004: The Recent History of Cannabis in America, 1970s-Present, with Emily Dufton
004: The Recent History of Cannabis in America, 1970s-Present, with Emily Dufton
In the last episode of our podcast, we talked all about how cannabis was widely prescribed in the 19th century, fell out of favor, and was ultimately outlawed at the federal level. Today, we continue this guided tour throughout cannabis history as it ping pongs from being celebrated to vilified (and back again), and there’s no one more qualified to be our guide than Emily Dufton.
Emily is a writer, researcher, and widely-published drug historian. She is a senior researcher at George Washington University’s documentary center, the managing editor of Points, the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, and the author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.
Today, Emily joins the podcast to talk about the changing perception of marijuana in America and its impact on our culture. You’ll learn how marijuana became a Schedule I substance as a consequence of the culture wars of the late 1960s, the rise and fall of the early decriminalization and legalization movements, and the key figures in this story who often go undiscussed when we talk about this vitally important history.
- The events that led to the passage of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
- How Richard Nixon took marijuana from being subject to a series of patchwork drug laws across the United States to a Schedule I substance in order to curtail the counterculture.
- How legislators shaped American drug policy without the input of doctors or users – and how states retaliated.
- Why peaking adolescent marijuana use, a rising paraphernalia industry, and angry parents killed national decriminalization initiatives in the late 1970s and led to the rise of Nancy Reagan in the 1980s.
- How the first medical marijuana movement took shape alongside the HIV/AIDS epidemic – and how California pioneered modern marijuana laws.
- Why Emily thinks the road to full federal legalization is a rocky one.
- “Nixon realized that he could not arrest people for protesting, so he looked for ways to put the clamp down on the massive waves of youthful protesters. He realized that drug laws were one way to do that.” – Emily Dufton
- “Cannabis was made out to be worse than cocaine in terms of potential for abuse.” – Emily Dufton
- “Richard Nixon kind of gaslighted everybody.” – Emily Dufton
- Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America
- Points: The Blog of The Alcohol & Drugs History Society
- Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding
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TRANSCRIPTRead the Transcript
Rick Kiley: Hello, everyone, and welcome back for Episode 4 of The Green Repeal. And our last episode we delved into the early years of cannabis in the US, but today we’ll hit on the more recent history where we learned that if Richard Nixon didn’t hate hippie so much and Nancy Reagan didn’t care if people liked her or not, cannabis might have been legal decades ago. Our guest on this leg of the journey is Emily Dufton, a writer, researcher and independent historian based near Washington, DC. Emily received her BA from New York University earned her Ph.D. in American studies from George Washington University. She’s currently a Senior Research Associate at the GWU Documentary Center, and the managing editor of Points, the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. Her first book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America was published in 2017 and since then, she’s become a trusted commentator on America’s changing cannabis scene. She’s appeared on CNN, the History Channel, and more. We had a very fun conversation, and we hope you enjoy it.
Rick Kiley: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to The Green Repeal. We are joined today by Emily Dufton, a drug historian, a published drug historian who’s written a lot about the subject. We’re very excited to have her. Come on the show and talk to us a little bit more about the history of cannabis. Welcome, Emily.
Emily Dufton: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.
Rick Kiley: We are excited to have you. So, can you just tell us a little bit more about yourself and your role in the industry or relation to the cannabis industry?
Emily Dufton: Sure. Like you said, I’m a drug historian. I got my Ph.D. in American Studies from George Washington University about five years ago. And when I was in grad school, I started to get really interested in the history of cannabis activism, both for and against expanding access to the drugs. So, I wrote my dissertation about anti-cannabis activism in the 1970s and 80s and then expanded on my dissertation over the past couple of years. And my first book, which is called Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, came out almost exactly two years ago on December 2017 and my baby’s been out in the world for two years now, which is great. And I’ve continued to follow the changing scope of cannabis history as editor of Points, which is the blog of the Alcohol and Drug History Society. I’m a freelance writer. I continue to submit articles about cannabis and other drugs and their changing nature and our changing understanding of their history and its impact on American culture. And pretty much just, yeah, pretty much just think about drugs all day. It’s really great.
Rick Kiley: Some of us also.
Jeff Boedges: It sounds just like us. We had a lot of common in college. We thought about drugs a lot too.
Rick Kiley: Well, there are a lot of jokes we can put in there, but let’s try to keep it…
Jeff Boedges: I’ll try to keep it more professional.
Emily Dufton: Keep it clean for the families.
