“Grass Roots” Traces the History of Marijuana Legalization Activism — and Those Who Tried to Stop It
Emily Dufton, author of the new book, breaks down the evolution of cannabis prohibition, as well as how future legalization efforts will fail if advocates get too complacent.
Published on January 10, 2018

Eight U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have legalized weed for recreational use, and a handful more may soon join the fold. Furthermore, cannabis legalization as a cause currently has its highest level of support among Americans since polling about the subject began in the late '60s. It's just a matter of time before prohibition collapses, so in the meantime, let's all sing kumbaya together in a smoke circle to celebrate the end of an era of injustice.

Bad idea, says Emily Dufton, a professor of American Studies at George Washington University. Dufton has devoted her career to understanding activist movements in regard to the War on the Drugs. Her doctoral dissertation, "Just Say Know: How the Parent Movement Shaped the War on Drugs, 1970-2000," framed legalization not within the context of liberal legal reforms, but through the lens of legalization's most outspoken opponents, parents' groups, and other "for the kids"-type organizations. She understands the enemy much better than some of the most seasoned weed veterans, and she says prohibitionists will not go away without putting up one helluva fight.

And, if we aren't careful, those prohibitionists may win. Again. They pulled a surprise upset back in the 1970s when America's stoners were riding high on the so-called "decriminalization movement." Weed activists had President Jimmy Carter's ear — hell, NORML's Keith Stroup was practically in the administration. Stoners around the country grew comfortable with the idea that decriminalization was going to happen, so comfortable they essentially halted their activism since Carter would (supposedly) take on the heavy lifting.

That is, of course, until Carter's drug advisor, Peter Bourne, got called out for snorting coke at a NORML Christmas party in 1978. That single incident led to a scandal in the White House, one loud enough to end the decriminalization movement; not only because Carter's guy was an idiot, but also because the movement lost its fire by that point. Too much stake had been placed in the White House and not enough on the grassroots level, where the push for drug policy reform originally started. As a result of the NORML scandal, Carter turned his back on weed, and his new drug advisor assumed a hardline approach. This single incident leads to one of Dufton's main ideas: activists should never trust a president to be their ally. (Take note, deplorables.)

Dufton's new book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, traces the cannabis legalization movement from its the beginning in the 1960s to the wildfire of reforms that went down throughout the 2000s. However, her book differs from other scholarly treatments on the topic, not only because she discusses anti-legalization activism at length, but also because her book includes up-to-date prescriptions for legalization — a handy guide for weed activists who are returning to the fray with greater vigor than ever before, especially now that the Trump administration is rescinding Obama-era federal protections for the recreational cannabis industry.

MERRY JANE spoke with Dufton by phone to discuss Grass Roots, why she took some unconventional approaches in her research, where she thinks the legalization movement is now, and — more importantly — what activists must do to keep the momentum going.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

MERRY JANE: How did you get the idea for this book?
Emily Dufton:
I had gone to Washington, D.C. in 2003, when the Iraq War was starting. I was an undergrad at the time. I took a bus down from New York, and was walking around, and it was just so crazy to me to see what looked like protests from the 1960s. Like anti-Vietnam protests, with tie-dye [shirts] and drum circles and everything. While it was exhilarating to kind of relive a moment from the 60s, I kept thinking to myself, "Jesus Christ, people, this didn't work 40 years ago. It's not going to work today."

I wanted to study what made activists successful — or not. I was always really interested in drug history, every since I read Martin Torgoff's book Can't Find My Way Home. I just thought, "Wow, what a lens through which to view American culture, policy, and the way we feel about certain things and people." I didn't quite put two-and-two together until I started thinking about the way his book, and several other histories I had read, had skipped over the meaning and the importance of the parent movement in the 1970s.

What was the significance of the parent movement of the '70s in regards to drug policy change in the States?
It was a virulently anti-marijuana grassroots movement that was born from the decriminalization movement, but ultimately really inspired how the Reagan administration executed its War on Drugs.These people [leading the parent movement] were actually really powerful. It was their view of marijuana and the "danger of adolescent drug abuse" that ended up inspiring not only the Reagan administration's War on Drugs, but also how a lot of people viewed drug use and drug users — into perpetuity. We still feel that way... or some people still feel that way today.

