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High in America

  The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana

    Patrick Anderson

  Chapter 3

    What Stroup did not fully understand, as he started NORML, was that he was injecting himself not so much into a social issue—in the sense that the League of Women Voters might concern itself with clean air—as into a war, a very one-sided war against marijuana and its users that had been raging for a long time. It was a war that had been aggravated both by the war in Vietnam and the election of Richard Nixon, but its origins went back at least to the turn of the century.
    The origin of the word "marijuana" is unclear. One scholar suggests it derives from mariguango, Portuguese for "intoxicant." Another scholar thinks it came from "Maria y Juana," Mexican slang for soldiers and whores in the era of Pancho Villa. Whatever its origin, "marijuana" is the word by which Americans have come to know Cannabis sativa, which most of the world calls "Indian hemp." It is a weed-like plant that requires little or no cultivation, will grow almost anywhere there are hot summers, and can reach a height of ten or fifteen feet. Its fibers can be used to make rope, baskets, bags, cloth, even sheets and napkins. Moreover, its leaves, if smoked or eaten, produce a state of intoxication. There are references to its use as an intoxicant in Chinese literature dating back to 2000 B.C. and in Greek medical journals dating to 500 B.C. From earliest times, one scholar notes, there has been dispute as to whether the hemp plant lined the road to Utopia or to Hades.
    The first American crop of Indian hemp was planted in 1611 near Jamestown, Virginia, and soon there was a thriving hemp-farming business in the Colonies, providing bagging, marine rope, and clothing. George Washington was a hemp farmer, and modern marijuana cultists have used enigmatic notes in his diaries to claim the father of our country as a smoker. In truth, if anyone in those days knew marijuana was an intoxicant, it was a well-kept secret. Hemp remained a crop, like corn or cotton, but one that was doomed by the abolition of slavery and the decline of the ship-building industry. (Then, as now, whiskey was the American passion; Washington called alcohol "the ruin of half the workingmen in this Country," and Jefferson warned with his usual prescience that we would soon become "a nation of sots.")
    Across the Atlantic the use of hashish, a more powerful, compressed form of marijuana, became fashionable among French intellectuals in the 1840s. Baudelaire, Balzac, and others formed the Club des Haschischins and held weekly meetings in an elegant apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis. Their hashish supply came from a friendly physician, who obtained his supply from Algeria. Hashish can be smoked, like marijuana, but the Frenchmen chose to eat it, which produces a far more intense state of intoxication than smoking.
    There is no evidence that this experimentation among French artists influenced Americans, but in 1854 an American writer named Bayard Taylor published a magazine article about his experience with hashish while visiting Damascus, and one of the readers of his article was an impressionable eighteen-year-old college student named Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who soon became the first American to proclaim to his countrymen both the joys and the horrors of hashish.
    Ludlow was born in 1836, in New York City, the son of a prominent abolitionist minister. He grew up in upstate New York, a well-educated, widely-read, religious young man, and he found that Taylor's article on hashish moved him "powerfully to curiosity and admiration." He therefore managed to obtain some hashish from a doctor, who kept it on hand as a sedative, and soon he was eating large quantities of the drug. As a result, he had hallucinogenic experiences much like the LSD trips college students would embark on more than a century later.
    After two years of hashish use, the twenty-year-old Ludlow wrote a remarkable memoir called The Hasheesh Eater, which was published anonymously in 1857 and was devoted almost entirely to depicting, in the ornate prose of the era, the heavens and hells of drug use. In his mind Ludlow had voyaged through the universe; he had spoken to God, visited magical kingdoms; he had been attacked by devils with red-hot pitchforks. By the time he wrote the book, drugs had caused in him periods of suicidal depression, and the book was intended to discourage drug use, although it may have had the opposite effect. One avid reader of The Hasheesh Eater was an eighteen-year-old student at Brown University named John Hay, who was moved to obtain and eat some hashish. He told a friend it was "a marvelous stimulant to the imagination," and after graduation he looked back on the days when he "used to eat Hasheesh and dream dreams" in a "mystical Eden." Drug use did not impede Hay's later career. At age twenty-two he became an aide to President Lincoln, and he was later a distinguished novelist, poet, and secretary of state.