Rick Kiley: Keep it clean for all the little kids who are listening to the cannabis podcast right now. So, you’re actually here. You’re part two I think of our initial sort of review the history of cannabis in the United States. And we spent a little time talking kind of at the really early years with I think someone you know, with Adam Rathge, and we kind of got through the point where we’re talking about up to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act and we kind of want to move forward I think, as you said, with your area of expertise into the modern era. We know that that the 1970 Controlled Substances Act as do I have that right? That really kind of made cannabis as illegal as any other drug, basically stating that it had no positive attributes whatsoever, and it’s just terrible for you. And I’m wondering if you might fill us in on kind of like what were the events that were leading up to the passage of that act in 1970, that really helped bring that into law?
Emily Dufton: Oh, sure. I love this story. I am completely fascinated by it. I’m really fascinated by everything that has to do with the 70s and particularly everything that has to do with Tricky Dick Nixon, who I find the most interesting president in our history. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act is a fascinating approach of federal control over the United States drug laws, which prior to that point, had some federal intervention but not a really pronounced amount. For the most part, drugs were or drug laws I should say were kind of a patchwork system based on what the states determined their levels of ability should be. So, between the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which of course was sort of obviously the monetary exercise over trying to control access to this substance to the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, again, as I said, it’s a sort of a patchwork system of laws allowing for either marijuana use and possession to be considered a felony in some states to kind of a misdemeanor in others. Oftentimes, that was predicated on the availability of the drug in those states. It was oftentimes predicated on racial notions of marijuana use in those states. It was on a variety of things.
But when Richard Nixon assumed the presidency in January of 1969, his views on drug laws had taken on a more pronounced influence, basically. He was obviously, as we well know, quite opposed to drug use. And what he really saw as the problem was the increasingly visible use of cannabis by the increasingly visible counterculture and civil rights activist, antiwar activist, basically everyone who is really opposed to his administration and everything that he stood for. So obviously, there are tons of rallies in Washington, DC. People are incredibly opposed to his presidency. They’re opposed to the war, they’re opposed to racial segregation in the United States, and Nixon realizes that he cannot arrest people for protesting. That’s the first amendment. So, he tries to find ways that would allow him to kind of put the clamp down on these massive waves of youthful protesters. And he realizes that one way to do that is through the enforcement of drug laws. Now, Washington, DC is about 26% federal land, especially surrounding the White House and the National Mall. And he realizes that if he makes marijuana a federally illegal substance no matter what the state laws may be, there’s always a bit an availability of enforcement against this substance.
So, he starts to rally Congress very vociferously alongside his Attorney General John Mitchell, who has his own series of really fascinating quotes about the dangers of cannabis. And he says, “You know what, what I want to do is I want to put marijuana in Schedule 1,” which as you said is the schedule in which the federal government puts drugs that are considered to be two things. One, that they have no medical value and, two, that they have a high potential for abuse. So, that’s in Schedule 1 and it goes down to Schedule 5, which are drugs that have high medical value and very limited potential for abuse like Pepto-Bismol and stuff like that.
Jeff Boedges: I was a Pepto addict for a lot of years.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. I’m partial to Zantac. I like Zantac. Just to get a plug for them out there.
Jeff Boedges: It’s hard to get them on the street these days.
Emily Dufton: Oh, I know. Well, the Mucinex dealers are really, they’re the ones to look out for.
Rick Kiley: By the way, Mucinex they made me show my like driver’s license to buy Mucinex when I had a cold recently. Evidently, that is being abused, Mucinex. Let’s not get off-topic.
Jeff Boedges: We call them Mucis.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. They’re like the muggle heads but they’re the Muci heads.
Jeff Boedges: The Mucis.
Emily Dufton: Oh, God, everyone wants to be like that gross green glob in the commercials. That’s their secret.
Jeff Boedges: Come here, you sexy little devil.
Rick Kiley: Sorry. Let’s get back on track.
Jeff Boedges: Can I ask you a quick question?
Emily Dufton: We should get back to Nixon. Oh, yeah.
Jeff Boedges: Just one quick question. So, and the Schedule 1 thing, this is one thing that it keeps coming up, and it perplexes me a little bit because I know that like morphine is on there and that’s the one that I think I find most confusing because at the same time this is going on Vietnam is going on. And you know, that’s what these soldiers are using out in the field, the medics are using out in the field to provide relief to injured soldiers. So, I just don’t know how something that has no medical value, at the same time is being produced and distributed…
Rick Kiley: To alleviate pain.
Jeff Boedges: To a massive number of soldiers in Vietnam.
Emily Dufton: Well, what’s interesting is that morphine is actually Schedule 2 along with substances like cocaine, methadone, methamphetamine, oxycodone.
Rick Kiley: Wait. Cocaine is Schedule 2?
Emily Dufton: Cocaine is Schedule 2 because, again, that’s considered to have at least some moderate medical value.
Rick Kiley: And so, this is important. Cannabis was made out to be worse than cocaine.
Emily Dufton: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Which is fascinating, right?