I wrote my dissertation about the Parent Movement, from about 1970 to 2000. When I finished it, I knew I wanted to turn the dissertation into a commercial book manuscript. I thought, if I'm going to do that, I can't just tell this one side of the story, because when I researched the parent movement, it existed only because a pro-decriminalization, pro-legalization grassroots movement had sprung in the 1960s.

Of every movement you discuss in Grass Roots, why do you think the parent movement is the one that's persisted for so long?
Unfortunately, I think fighting against something is a lot more powerful than fighting for something. There's a unification of power that comes from being against marijuana or against adolescent drug use or against things that are seemingly harmful or seemingly bad. That rallies people more easily than being for something. To be for social justice is a noble idea, and it's worked to pass legalization laws in eight and potentially more states, but it's not quite as powerful a motivator as being against something.

I think we saw that with the election of Trump as president, or a myriad of movements in American history. There's a power from being opposed to something, because you have a more obvious target, as opposed to being for something that's an idea without a concrete reality.

The other thing that allowed me to take the Parent Movement theme throughout the entire book, is that it's their ideas — of marijuana being a gateway drug, and how dangerous it is for public health, and how dangerous it is for children — that keep us here. [U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions says this stuff all the time. A lot of folks, actually, say this stuff all the time.

So, the arguments for legalization and for increasing access to marijuana have changed a lot more than the arguments against it. [The arguments against legalization] have pretty much stayed rooted in the same exact excuses or beliefs or ideas than arguments for.

It's strange to see parents' groups like Smart Colorado working with regulators and the industry to create better safety labels and smaller doses for commercial cannabis. It's not surprising, either. Do you believe there's some merit to the parent movement's concerns?
Yeah, and you see that in California now, too. Having pretty strict limitations on how much THC can be in a single serving or any form of edible. Like, those 1000mg bars are not going to be allowed anymore. In a lot of ways, I feel like legalization activists of today have really learned from their mistakes in the past, not only from the 1970s and the decriminalization movement then, but once states legalized in 2012, legalization activists are really being more conscientious, and more flexible about how states continue to roll-out legalization laws. Because every state's doing it differently, right?

People are saying in California, "Wait a second — there's these edibles catastrophes, with kids eating these products and going to the hospital." The states said, let's not only put laws on the packaging, and rules for how we're going to market these things, but we're also going to limit the active ingredients for each single serving. You're kind of taking care of the people before [the problem] even exists. I think that's one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen during my ongoing study of American activism, is how resilient and how flexible the pro-legalization community is being.

At one point in your book, you write about how the decriminalization movement of the 1970s failed due to activists' complacency and trust that the government would act in their interests. Do you believe this is still a possibility today, as more states go legal and stoners assume that federal legalization is an inevitability?
I'd say yes and no. There's just this ongoing belief that, "[Legalization] is here to stay. We've already got the entire West Coast, so it's just a matter of time before all the dominoes fall." But, I think about medical marijuana laws that were passed in 1996, and today — 22 years later — only 29 states have them. There's going to be some push-back [from prohibitionists].

Another thing is that all of the laws that have been passed so far have been ballot initiatives, and ballot initiatives are only available in about half of all states. People in [non-ballot initiative states] must convince their legislatures to pass these laws. That may happen in a couple; it may happen in New Jersey, it may happen in Vermont, maybe New Hampshire. But it's still really difficult to get conservative states with conservative governorships — and the bulk of governors are Republican right now — to legalize, even though marijuana's going to bring in a lot of tax dollars. There's still this stigma against it that's going to make it very difficult to potentially pass these laws without a continued sense of activism. There are a lot of 'corpses along the road' of legislation that have been attempted and failed.

Above, author Emily Dufton, photo by Travis S. Pratt

You devoted an entire chapter of Grass Roots to crack, a drug that is completely, utterly unlike cannabis. Would you talk a little about why you gave so much attention to crack?
Absolutely. I'm so excited you asked about this, because very few other people have. It's kind of my theory that marijuana's reputation in this country rises and falls based on the ubiquity and, perhaps, perceived danger of other substances.