    America was developing a serious drug problem in the late nineteenth century, but it had nothing to do with hashish. The hollow-needle hypodermic syringe was invented in 1854, and during the Civil War, injecting wounded soldiers with morphine was common. Morphine addiction was widespread after the war, so much so that it was called "Soldier's illness." Moreover, the postwar era saw a proliferation of patent medicines, most of them opium-based. By the turn of the century there were an estimated twenty to thirty thousand drug addicts in America, mostly as a result of the patent medicines. The typical addict was white, male, and rural, and public opinion toward him was sympathetic: He was seen as a sick person but not as a criminal.
    Attitudes were changing, however. The severity of the addiction problem was one reason, and another was the rise of immigration. Native Americans—mostly Protestant, with Puritan heritage—tended to look down on the newcomers, and one reason was the supposed immorality of the latter, which was thought to manifest itself both in drunkenness and in drug addiction. When Congress passed the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, to regulate patent-medicine sales, it in effect declared that drug addicts were criminals. The Harrison Act, according to Dr. Norman Zinberg, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard, "ushered in the modern era of repression of drug use." In time the new law did reduce the number of opium addicts in America, and by then the forces of morality had moved on to a new target: the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in America.
    It was against this cultural and political background that marijuana use was introduced to America early in the century by Mexican field-workers who came across the border into Texas and other Southwestern states. By the early 1920s New Orleans had become a marijuana-importing center, with boatloads of the weed arriving from Mexico, Cuba, and Texas and moving upriver to St. Louis and cross-country to other large cities. Black dock-workers in New Orleans were soon smokers, as they and other laborers learned that a marijuana high made their routine chores more bearable. New Orleans jazz musicians were also discovering the weed. Louis Armstrong once recalled, of his early days in New Orleans, "One reason we appreciated pot was the warmth it always brought forth.... Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you 'heep much.' But the price got a little too high to pay, law wise. At first you was a misdemeanor. But as the years rolled by you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor." Armstrong was arrested for marijuana possession in Los Angeles in 1931 and spent ten days in jail before he was released with a six-month suspended sentence.
    As Armstrong's comment suggests, the spread of marijuana was soon followed by the imposition of harsh sanctions against it. Marijuana use was made a felony in Louisiana in 1925, and many other states followed. The first states to act were Southern and Southwestern, and their motivation was primarily racial. Marijuana was seen, correctly, as a drug primarily used by blacks and Mexicans. This was a time when lynchings were frequent and racial fears were growing. There were rumors that marijuana gave black men superhuman strength, violent sexual desires, and otherwise caused them to challenge their ordained place in society. Newspapers attributed horrible crimes by blacks and Mexicans to marijuana use. By 1930, the year the federal Bureau of Narcotics was created, sixteen states had passed laws against marijuana, and Harry Anslinger, the head of the new bureau, soon made a federal marijuana prohibition his top priority.
    Harry Jacob Anslinger, America's first great anti-marijuana crusader, was born in 1892 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, attended Penn State, embarked on a diplomatic career, made a name for himself pursuing rumrunners in the Bahamas, and by 1929 had switched to the Treasury Department and become assistant commissioner of prohibition. By then, of course, the prohibition of alcohol was recognized as a colossal failure, but despite that fact, or perhaps because of it, America was soon to attempt a new prohibition, this time of marijuana.
    Anslinger was known for his hard-line views on the enforcement of Prohibition, an attitude that would not change when he turned his attention from liquor to marijuana. The Prohibition laws made it a crime to sell, manufacture, or transport liquor, but not to buy it. Anslinger proposed in 1928 that the purchase of liquor be made a crime, with six months' imprisonment for a first conviction and two to five years for a second conviction. Cooler heads prevailed—the Hoover administration had enough troubles without locking up all the nation's whiskey drinkers—but when Anslinger became commissioner of narcotics, there was no opposition to his hard-line policy toward drugs other than alcohol.
    Anslinger was a contemporary and a rival of the most formidable bureaucrat in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. Both men headed law-enforcement agencies despite having had little or no law-enforcement experience; both men's success came from their brilliance as bureaucrats and their ability to use the press to serve their purposes. Hoover, over the years, had far more to work with: He had the Red Menace, Bonnie and Clyde, the Nazi Menace, atom spies, and an endless succession of Public Enemies, and he used them to make himself a national hero, feared and deferred to by the presidents he served. Anslinger, by contrast, had little to capture the public imagination except a weed that was smoked by a relatively small number of poor blacks and Mexicans, plus a few jazz musicians and intellectuals. It was therefore a tribute to his imagination and energy that he was able to turn this little-known and relatively innocuous plant into the Killer Weed, a menace to life and health that would soon strike fear into the hearts of millions of God-fearing, law-abiding Americans who had never smoked marijuana, had never seen any, and had never known anybody who had.