Rick Kiley: The distinction was also potential for abuse so not…
Emily Dufton: Potential for abuse.
Rick Kiley: Abuse. So, and I take that as like addictive nature and if you OD you will have a high likelihood of dying. And so, that’s very strange because like cocaine I think is perceived and probably proven to be much more addictive than something like cannabis.
Jeff Boedges: I’m going out on a limb here and say you’re right on both of those distinctions.
Rick Kiley: Okay. That’s crazy. That’s crazy.
Emily Dufton: Well, a lot of the determinations of scheduling, the more you kind of learn about the Nixon administration, the more you realize they’re based a lot on the perceptions of legislators. They’re not based on doctors’ recommendations. They’re not based on users’ experiences. They’re not based on hard scientific data. They’re based on what Nixon and Mitchell and Congress determined would be best for law enforcement to focus on or to not focus on. So, morphine is Schedule 2 as is opium but heroin, for example, is Schedule 1 because it is considered more abusable especially 1970 when rates of heroin addiction were really starting to escalate, and they peaked in 1971. LSD is considered Schedule 1. You can’t overdose on LSD. You can’t die of psychedelics. A psychedelic affects your brain, but it doesn’t affect your respiratory system. It doesn’t affect your heart rate. It doesn’t affect the things that drugs that do have the potential for overdose death effects. It’s just in your brain. You might have pretty serious mental problems for years if you do LSD every day for a long time. We’ve seen that in Sidney Gottlieb’s MK Ultra experiments in the 1950s with the CIA, but you can’t overdose and die on it.
So, these determinations of what was the potential for abuse and what was medical value are arbitrarily being determined by a bunch of dudes in suits in Washington. And we’re stuck with them now what, almost 50 years later.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. It sounds like the early like stop and frisk law where it’s just like this is a paper tiger to get the people that we don’t want here off the streets.
Emily Dufton: Oh, precisely.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. In the late 80s and early 90s when we were like looking at New York, we live in New York, cleaning up the subways and getting like the guys who are the windshield wipers, they started ticketing them for things like jaywalking and stuff like that. So, I think you’re just talking about that’s so strange that that was the primary motivation to pass federal legislation that would affect the entire country mostly because people want to stop protesters in Washington, DC.
Emily Dufton: Yeah. Nixon hated being protested against, so he really thought the counterculture represented dissolution of American values. I mean, he was running on this law and order platform that appealed to what he called the silent majority, the people who didn’t think that the Vietnam War was such a bad idea, who were really opposed to communism, who believed in mom’s apple pie, and saluting the flag and all this stuff. And this rise of the baby boomer generation, wearing their tie-dye and talking about ideas that seem antithetical to American values, I think it’s hard to imagine how terrifying it seemed to the people that Nixon represented in the 1960s and early 1970s. But they certainly represented a fundamental social change, I guess I should say see change in social value. And it was very scary at the time and a way to nail people who seemed, I don’t know, strange or controversial or whatever it was.
Jeff Boedges: Alien.
Emily Dufton: Hey, well nail them on drug charges and we’ve seen this time and time and time again. Drug charges are generally a way in which those in power retain their power because it’s a great way to arrest people and clamp down on dissenting voices.
Jeff Boedges: Protesters are crazy.
Emily Dufton: We never learn our lessons. It just happens time and again.
Jeff Boedges: Yeah. I was going to say that I’m glad we learned our lesson again and didn’t repeat that mistake.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Jeff Boedges: Not so much.
Emily Dufton: So, good thing we’ve evolved. Yay.
Rick Kiley: So, after the law went into effect and we’re into the 70s, was there pushback? I think you’ve mentioned that there was even a movement in several states to decriminalize the federal law against cannabis and maybe movement towards legalization. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Emily Dufton: Yeah, absolutely. So, Nixon pushed to have cannabis put into Schedule 1. He kind of gaslighted everybody. He said it would be temporary and he then gave a couple of million dollars to a 13-member National Commission called the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse and it was headed by Raymond Shafer who’s the former governor of my home state of Pennsylvania. He’s a Republican. Nixon thinks he’s really going to uphold all the things that Nixon believes are true about cannabis. He thinks that the Shafer Commission, as it became known, will basically spend the next two years between 1970 and 1972, researching the depths and breadth of marijuana use in the United States, its physical effects, its mental effects, its effects on violence and demonstrations and all this other stuff. And Nixon believes that he has a sympathetic character in Shafer, who is going to find all these horrible things about cannabis that will basically underscore the drugs need to be a Schedule 1 substance, and he also knows that Shafer is looking for a federal judgeship after this which is granted by the president so kind of holding that over his head and says like, “You know, quid pro quo, give me what I want. You get what you want. Everybody is happy. Marijuana Schedule 1. Off we go.” And it doesn’t work out that way, which is fascinating.
