First, a confession. I have become part of the marijuana economy. Well, kind of. I mean, I don’t partake myself. But last month I walked into a head shop to buy what friends describe as the “iPhone of vape pens,” that is, a sleek little silver tube that allows one to “vape” marijuana without any visible smoke or vapor.
It was a Christmas gift. The red-eyed young clerk who waited on me was like a refugee from a 1978 Cheech and Chong film. He kept calling me “man.” As I plunked down my credit card, I realized that I was experiencing, in a way, the past and future of marijuana’s mainstreaming, a legal, moral and cultural sea change whose origins and development the author
ably chronicles in “Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.”
Ms. Dufton, a writer who lives outside Washington, tells the story of the motley battalion of marijuana advocates who, beginning in 1964, pushed first for the drug’s decriminalization and ultimately for the legalization we have seen in recent years in Colorado, California and other states. “Grass Roots” began as her dissertation, and it shows. A sober primer, the book feels like a missed opportunity to tell a larger, more colorful story. There are at least a dozen people in its pages, such as the wholesale smuggler who founded High Times magazine, whose stories might have taken flight. Instead, Ms. Dufton briskly sketches them in two or three paragraphs.
Which is fine. It’s a good tale by itself. It begins with a man named Lowell Eggemeier, who on Aug. 16, 1964, walked into the San Francisco Hall of Justice, approached a group of policemen and lit up a joint. “I am starting a campaign to legalize marijuana smoking,” he announced. “I wish to be arrested.” The officers obliged, booking Eggemeier on a felony charge of possession, for which he eventually served nearly a year in jail.
By Emily Dufton
Basic, 311 pages, $28
But not before his attorney,
James R. White III,
a libertarian, held a rally in his defense and afterward formed the first significant legalization organization, Lemar (a contraction of “legalize marijuana”). It vanished after a few years, but not before its mantle was taken up by countercultural figures such as the poet
who planted its seed in New York and inspired the formation of similar groups. By 1970 the two most important were Washington-based Norml, a more-or-less traditional lobbying organization, and San Francisco-based Amorphia, which raised funds by selling rolling papers. A proposed merger went awry when there was a bit too much merging, the Amorphia founder sleeping with the Norml founder’s wife.
As pot use spread from campuses to suburbs, decriminalization campaigns, most of which sought to reduce marijuana convictions to fines, began sprouting organically. An effort in Oregon in the early 1970s, spearheaded by, of all people, an elderly pig farmer, was the first to pass into law and pushed the issue into the national spotlight; by 1978 10 more states had followed. With the wind behind them, marijuana advocates reasonably expected that the rest of the nation would be next.
Which is when the trouble began. At this point Ms. Dufton’s narrative, heretofore as slack as some of her subjects, picks up speed and focus. During the late 1970s marijuana use among teenagers began to spike; the press, meanwhile, started running stories about the ease with which teens could buy bongs and roach clips. In Atlanta, a woman named Marsha “Keith” Schuchard, alarmed at the drug debris she found after her daughter’s birthday party, formed an anti-marijuana group that quickly went national. By 1980 more than 300 parent groups had formed around the country.
The new first lady, searching for a cause to offset press coverage that portrayed her as imperious and out of touch, partnered with the parent groups’ umbrella organization, which dutifully dumped its liberal board members for conservatives. Her “Just Say No” campaign became a cultural touchstone of the 1980s, alternately lauded and mocked. Pro-marijuana laws and lobbying efforts began winking out like broken taillights. The irony, Ms. Dufton shows, is that new, stricter drug laws had already helped cut marijuana use.
Then, in the late 1980s, the pendulum swung once more. Two things sidelined the parent groups and reinvigorated legalization efforts. The first was the crack-cocaine epidemic. “Crack made marijuana seem tame in comparison,” Ms. Dufton says, “and parent activists appeared overly fixated on an issue and a substance that just didn’t seem like a problem anymore.”
The second was
Mary Jane Rathbun,
aka “Brownie Mary,” an elderly San Francisco woman who handed out marijuana brownies to AIDS patients.
pro-weed campaigns in California, Ms. Dufton writes, “changed the face of marijuana activism” and transformed Rathbun into “the
of Medical Marijuana.” Once California legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes in 1996, the legal door was ajar.
How activists subsequently knocked it down, leading to formal legalization starting with Colorado and Washington in 2012, is the subject of Ms. Dufton’s frustratingly scant final chapter. It would seem to be a fascinating story, how social-justice activists laid the groundwork for legalization by portraying American anti-drug efforts as a campaign to oppress African-Americans. “Despite blacks and whites using the drug at roughly equal rates,” she writes, “blacks were up to four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites.” Yet Ms. Dufton races through these developments in 23 pages.
That said, “Grass Roots” is worth the time for anyone interested in the evolution of American drug laws. It’s organized effectively, the writing is clear and crisp, and you can read it all in maybe two long flights, assuming your head is clear.
Mr. Burrough is the author, most recently, of “Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.”
Appeared in the January 11, 2018, print edition as ‘The Other Green Revolution.’