Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The news that Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Maryland Congressman Andy Harris, and other Republican stalwarts in the House of Representatives hope to revoke the District’s voter-approved legalization of marijuana must be greeted with disdain but not surprise. For nearly a century, publicity-hungry, truth-adverse politicians have defied public opinion, scientific evidence, and simple decency to jail people who choose to smoke a weed they find harmless.

Let’s look at history. Cannabis sativa, which most of the world calls Indian hemp and most Americans call marijuana—or pot or grass or weed or dope—has been smoked for centuries all over the world. One early American user, John Hay, smoked hashish (a more powerful form of marijuana) as a Brown University student in the 1850s and told friends it was a “marvelous stimulant” that helped him “dream dreams.” Miraculously, Hay’s smoking harmed neither his brain nor his future: At age 22, he became a personal secretary to President Lincoln and later served as secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. 

Marijuana was not widely used in the United States until the early 20th century, when Mexicans who came north to work in the fields of Texas or on the docks in New Orleans increasingly brought it here. Its spread led to the imposition of harsh sanctions that made the user, as well as the grower or seller, liable for arrest. Louisiana made simple possession a felony in 1925, and, motivated largely by racism, other states followed. Marijuana was mostly smoked by Mexicans and blacks, and newspaper accounts warned darkly that it inspired superhuman strength and violent sexual desires among its users.  

By the time the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created in 1930, 16 mostly Southern states had outlawed marijuana, and Harry Anslinger, the head of the new bureau, declared war on it. His hard line reflected his rivalry with the most formidable bureaucrat in U.S. history, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Both men sought power by gaining a reputation as crime fighters. Hoover seemingly had the advantage, as his FBI did endless battle with Public Enemies. Anslinger had only his obsession with a weed that was smoked by a relatively small number of black and brown people, plus a few jazz musicians and intellectuals, but he described endless lurid tales to newspapers and created a threat that terrified millions.

Still from the film Reefer Madness

Anslinger’s spirit lives on in the 1936 film classic Reefer Madness, in which casual use swiftly led to murder, rape, prostitution, addiction, madness, and death. It would in time be seen as a comedy classic, hooted at on college campuses, but millions of Americans took it as the gospel truth.   

During congressional hearings to outlaw marijuana, only a doctor from the American Medical Association challenged Anslinger’s horror stories, saying cannabis might have important medical uses and did not cause crime or violence. His views were roundly rejected as Congress overwhelmingly voted to make the weed illegal and its use punishable by arrest and imprisonment. The AMA soon saw the light and declared marijuana a menace to public health.

In 1938, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed scientists to carry out an ambitious study of the weed’s medical effects. Their  report found that the drug did not lead to mental or physical deterioration or to addiction, crime, or violence. It was the most complete study of marijuana ever conducted, but Anslinger denounced it and nothing changed. 

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It was possible to come of age in 1950s America in blissful ignorance of the weed. It was something jazz musicians were said to smoke or that we read about in books by Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer. In those simpler days, young Americans were content with beer and wine, Scotch and gin, mint juleps and Singapore slings, and countless other beloved, bottled pleasures. 

But in the 1960s, marijuana use began to spread. Blame the war in Vietnam. Most young men weren’t eager to fight and die there, and they scorned the older generation that said they should. Increasingly the young rejected the ways of their elders. They wore their hair differently, dressed differently, embraced different music, and finally pursued a different means of getting high. Millions of young people decided that smoking enhanced countless experiences, from eating brownies to watching sunsets to enjoying music and the joys of sex. (To cite an expert, some years ago I asked Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner if he thought marijuana enhanced sex. Hefner laughed. “Of course,” he said. “That’s why I smoke it!”) 

J. Edgar Hoover

Whatever its pleasures, marijuana was burdened with one major problem: It was illegal. The cops couldn’t arrest a kid for his long hair or anti-war chants, but it was simplicity itself to arrest him for the weed in his pocket. “Since the use of marijuana and other narcotics is widespread among members of the New Left, you should be alert to opportunities to have them arrested by local authorities on drug charges,” J. Edgar Hoover wrote to FBI field offices in 1968. Hoover saw the issue with perfect clarity: Marijuana was a way to put people he didn’t like in jail. The power of the old, not the health of the young, has always been at the heart of the battles over marijuana.