So, Shafer and his commission along with dozens of research assistants and all of these people who are helping him, they spend two years traveling across the country hearing testimony, they travel abroad, and talk to other countries that have noticeable cannabis use and compare policies with them. And they end up writing this book called and they kind of give away the ending in the title, but they say Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. And it’s this book that details all of the findings that they have concluded when they basically say that this drug may potentially be a cause for concern at some point, but it really isn’t in 1972. It is far less damaging than legal drugs like tobacco or alcohol and people who use cannabis are fundamentally and physiologically no different from non-users. They’re not more violent, they’re not more prone to psychosis, they’re not more prone to a motivational syndrome or all these other sorts of tales that are being told about the drugs. And at the end, they conclude, essentially, that the drug shouldn’t even be scheduled. It should be decriminalized nationwide. They don’t go so far as to say legalize, but they do say that they believe it should be decriminalized. And Nixon hates it because it’s the opposite of what he was hoping for. So, he denies Shafer the judgeship. The quid pro quo doesn’t work out. He ignores the Shafer Commission’s findings completely basically just like throws them in the trash can and pretends the whole thing never happened, which is why pot is still a Schedule 1 drug today because Nixon basically looked at the Shafer Commission findings and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
But the Shafer Commission findings made their way out into the world anyway. They were published. You could get a paperback of them for $1.25. They were widely available and in the 1972 elections, although we did re-elect Nixon, because we don’t learn from our mistakes, there was a wave of young people running for State Legislature seats, mostly Democrats, mostly liberals, you know, people who had kind of grown up in the counterculture of the 1960s, who are now trying to put those values into action by becoming politicians themselves. And so, from 1973 to 1978, there was this wave of states embracing the Shafer Commission findings obviously not on a federal level but on a state level. And a dozen states passed decriminalization laws for up to like possession of about up to an ounce in some states reducing charges against the possession of this drug from a felony to a misdemeanor, kind of on par with getting a parking ticket. And those seats included about a third of the population of the entire country. So, it’s a huge change legislatively on the state level, all because of these findings of the commission that the President back in 1972 ignored. So, Schafer ended up kind of having his revenge.
Rick Kiley: Right, right, right.
Jeff Boedges: Yeah. He did more than ignore him. He buried him.
Emily Dufton: Oh yeah.
Rick Kiley: So, during this period of time that you’re talking about, I guess, post-Shafer’s publishings and when these states are starting to decriminalize, was there a distinction between medical used medical programs and adult-use or recreational programs? Did that sort of divergence in the cannabis world start to become apparent then or was it kind of like still just rolled into all in one category?
Emily Dufton: I certainly couldn’t find anything in my research that suggested that there was any differentiation. I think pretty much in the 70s, it was all recreational use. I don’t think anyone was, I mean, I think maybe some people anecdotally were using it to, “Hey, actually, this relieves my pain as well, or whatever,” but for the most part, I mean, this was really being painted as an adult’s right to do what they wanted to do in the privacy of their own homes.
Rick Kiley: Sure. Cool. So, what happened? Because you have this Shafer Commission and early movement to sort of push back against what Nixon was doing with putting it on Schedule 1, but obviously, it took a while for it to be where we are like in today’s modern age, and Ronald Reagan came into power as president and we had started with the Just Say No movement, we really prosecuted huge war on drugs. We were going and trying to fight in Colombia and Mexico and all these other countries like starting wage in a big drug war like how did we kind of flip back towards, I guess, the hardcore prohibition being most prominent?
Emily Dufton: There’s a number of things that happened because history is always one giant like web of crazy things that all connect to each other. It’s like one of those boring if you’ve seen old cop shows where like there’s pictures and strings connecting everybody.
Rick Kiley: They’re in the new cop shows too, by the way. They’re not just in old ones.
Emily Dufton: They are. Now, really you do it digitally. You wouldn’t have like a chalkboard.
Rick Kiley: No.
Emily Dufton: But the history of cannabis is no different. I mean, there are so many people who have played roles in determining what the larger sort of social reputation of this drug is. So back in the 70s, if we go back to 40 years ago after Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford became president. Obviously, we’re dealing with the fallout of the Vietnam War kind of coming to a disastrous end and no one trusts the government because of Watergate. And Ford basically says, like, “You know, I think I’m going to hold off on this whole pot thing. Oh, there’s still like a lot of other drugs to focus on. Heroin is still a problem,” things like that. Carter runs in 1976 on a platform of really supporting state-based decriminalization. It becomes a very minor part of his larger platform when he’s running for president. He saw the window over Ford, he assumes the White House, and it really seems as though for a lot of the lobbying groups that had formed in the 1970s in DC and elsewhere to support expanded rights for adult access to this drug that like decrim is going to be nationwide, legalization might be around the corner, all these wonderful things are going to happen. Their moment in the sun has finally come.