    By 1936, as legislation to outlaw marijuana was nearing Congress, he and his agents were busy giving out blood-curdling tales of marijuana-inspired crime and violence, tales that enlivened hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. One favorite anecdote, which turned up in article after article, concerned the polite young man in Florida who smoked one reefer, then picked up an ax and killed his father, mother, sister, and two brothers. Never in history have so many mothers been ax-murdered, so many virgins lured into white slavery, so many siblings decapitated, as in the heyday of Anslinger's anti-marijuana campaign. The spirit of the era was most perfectly captured in the 1936 movie classic Reefer Madness, in which casual marijuana use was shown to lead swiftly to murder, rape, prostitution, addiction, madness, and death.
    In the spring of 1937, testifying before the House of Representatives on the anti-marijuana bill, Anslinger granted himself a good deal of historical and literary license when he declared, "This drug is as old as civilization itself. Homer wrote about it, as a drug which made men forget their homes, and that turned them into swine. In Persia, a thousand years before Christ, there was a religious and military order founded which was called the Assassins, and they derived their name from the drug called hashish which is now known in this country as marijuana."
    Almost no one had anything good to say about marijuana at the congressional hearings. The only serious dissenting voice was that of Dr. W. C. Woodward, legislative counsel for the American Medical Association, who protested, first, that future medical uses might be found for marijuana, and, second, that no serious evidence had been presented to support the charges that marijuana caused crime and violence. For his trouble, Dr. Woodward was insulted, ridiculed, and sent on his way.
    The bill—officially, the Marijuana Tax Act—was passed, and became law on October 1, 1937. Soon, many more states passed laws making the use or sale of marijuana a felony. In the next few years there would be various scientific studies that said that marijuana was not addictive and did not cause crime or personality change or sexual frenzy, but these were invariably ignored or denounced.
    In 1938 New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed a team of scientists from the New York Academy of Medicine to study the medical, sociological, and psychological aspects of marijuana use. The study included tests on seventy-seven inmates in the city jails. A report was issued in 1944 that directly challenged everything Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics had been saying. It said smoking marijuana did not lead to mental or physical deterioration, to addiction, or to crime or violence. It was the most complete study of marijuana ever conducted in America, but Anslinger quickly denounced its "superficiality and hollowness" and charged that its authors "favored the spread of narcotic addiction." Perhaps more significant was the response of the American Medical Association. Several years earlier, the AMA spokesman was ridiculed at the congressional hearing when he questioned Anslinger's anti-marijuana orthodoxy. The AMA saw the error of its ways, and in 1945 an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association said of the La Guardia report, "Public officials will do well to disregard this unscientific, uncritical study, and continue to regard marihuana as a menace wherever it is purveyed." Thereafter the AMA was solidly in the anti-marijuana camp.
    As the 1940s began, the Second World War stole the spotlight from Anslinger and his "devil's weed," but he had done a remarkable job. He had created a mythology that made it impossible to debate a marijuana issue in America: There was no issue, because marijuana was universally accepted as so insidious a drug that society had no choice but to use the harshest measures against it.
    It was possible to grow up in the America of the 1950s in blissful ignorance of marijuana. It was something, like flying saucers, that happened to other people. Robert Mitchum, the actor, was jailed for smoking marijuana in Los Angeles, and Candy Barr, one of the great Texas ladies of her time, was sent to prison for possession; Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac wrote about smoking the weed. But this was not the mainstream. If the average young American wanted to get high, he or she did so in the same way that dear old dad had in decades past: with beer busts and gin dins, with purple passions and hurricanes, with mint juleps and Singapore slings, with Scotch, bourbon, vodka, wine, and all the other forms of alcoholic delight that were easily available and socially acceptable. The first question, then, is why, in the mid-1960s, did large numbers of young Americans choose to risk imprisonment to get high with a new intoxicant, marijuana?