Even as use was spreading among those who protested the war, countless others began smoking while fighting that war. In time, many brought their taste for pot back to their small towns and working-class lives. They might have been heroes in Vietnam, but in the U.S. they were also criminals. 

Young white Americans increasingly replaced blacks and Mexicans as the alien culture, the threat to respectable America. Marijuana arrests rose from 18,000 in 1965 to more than 220,000 in 1970, the year that a young Washington lawyer named Keith Stroup started the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML) to combat what he saw as a huge injustice to millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans.

Stroup set out to challenge laws that had never before faced serious opposition. Against the backdrop of a hostile Congress and the Nixon administration, he at first focused on state legislatures where he sought not legalization, which seemed out of reach, but “decriminalization,” which meant that possession or use could be punished by a fine but not by jail.  

I met Stroup in 1972 and proceeded to write a piece for The New York Times Magazine about the improbable emergence of a marijuana lobbyist in Washington. I accompanied him to the Texas prison in Huntsville, where we spoke with some of the hundreds of  young men held there on marijuana charges. In Texas, simple possession was still a felony, punishable by up to life in prison.

We talked to a Mexican-American named Pete Trevino, who had grown up in an orphanage and was about to enter college on a football scholarship when he was convicted of selling marijuana. The judge, noting that he was an orphan, said, “Son, we’ll give you a home,” and proceeded to sentence him to 40 years.

We met Frank Demolli, who, as a long-haired freshman at the University of Texas, met another freshman who knew a border guard, a Vietnam veteran, who would let them bring pounds of weed across the Mexican border for half the profits. Everyone Demolli knew smoked, and he saw selling to his friends as a lark. The lark ended when he was arrested with more than 20 pounds. The prosecutor sought a sentence of life in prison; a kindly judge settled for  25 years. NORML took up Demolli ‘s case and helped him win release after four. He resumed college (not in Texas) and is now a lawyer in New Mexico. 

Throughout the 1970s a debate raged over what harm—if any—smoking  caused. As president, Richard Nixon appointed a commission on marijuana that carried out the most extensive investigation of the health issues ever attempted. The members of his commission included a Republican governor as chairman, two U.S. senators, two U.S. representatives, and various scientists and law-enforcement officials. They and their staff held hearings and met with experts for more than a year, and on March 22, 1972, this eminently respectable group shocked Nixon with a report that concluded marijuana, when smoked in moderation, was harmless and that its private use should be legal. They recommended a policy of “decriminalization” that would permit fines but remove criminal penalties. Highlights of the report included: 

“There is no evidence that experimental or intermittent use of marijuana causes physical or psychological harm. … Marijuana does not lead to physical dependency. … The immediate effects of marijuana intoxication on the individual’s organs or bodily functions are transient and have little or no permanent effect. … A careful search of literature and testimony by health officials has not revealed a single human fatality proven to have resulted solely from the use of marijuana.”

In 1980, when I was writing a book about NORML, a member of the commission’s staff spoke to me candidly about its work. “Law enforcement people were very cooperative with us, because we were perceived as conservative,” he said. “They were very candid about how they practiced selective enforcement. We talked to ‘hanging judges’ who were quite proud of throwing the book at marijuana smokers. We talked to federal officials who admitted they’d lied for years about marijuana—it was official policy to lie. 

“We could go anywhere we wanted. Some of us visited as many as 30 countries, and time after time the same thing would happen. We would talk to the government officials, and they would give us the official government line: Marijuana use is very serious, we are very concerned about it, we want to work with your government to stamp it out. Then, that night, we’d go out drinking with them, and they’d tell us the truth: They thought marijuana was harmless, but the Nixon administration wanted a hard line and they feared economic reprisals if they didn’t go along. 

“We went to some countries where they would let the Americans out of prison before we arrived, and to others where they wouldn’t let us see the dungeons where they kept them. It became very hard to maintain the old myths. By the time it was all over, and we’d seen all we had seen, there was really not much debate. No one could argue that people should go to jail for smoking marijuana.”

A poster the Bureau of Narcotics released in 1935

During the election that fall, an outraged Nixon denounced his commission’s report and attacked his Democratic opponent, Sen. George McGovern, as soft on drugs.  