But there’s one big problem and that is the fact that kids start smoking in waves, rates of adolescent use rise and peaked in about 1979 and that use is further underscored by a really unregulated, uncontrolled paraphernalia industry that rises up to serve the decriminalized marijuana market that has spread nationwide. And it makes a lot of really irresponsible products that seemed like they are just completely targeted to kids like bongs that are shaped like spaceships. There’s Star Wars-themed stuff. There’s a baby bottle that’s also a hash pipe. I mean, it’s just like what do you think in people…
Jeff Boedges: That’s a little extreme.
Rick Kiley: The first two you said sounded cool then I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s pretty bad.”
Rick Kiley: Yeah. It does take a turn and it becomes a huge industry. By ‘77 paraphernalia is pulling in $250 million a year which is $1 billion in today’s money. It pulled in more money than the original Star Wars movie did that year. I mean, it’s huge. And as soon as kids start smoking and the paraphernalia market seems to be catering to them, you get a lot of really angry parents, really angry parents. And these angry parents, surprisingly, become as good at social activism as the counterculture and the decrim movement was before them, and they start rallying against these decrim movements and the paraphernalia access because they say, “Well, here we are talking about an adult’s right to do what they want in the privacy of their own home but no one’s talking about a child’s right to grow up drug-free,” and that’s a big problem for them. So, they start rallying against decrim laws in individual states. They start rallying against head shops and paraphernalias being sold in convenience shops and all this other stuff. And they start to really generate a lot of power.
So, by the time 1980 rolls around, not only do they already have a national lobbying group in place right across the border from DC in Maryland, but they’re also very well set up to help a certain incoming First Lady make the prevention of adolescent drug abuse her primary platform for her husband’s next two terms. And of course, that’s Nancy Reagan. So, the big thing about Reagan to keep in mind is that when she first arrived in Washington, everybody hated her. She was hugely unpopular. She was seen as like no better than like a frivolous Lady Macbeth type, political climber. She was spending all this money during a time when the United States was going through a brief recession. She was seen as completely out of touch, unconcerned about the state of average Americans like just the total frigid bitch if we can use that term.
Rick Kiley: Please.
Jeff Boedges: Yeah. I mean, history does have a cold eye because I’ve never heard any of these descriptions of Nancy Reagan. That’s fascinating to know.
Emily Dufton: Right. Because she totally changes her reputation. So, parent activists, who are already kind of based in DC anyway, they move in and they’re like, “Hey, Nancy, do you want a platform that’s going to make you seem warm and loving and maternal? Do we have a platform for you? How about we try to get kids off the pot, you know?” And she says, “Absolutely.” So, she embraces that I think within one…
Rick Kiley: Is that how they said it?
Jeff Boedges: Probably.
Emily Dufton: I think that’s exactly how they said it. I think the transcripts from the meeting.
Rick Kiley: I want to see a letter that said, “Let’s have the kids get off the pot.”
Emily Dufton: But, see, it works, right? And the reason we think of Nancy Reagan today as this anti-drug warrior surrounded by smiling children wearing Just Say No t-shirts is because the apparent activists basically gave her this platform. She actually stole the Just Say No program from an African-American grandmother who was based in Oakland, California. I mean, she really kind of usurped the movement.
Rick Kiley: That’s so Nancy.
Emily Dufton: Yeah. And she made it her own and that was one of the most important ways in which this driving force for decriminalization got turned on its head because all of a sudden, people were like, “Well, what about the children?” And as soon as you talk about the kids, the pro-decriminalization folks like they totally had egg on their face. They’re like, “Oh, my God, we were selling baby bottle hash pipes to kids, and now they are smoking a lot and we have nothing to say in our defense. And now Nancy Reagan is calling us drug dealers, the equivalent of murderers.” And it really kind of fell out of the pro-decriminalization activists chant and the parent activists had the upper hand and a lot of power for the 1980s.
Rick Kiley: Amazing.
Jeff Boedges: Can I ask you what role do you think like crack? Because there was a huge crack epidemic in the United States back in that time as well, that they seem like they’re trying to fight and it seemed to me like marijuana just got painted with a very broad brush, and again, sort of lumped in unnecessarily with these more dangerous drugs that were out there.