For example, crack comes along in the '80s. It's not as though crack or cocaine hadn't been used before. But neither of these drugs were considered lethal and dangerous until Don Rogers died from crack in 1986. Now, crack is "all over urban areas"; "crack babies are being born"; "people are dying"; "the plague was going to spread to the suburbs." There were hundreds of news stories about it in the span of half a year, and people just totally lost their minds.

Compared to crack, pot seemed super-harmless again. Now it's, "Who cares if you're smoking pot if crack babies are being born, and there are shootouts on the street for drug-selling territory?" Combined, of course, with the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, where pot is starting to be used by a growing number of people for its medicinal qualities. That, really, is the perfect storm to push through the first medical marijuana laws, which came out of California and were birthed almost entirely by the gay rights and HIV/AIDS awareness movement. There was this realization that this disease was killing a lot of people, and marijuana could at least mitigate part of their suffering.

I think the other reason why legalization is so powerful today, and why it's so promising, is because, again, we have a far more dangerous drug epidemic covering the headlines. The fact that 66,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, and over 50,000 of those were from opioid abuse, and that there are no recorded deaths from overdosing on marijuana, it's very difficult to argue that pot is out there killing Americans when these deaths are evidently coming from legal, prescribed substances. Pot's reputation always ebbs and flows depending on what is scarier and what is more readily available. Generally, that's a really scary drug like heroin, crack, or the opioids of today.

Do you believe the social justice argument against legalization could gain momentum? You mention Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana in the book, and how he's flipped the social justice pursuit by claiming that legalization threatens black communities rather than offering them new opportunities.
I believe, particularly, that argument could hold more water if you see a lot of white guys becoming very rich off of an industry that has locked up primarily black and brown people for 30 years. This is a fear a lot of people have already discussed. There's a lot of power behind legalization for social justice argument, but it's a little myopic and a little naive to say that legalization is the panacea for racial problems in the United States. Those go a little deeper than pot.

If states go forward with legalization measures, and were to reduce not just arrest rates but are also expunging people's [criminal] records, and ensuring people from communities most affected by the drug war actually get a chance to enter into the industry — that would really do more to work toward lost opportunities in regards to social justice. This is instead of just, "Oh, hey, you can't be arrested anymore. Cool, right?"

California is trying to do that, at least with local measures. Oakland's been doing it, and Los Angeles has been talking about it for a while now. But there's still a pretty low level of minority-owned businesses in the cannabis industry. The way that these social justice anti-legalization arguments could catch fire is if legalization continues on, and we don't see any real positive effects toward equalizing the playing field for everyone to enter the industry, or to have their records no longer haunting them, or things like that.

Despite all the evidence we have that cannabis does not qualify as a Schedule I narcotic, why, in your opinion, has this one plant been subject to a prohibition that's lasted longer than alcohol prohibition?
If I had the answer to that, I could write one book and retire forever [laughs]. But I have a couple of theories. I talk about this at the end of Grass Roots, but one theory is because people feel more strongly about this drug than they do about almost anything else. It is really remarkable how passionate people get about this one particular substance, whether they're super die-hard for it, and they want to live and die by the leaf; or if they're the people who really believe it is the end of the world, [and] that marijuana is a threat to the final moral fiber this country has remaining.

The second is that we've normalized alcohol. It's just a part of American life now, as tobacco once was. For marijuana to reach that same level of acceptance, we would need decades and decades more of what alcohol had as well, which was not only a constitutional amendment that legalized it, but decades of marketing and people promoting alcohol as a fun, reasonable thing that Americans do. Making it sexy. Making it exciting. Making it no longer stigmatized. We're seeing this now, when celebrities have their own marijuana brands, as a lot of them do. Maybe we'll see it when there's a Skinny Girl weed [laughs]. But we're not there yet.

"Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America" is out now through Basic Books. Order a copy online here.

If you'd like to see Emily Dufton speak in person about "Grass Roots," or better yet, if you'd like to ask her a question of your own, check her upcoming tour schedule to see if she's coming to a city near you.

Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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