The report was a godsend for NORML, strong evidence to use with state legislatures. The reform movement scored a major victory after a young teacher named Steve Kefoury was elected to the Oregon legislature in 1972. While campaigning near a college campus in Portland, Kefoury would knock on doors but find people reluctant to open up. If they did, he often smelled the distinctive scent of marijuana inside. Soon he was telling young people, “If I’m elected, you won’t have to be paranoid anymore.” He kept his promise. With his leadership, Oregon became the first state to enact decriminalization.

After Oregon, reformers hoped to see other states follow. Instead, bills died in several states, and a major counteroffensive against reform began in 1974. Its leader was Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, a notorious racist and reactionary. Eastland’s Senate hearings made no pretense of fairness. Hand-picked anti-marijuana scientists were his star witnesses. He and his experts warned that marijuana was producing a “generation of zombies” and that “subversive forces” were behind its spread. 

But how was Eastland to refute the marijuana commission’s finding that smoking was harmless? His strategy was to announce that dramatic “new evidence” had made the dangers more clear than they had been three years earlier when the commission conducted its work. Eastland’s scientists testified that smoking caused an “amotivational syndrome” that made young people unwilling or unable to work, study, or defend their country. His witnesses blamed pot for causing insanity, psychosis, impotence, deformed children, and violent crime. Needless to say, the money for their research almost always came from federal agencies that looked to Congress for funding and policy guidance.

On examination, the“new evidence” invariably proved to be suspect. One of Eastland’s experts said he had pumped marijuana smoke into 10 monkeys, whereupon two died and the rest suffered changes in brain-wave patterns. This inspired “Marijuana Smoking Causes Brain Damage” headlines across the land. A Nobel Prize-winning scientist later noted that the unfortunate monkeys had been given dosages equivalent to a human smoking a hundred strong joints a day. 

The Eastland hearings did much to overshadow the Marijuana Commission’s findings. Still, Nixon’s resignation in 1974 seemed to bode well for reform. The two presidents who followed him, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, had both said they favored ending jail penalties. With Ford in the White House, six more states joined Oregon in approving decriminalization—California, Colorado, Alaska, Ohio, Maine, and Minnesota. Then, in 1977, with Carter in the White House, Mississippi, New York, and North Carolina followed. But this burst of reform soon ended.  

Although Carter was on record against jail for smokers, a formidable new force soon joined the debate. Mothers in many cities, convinced that marijuana would ruin their children’s lives, had begun to organize. They often said they didn’t want to see anyone go to jail, but if that was the price for protecting their children, so be it. Very few politicians wanted to argue with angry mothers. Carter stopped talking about reform.

First Lady Nancy Reagan speaking at a 1987 “Just Say No” rally in Los Angeles.

Campaigning in 1980, Ronald Reagan embraced the “new evidence” and called marijuana the most dangerous drug in America. His eight years were a hard time for reform. “Just say no” was the slogan and jail the reality. But though Nebraska in 1979 was the last state to decriminalize for nearly 30  years, progress began on another front, the medical use of marijuana.

That cannabis has medical uses has long been recognized throughout the world. In the U.S. in the 19th century it was often prescribed as a pain reliever. But once Anslinger demonized the weed in the 1930s, the government denied its medical uses. 

When change finally came, it was in large part because of two determined young men, Bob Randall and Lynn Pierson.

Randall was in college when he learned that he suffered from glaucoma and was going blind. But he also discovered that marijuana stabilized or even improved his vision. By then he was a teacher in Washington, living on Capitol Hill, and he began to grow his own medicine. Then one day a policeman spotted a marijuana plant on his back porch and arrested him.

Randall didn’t think he should be punished for smoking something that kept him from going blind. He made his way to Stroup, who explained that NORML was in the fourth year of a legal battle to force the Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana for medical use. Randall found a lawyer to handle his case and an expert on glaucoma to testify at his trial. He raised a “medical necessity” defense to the marijuana charge, and a sympathetic judge took his case under advisement. 

Randall was by then demanding that the DEA provide him with some of the marijuana it grew for research. After bitter resistance—but fearing the impact of a loss in court—the DEA reluctantly agreed to create a one-man “research project” to provide him with legal cannabis. He began to work for medical use for everyone and at a NORML conference he met Lynn Pierson.