Emily Dufton: That’s precisely correct. Yeah. So, the crack epidemic kind of steals national headlines away from the threat of pot in ‘86 when Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star who is like just been drafted for the Boston Celtics, when he overdoses on powder cocaine, non-crack but on powder, and he dies. And then I think a week later Don Rogers from the Cleveland sports team Browns, I don’t know, he also overdoses and dies. So, there’s these two really prominent tragic deaths from cocaine, and then all of a sudden, like the New York Times and The Washington Post realized that crack is being used primarily in urban centers, primarily by non-white individuals, or at least that’s how they paint the epidemic and of course, they talked about it in these highfalutin, extremely racially charged terms. And whereas cannabis was kind of public enemy number one throughout the early 1980s, crack sweeps in and kind of takes all the air out of the room and everyone’s terrified of that. But when legislation starts to pass for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and its follow-up Omnibus Act in 1988, pot is very much so swept under that same force that says, “Okay. We are really going to pass punitive laws for people who possess…”
When it came to marijuana, it really was a kind of hugely large amounts. You really had to be a large-time dealer and distributor but nonetheless, it did fall into that same umbrella of really harsh laws, really punitive laws because drugs were seen as one of the biggest problems in the United States at the time.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. I will tell you a little story. When I was a junior and senior in high school and so this was 1991, 1992, I was something called a pure awareness counselor. So, what we were supposed to do is like the elder kids in the school. We were supposed to like we had these groups with freshmen that were incoming to sort of like talk to them about peer pressure and be like someone that’s a student leader, not a teacher. And as part of like the training to do that, we had this like drug expert come in and do this presentation for us on the horrors of drugs that kids could be exposed to. And to put all these drug names up on the board and he was like, “Guess which one I think is the worst one up here?” and it had crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana. You know what he said? He said marijuana. He said marijuana is the most damaging thing up here. And he proceeded to show us like pictures of birth defect babies all sorts of like this really happened and this is suburban New Jersey, very good public school.
Jeff Boedges: The extinction of dinosaurs can be traced directly to marijuana use.
Rick Kiley: I think back on that moment like I have this like little personal story about just like the disinformation that was there and how it was sort of propagated down. I guess this is the coming to the end I think of the era where we kept seeing ads with eggs in a frying pan. This is your brain on drugs.
Jeff Boedges: All the t-shirt with the side of bacon pretty much ended that.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Emily Dufton: Your brain on drugs is delicious.
Jeff Boedges: Yeah. This is your brain on drugs with the side of bacon. I love that shirt.
Rick Kiley: Man, I’m hungry.
Emily Dufton: That’s a remarkable story. Telling it to a bunch of like 17 and 18-year-olds too are probably like, “Um, I don’t know about this.”
Rick Kiley: Yeah. But we were being shown like it was like being shown, you know, don’t play chicken on the train tracks like video that we saw two kids were getting mowed down, but it was that gory but in a really strange way.
Emily Dufton: Wow.
Rick Kiley: So, then like we’re talking about all these flip flops in action and I just like my personal story is right beginning in the 90s and I feel like when the 90s came, it feels like that’s maybe the beginning really now of where we kind of got off the war on drugs and started realizing it wasn’t working. Like. I’m wondering if you could talk about like what got us back on the path to that really has led us to where we are today where we have adult-use legal in 11 states and we have these medical programs. I mean, I kind of feel like Bill Clinton’s presidency and even like the comment and the acknowledgment that I know he said he didn’t inhale but like the acknowledgment that a presidential candidate had used drugs I felt was like a big turning point. I don’t know if that figures into it. Maybe you can help inform us what got us back on this I guess path towards acceptance if you will.
Emily Dufton: I do think Clinton was huge. I really do. I mean, the first baby boomer president to admit to even putting a joint up to his lips and not inhaling just trying to look cool. That’s all right, Bill. Just play the saxophone and you’re already cool.
Rick Kiley: He was cool, man. That was good for him.
Emily Dufton: But it had kind of been the number of things all kind of coalescing to reframe the conversation about cannabis again. That’s what I’ve always found so fascinating about this particular substance is that unlike heroin or cocaine or LSD or anything like that, it’s pot that has consistently like moved back and forth in the public imagination. It’s a good thing. No, it’s a bad thing. No, it’s a good thing. No, it’s a medicine. No, it’s an intoxicant. No, it’s a demon attacking children. It’s whatever it is, but it constantly is changing. And so, in the mid-1980s, as crack kind of comes on the scene and sweeps marijuana from the headlines, there’s something else that’s happening too, which is the HIV AIDS epidemic. And that is starting to become a pretty large, pretty serious problem, especially in places like San Francisco and New York, places where you have large, congested urban populations. In certain neighborhoods, you have very large gay populations. And all of a sudden, this disease that no one understands, but people are really scared of starts decimating two of the least popular demographics in the United States, which is gay people and intravenous drug users, you know, which in the Reagan administration are like lower than mud. No one cares about these two populations in the Reagan administration.