    There are various theories. Dr. Norman Zinberg, one of the nation's leading experts on drug issues, thinks television has been a major factor in conditioning young people to use drugs. Television presents a restricted world, he says, a world confined to a twenty-four-inch box, and young people turned to marijuana and other drugs as a means of "boundary diffusion," of freeing their minds from an imprisoned view of reality.
    Sen. James Eastland, after holding hearings in 1974 on the "marijuana-hashish epidemic," concluded that "the epidemic began at Berkeley University at the time of the famous 1965 Berkeley Uprising" and warned that "clearly subversive groups played a significant role in the spread of the epidemic."
    Dr. Robert DuPont, a senior government drug-policy figure in the mid-1970s, suggests that a multiplicity of factors contributed to the spread of marijuana: the "baby boom" and the pressures it put on the schools; the breakdown of the family; the prevalence of television, which he says makes young people look for "quick, passive gratification"; and, finally, a kind of "me first" attitude throughout society.
    Another factor, perhaps the crucial one, in turning young people toward marijuana was the war in Vietnam.
    Once the war was over, almost everyone wanted to forget it, the people who opposed it no less than the people who made it. But the trauma was real; the scars ran deep, perhaps deeper than anyone yet understands. The war cut a generation adrift. Millions of young Americans who had grown up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance were suddenly chanting "One, two, three, four, we don't want your fucking war." And they were the lucky ones; the unlucky ones were being maimed and killed in a country that few Americans had heard of a few years before. It was a time of madness, an Orwellian time in which "peace with honor" meant more bombing, and in which villages had to be destroyed in order to be saved. Confronted with this madness, millions of young people rejected the culture that had produced the war—rejected their parents, their past—and set out to build their own counterculture, their own world, and it was imperative that the new world be as different as possible from the one they had left behind.
    It was a time of symbols. Long hair was a symbol. Casual clothing was another. Rock music became a symbol, too—bad times often create good art—and Frank Sinatra gave way to Bob Dylan, Patti Page to Janis Joplin. Dylan, more than any artist of his time, looked into the eye of the madness and fused it with his personal vision. Songs like "Tombstone Blues" and "Desolation Row" are nothing less than distillations of the madness, art at the edge of the abyss. On one great 1965 album he sang two songs that seemed to state definitively both the madness and the possibility of escape from it. One song, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," told it all in three minutes: the police, the paranoia, the drugs, the alienation. It even gave a name to the terrorists who were still to come: the Weathermen. The other song, "Mr. Tambourine Man," was at once an invocation of the muse and an exquisite hymn to drugs. (Several years later Hunter Thompson dedicated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Dylan, specifically "for 'Mr. Tambourine Man.'")
    Marijuana, like rock music and long hair, was another symbol of rebellion for the young. It was illegal, it produced a nice high, and it drove parents up the wall: Who could ask for more? Young blacks had smoked during the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s, and they passed the habit along to young white activists, and as the civil-rights movement gave way to the anti-war movement, marijuana-smoking began to spread rapidly. Pot was not easy to come by at first, unless you grew your own, but the law of supply and demand operates in a counterculture as elsewhere, and soon informal distribution networks spread across the country and into other countries.
    If smoking spread in the mid-1960s for essentially negative reasons —defiance of authority—its proponents would nonetheless argue that the custom endured, and reached millions of otherwise undefiant people, for a positive reason: It was fun, and it provided a better high than alcohol.
    Marijuana became the Achilles' heel of the counterculture. The dominant culture might hate the dirty clothes and the long hair and the rock music, but it was difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to punish people for those offenses. It was simplicity itself, however, to arrest young people for the weed in their pocket. J. Edgar Hoover, in a 1968 memo to all FBI field offices, said, "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." Others might equivocate, but Hoover saw the marijuana issue with perfect clarity: It was a way to put his enemies in jail. Throughout the drug debate, up to the present day, there has been that ugly undercurrent. Many sincere people may worry about health hazards or teenage drug abuse, but there are always those in authority who simply want power over other people's lives.
    Because of the war and the angry passions of the time, marijuana became politicized, evolving into a central symbol in the most bitter generational dispute in American history. To the young, smoking marijuana (or pot, dope, grass, weed) became a kind of communion, a rite that affirmed generational unity, that demonstrated their willingness to run risks with their peers. But that very willingness made smokers all but defenseless against police.