Pierson grew up in Clovis, New Mexico, and was in college when he learned he had testicular cancer and might die within six months. He began chemotherapy after surgery, only to find its side effects—vomiting, convulsions—so awful that he vowed not to undergo it again.

But he did try chemo once more, after smoking marijuana, which made the side effects bearable. Like Randall, he was outraged that the government had branded him a criminal for smoking something that eased his suffering. Late in 1977, he and Randall agreed to work together on political action that could benefit not only themselves but countless others. 

They  joined with members of the New Mexico legislature to write a medical use bill. Despite his failing health, Pierson sought out scores of legislators. “Don’t play politics with my life,” he pleaded. The reform bill passed easily. When Gov. Jerry Apodaca signed it on Feb. 21, 1978, with Pierson at his side, he joked, “Okay, Lynn, you can start smoking it legally now.”

Pierson died less than a year later. “In the last conversation I had with Lynn, his state was beatific,” Randall recalls. “He felt he had changed things.”

Stroup was always amazed that the federal government opposed medical use. “How can they be so stupid as to deny people medicine?” he would ask. All over America, thousands of sick people were insisting that smoking helped them, even as federal agencies dismissed their stories as “anecdotal.” But people mattered—reality mattered—and starting in the 1990s, 20 more states and the District approved medical use. Four states did so in November, including Florida, where the measure won a remarkable 71.3 percent of the vote. 

Even as medical use spread, decriminalization remained stalled for nearly 30 years. After Nebraska in 1979, it was not until 2008 that Massachusetts followed suit. Then the tide began to turn, and 18 states have now ended criminal penalties. 

As for full legalization—the ultimate goal of reformers—in 2012 Colorado led the way (with 55.3 percent of the vote), followed by Washington State (55.7 percent),  Oregon (56 percent), and Alaska (53 percent), plus the District with 65 percent support. In 2016, California approved sale and use along with Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. To date, eight states and the District have approved legal marijuana. 

All this happened because minds were changing. In 1974, about 16 percent of Americans thought marijuana should be legal. By 2010 public opinion was divided 50-50. Today, 60 percent favor legalization. This dramatic turnabout probably has less to do with what politicians have said or done than with the inescapable fact that older, non-smoking, anti-marijuana people kept dying and younger, pot-tolerant people replaced them. That won’t change.

Another statistic is less encouraging. Marijuana arrests increased from 18,000 in 1965 to to more than 220,000 in 1970 and have reached as high as 900,000 a year. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simple possession, according to the ACLU. The ACLU found that, despite roughly equal usage rates, African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested. Despite reform efforts, far more people are arrested for possession today than ever before, and racism continues to drive law enforcement. 

Stop-and-frisk laws helped drive up the arrest rates. In theory, police stop suspicious characters to search for weapons. In fact, they rarely find weapons but often, targeting black and Hispanic teenagers, find small amounts of marijuana. In New York, teenagers would be jailed overnight and required to return to court,  often losing jobs as a result. This policy, destructive to young lives and arguably unconstitutional, has given the nation’s police millions of easy, low-risk arrests about which to boast. In New York, public pressure finally forced the police to cut back on stop-and-frisk, and arrests fell from more than 50,000 in 2011 to 16,590 in 2015. But the policy remains widespread nationally.

How many lives might be saved if the resources devoted to millions of  pointless marijuana arrests were devoted to stopping the heroin and opioid epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans each year? 

Congressman Jason Chaffetz Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Which brings us back to Chaffetz of Utah, Harris of Maryland, and other Congressional geniuses who want to revoke the legalization that District voters approved. They follow in the great lock-’em-up tradition of Harry Anslinger, J. Edgar Hoover, James Eastland, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. 

The Republicans want to continue a policy based on lies and racism, a policy that gives one group the power to put millions of others in jail for no good reason. The effort to change this policy has been long and difficult. And the media, always anxious to appear respectable, has rarely played a positive role.

If the Republican efforts succeed, smokers in the District will be angered and inconvenienced but will suffer far less than millions of people who will lose health care, housing, and vital safety-net services so the Republicans can cut taxes of the billionaires whose interests they serve so shamelessly. 

But in the long run, reform can be delayed but not stopped, in the District or across the nation.

Patrick Anderson is the author of High In America, among other books.