But there are a couple of people who start to realize that, especially people suffering from advanced HIV symptoms, when they’re exhausted, they’re wasting away. They have no appetite. They’re nauseous all the time. If you eat a pot brownie, you suddenly start to feel a little bit better. And not only HIV patients but cancer patients, glaucoma patients. So, it’s in San Francisco in the mid to late-1980s, where you have a couple of activists who really jumpstart the medical marijuana movement and two of my favorites are named. This was her nickname. There really was Mary Jane. She’s Brownie Mary Rathbun and Dennis Peron, both of whom are now passed away but they were sort of the leaders of medical marijuana movement in California in the late 80s and early 90s. And they really united basically the medical marijuana movement with the gay rights movement by saying that HIV AIDS is a real problem. It really does need to be addressed with real scientific research and medical understanding and marijuana is potentially a way to help. So, they start to reframe the conversation and the reputation around this drug as something that can help people suffering from an illness that no one else understands, nothing else seems to help, but this does.
And it makes it hugely sympathetic, right? There’s all these commercials leading up to the passage of the first medical marijuana law in 1996, in California, which was very much so supported and I think initiated by Dennis Peron, and Brownie Mary and it’s called the Compassionate Use Act. And it’s like a woman who was struggling with cancer and chemotherapy and cannabis gave her the ability to eat a meal and get a little bit of strength back. People suffering from glaucoma, and cannabis reduces the pressure in their eyes so they can see and they don’t go completely blind. If people who lost family members and loved ones to HIV and cannabis gave them some pain relief in the last sort of wretched painful months of their life. So, from a drug that was like seen as an adult’s right to recreational use in the 1970s to a demon Boogeyman that’s going to attack our kids in the 1980s, to a potential panacea for a wide variety of really awful diseases in the 1990s, pot goes through these waves of shifts in its reputation. Until all of a sudden, now we have what 33 states I think that allows for medical use, again, because it’s seen as something that helps and it’s beneficial. And this, of course, directly contradicts its position as a Schedule 1 substance but that was how the conversation originally started to become reframed basically when marijuana activists joined up with the gay rights movement to battle HIV AIDS. It’s an amazing confluence of historical forces.
Rick Kiley: That is crazy.
Jeff Boedges: That’s amazing.
Rick Kiley: Okay. So, I guess one of the questions I was going to ask you, you already kind of answered so California, this law that’s passed in 1996 as for medical use, that’s really the first foundational layer that’s laid in this movement back towards where we are today. Correct?
Emily Dufton: Yeah. California is very much so the pioneer of medical marijuana. I don’t think another state passes a medical law for, I think, a couple of years. I don’t think another one passes until ‘98 or ‘99.
Rick Kiley: Okay, cool. All right. I’ve read some of your articles on the blog. You do seem to like these stories about I think people you call a hidden figure. I guess these are people that we don’t really know about and we’re experiential. We’re marketers and we love telling stories. Is there one or two other people like you think you mentioned as Brownie Mary, you mentioned Dennis, like, are there others that you think were really key figures in sort of this movement towards legalization that maybe people don’t know about that you’d like to tell us about?
Emily Dufton: Brownie Mary is definitely kind of my all-time favorite. She is – if I could talk a little bit more about her because I love her so much. She’s amazing. I think she died in 1999. But she was so awesome. She like everybody’s badass grandma who swore like a sailor and always wore this polyester vest covered in like funny pins like thank you for pot smoking and all this other stuff. She lived in the Castro district. You know, she’s sort of the original neighborhood of San Francisco and she had been an activist all of her life. She was from the Midwest but she rallied for women’s reproductive rights. She rallied for workers’ rights. And then she kind of landed in San Francisco and she was thinking about studying psychology, but she ended up becoming a waitress at IHOP and she did that for like 35 years.
Rick Kiley: Right. Wow.
Emily Dufton: She also started, I think, she started consuming cannabis.
Jeff Boedges: Pot and pancakes.
Rick Kiley: Yeah, pot and pancakes.
Emily Dufton: And a lot of pancakes. You know, San Francisco it can be cool. It can be foggy. What makes you happier than some nice pancakes on a cool San Francisco morning? Brownie Mary, she was in it. So, I think she starts consuming cannabis every day when she’s in about her mid-30s because her knees start to hurt because she’s waitressing. You know, she’s a waitress. And she had a daughter who died tragically when she was only 19 in a car accident. She got hit by a drunk driver. And I think she was divorced. Her daughter is kind of the only family member she had. And so, she starts basically adopting like all of the young gay men in her Castro neighborhood home and she becomes everybody’s mom. She’s amazing. And she meets up with Dennis Peron, who is running an unofficial I think he called it a marijuana supermarket out of his living room of his group house called The Big Top and Brownie Mary is also really good at baking. So, she was consuming pot every day because it helps her out but so she starts making these brownies for Dennis Peron’s supermarket and they sell very well because brownie is full of weeds. I mean, obviously, you’ve got a marketing winner there and they become very good friends.