    Smoking spread, too, in another, quite different way. If millions of young Americans, particularly college students, began smoking while protesting the war in Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of others began smoking while they were in Vietnam fighting that war. When they returned home, many GIs brought their smoking habit back to the small towns and working-class lives that awaited them. They, too, were often arrested.
    Originally the drug laws had been aimed at immigrants and at the poor blacks and Mexicans who were virtually the only marijuana users in America. Now it was young, white Americans, with their long hair and their dirty talk, who had become the foreigners, the alien culture, the threat to respectable America. And so the marijuana arrests rose: from 18,000 in 1965 to more than 220,000 in 1970, the year Stroup first conceived of NORML.
    Inevitably, the mounting arrests led to the first stirrings of protest and political action. As best as anyone can say, the American legalization movement began on August 16, 1964, when a young man walked into a San Francisco police station, lit a joint, and asked to be arrested. His lawyer was an ultraconservative civil libertarian named James R. White III, who proceeded to form LeMar (for Legalize Marijuana), which sponsored the first marijuana-law-reform demonstrations in America in San Francisco's Union Square in December of that year.
    LeMar soon began to spread. Poets Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg started a chapter in New York early in 1965 and organized demonstrations outside several prisons. By 1966 there were chapters in Cleveland, Berkeley, and Detroit, where the poet John Sinclair was among the founders. In the fall of 1966 a graduate student named Mike Aldrich began organizing a chapter on the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York. The chapter would fold in time, but Aldrich would be a key figure in the legalization movement for years to come.
    Michael R. Aldrich was a slight, bespectacled, bookish young man who grew up in South Dakota, discovered marijuana as an undergraduate at Princeton, smoked hashish while a Fulbright scholar in India, and then returned to SUNY's Buffalo campus to seek his doctorate. He soon became friendly with Leslie Fiedler, the literary critic. When Aldrich started the LeMar chapter, he persuaded Fiedler to be its faculty adviser. He also persuaded Fiedler to let him write his thesis on "Cannabis Myths and Folklore." Mike Aldrich, soon to be Dr. Michael R. Aldrich—"Dr. Dope" to his friends—thus began a career that would combine his passion for drugs, history, and scholarship.
    LeMar's chapters began to fold after the violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago in August of 1968. Most activists by then thought their very survival was at stake and that focusing on the marijuana issue was a luxury they couldn't afford. Just after Chicago, however, Aldrich and Sanders started the Marijuana Review. By 1970 LeMar consisted mainly of Aldrich and of occasional issues of the Review, a journal of interest only to hard-core smokers. Aldrich had also worked as Allen Ginsberg's secretary and written a book entitled Free Marijuana, which he couldn't get published; his publisher said it was "too emotional." Just then, with LeMar fading and Dr. Dope's future uncertain, Aldrich got a call from Blair Newman, who said he had a plan to work for legal marijuana. They founded Amorphia, the California group that soon would contest NORML for leadership of the reform movement.
    By 1970 marijuana was becoming an issue in presidential politics. In 1968 Richard Nixon had campaigned for law and order, but drugs had not been at the core of the issue. When Nixon needed to make good on his law-and-order promises, he turned to drug control as his surest bet, and, aided by John Mitchell and G. Gordon Liddy, he declared a much-publicized war on marijuana, heroin, and other drugs.
    Such was the national mood when Stroup began NORML. It could be said that to start a marijuana-law-reform program at the peak of the Nixon era was an act of madness. Victory was too distant a goal even to define. To stay solvent and out of jail would be a considerable achievement. Still, as an ambitious young lawyer-activist looking for an issue to call his own, Stroup had chosen well. He would later say that discovering the marijuana issue in 1970, with no one working on it, was like finding out in 1965 that no one was opposing the war in Vietnam. He had a potential constituency of millions of smokers. He had potential allies, too, in people like Ramsey Clark and John Kaplan, who were calling for a more rational policy toward marijuana. The immediate challenge was to unite all these people, from hippies to Harvard professors, in a political alliance. The larger challenge was to confront the mythology, to persuade millions of nonsmoking Americans that the problem was not "reefer madness," as they had been told for so long. It is unwise, certainly, to abuse any drug, but the challenge to NORML was to convince America that the time had come to refocus its concerns; that when a nation began putting thousands of its young people in prison for using a mild intoxicant, the problem had become something larger, something deeper, than reefer madness, something that might more properly be called American madness.

Chapter 4

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