smokes Dope,” “Legalize Marijuana” and “I Like Marijuana.” Needless to say that he was very candid about his own use.

I left the party a little high from the second-hand smoking, but I still managed to think this was what marijuana activists looked like back in the day. And certainly when we look back at the 1960s, we like to picture the decade in vivid and flamboyant colours. The so-called “hippies” had made pot (along with LSD) their choice staple and liked to smoke it to “protest against the system.”

Although the movement did have its origins in the American counter-culture, this image is almost a cliché when pitted against historical evidence. The legalization movement was in fact well organized and made up of Americans who were not necessarily pot smokers. Looking at this from a contemporary perspective, the similarities are quite striking. Many felt that the pot laws were absurdly harsh and violated basic individual freedom.

The legalization  movement began in 1964 in San Francisco when a pot activist named Lowell Eggemeier walked into a police precinct and lit up to have himself arrested, hoping to challenge the laws in court. That same year the seminal Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, along with other Bohemian figures of New York City’s Lower East Side, organized the first ever marijuana rally.

1965 was a watershed year that helped galvanize marijuana activists and supporters. That year, authorities targeted counter-cultural icons like Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky, along with poet Ed Sanders who was instrumental in the process of publishing pot literature. And there were more high-profile arrests. The author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey, was captured for possession in California and the defrocked Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary was arrested at the Texas-Mexico border with less than an ounce.

Kesey and Leary reasoned that they would not go down without a fight. Both had defence funds created for them and they received donations from all over the country. In Leary’s case, contributions seemed to come from the average American rather than the average pot smoker: postal clerks, teachers, bankers, computer programmers and students were some of the chief contributors and Leary also found the assistance of New York millionaires eager to help his cause.

Leary ultimately took his case to the US Supreme Court and his lawyer successfully argued that the Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional. That was not enough for the notorious LSD proselytizer to beat two more cannabis charges, but his efforts to reach out to the American population did manage to build bridges with existing pro-pot organizations.

The first major victories for the cannabis movement occurred in the 1970s, with the passage of the country’s first decriminalization laws. Whether this was due to the influence of the counter-culture or the broader political climate favoring decriminalization is worth debating, but by then it was clear that many Americans felt that the pot laws were absurd and counter-productive.

Click on the link below to read an awesome edition of Gilbert Shelton’s legendary underground comic, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, that Elcock feels illustrates his larger argument. 



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