And so, that’s how she gets the nickname Brownie Mary of course and she becomes one of the most like amazing activists or advocates rather for medical marijuana because she’s just like this totally funky old grandma who nonsense, you know, tells it like is and it’s just like, “Listen, my children in San Francisco are dying of this horrible disease and you’re trying to tell me that the brownies I bake and gives them for free that make them feel better are wrong? Well, you’re wrong.” I mean, how can you say no to a grandma in a polyester vest? You can’t. She’s amazing. So, she’s my favorite character in legalization history. I just think she’s great.
Rick Kiley: That’s awesome.
Emily Dufton: It sounds like a movie in the making.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Emily Dufton: I wish. If anyone wants to pay me to write the script, I’m available.
Jeff Boedges: Yeah. I think after Harvey Milk, I mean, who’s better than Brownie Mary?
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Emily Dufton: Brownies and Milk.
Rick Kiley: I see Meryl Streep.
Emily Dufton: Oh my God. We have the name of the movie.
Rick Kiley: Brownies and Milk. All right. Well, let’s get that script going here. We’ll see.
Jeff Boedges: I’ll call Sean. I’ll see if he’s into…
Rick Kiley: Yeah, we’ll make it happen. Alright. So, we’re coming down towards the end here. I think, you know, as you are a student of what’s happening in the industry and you know that our podcast is called The Green Repeal, we’re sort of trying to chart this path of cannabis legalization to what we feel is its inevitable conclusion. I’m curious how you feel about whether or not cannabis will be legal federally, if you think that that’s inevitable, if it’s coming soon, if it’s coming later, like, what does history tell you from your perspective?
Jeff Boedges: I actually have a spin on that too, because I feel like as you said, Emily, that there’s up and down this thing. Cannabis has been vilified and then glorified and then vilified again. Right now, I think it’s probably in its heyday of glorification at least in the US. Do we feel like it could go? Because I think Rick and I, and probably other people feel like it’s really heading towards this path towards federal legalization. But do you think that there’s a possibility that history repeats itself again and this thing eventually becomes vilified?
Emily Dufton: Oh, if I had a crystal ball and I could make better predictions, I think I’d make more money as an Oracle than a historian, which is really I should have gotten into the Oracle business but it’s hard to say. I am at my core nature a skeptic. I hate to say it but I am. I think we see certain things happening on both the state and federal level that makes me think that the road to full legalization with all the states and federal approval is going to be a rocky road indeed. And I think we see the hang-ups with the battles that New York and New Jersey have had over the past year of trying to implement legalization in a way that is really effective. You know, one of the arguments for legalization today is that it is a means to, well, it’s a means of social justice, right? It’s a means to counteract a lot of the racialized effects of an inherently problematic law enforcement based war on drugs. But you’re seeing that in a lot of the legalization efforts, there might be some clearing of records and things like that, but the people who are really benefiting from legalization are a lot of wealthy white men, rather than the communities who have been so harmed by the effects of the war on drugs over the past several decades.
And that’s holding up a lot of legalization efforts in the States. I think there’s a lot of state legislators who want these laws to walk the talk and to actually implement those measures. It’s hard. It’s hard to overcome America’s racist past through the legalization of an intoxicant that has been essentially a black market substance for a couple of hundred years like how do we rectify? How do we rectify all these social problems through pot? I don’t know. So, we’re seeing that problem play out in some states. Federally, it’s interesting. The dearly departed policy analyst, Mark Kleiman, who just died a couple of months ago, and he was one of I think the most insightful drug policy experts in America and we lost him way too soon. But he was a big proponent of federal legalization because he thought that was really the only way that our country could kind of get a hold on this stuff to potentially curtail or rein in some of the excesses of the industry to ensure that the problems of the past don’t rear its ugly head again. And I talked to him earlier this year, and he was already worried that like, “Maybe that ship had sailed and if we were going to federally legalize like we should have done it ASAP.” But of course, we’ve had the Trump administration and office, you know, those officials have a noise and so particularly supportive of legalization efforts and things like that, and there’s just so many other…
Rick Kiley: Or people who aren’t white men.
Emily Dufton: Yeah. They’re that. So, there’s a lot of hold up, and I think a lot of it will, you know, in the same way, when Jimmy Carter was elected, people thought, “Oh, this is it. Legalization is around the corner,” but then who was elected next? Well, it was Reagan and things really took a turn. So, it’s all dependent on so many different factors. It certainly seems like the social will is there. I think it’s a matter of how effectively activists and politicians on the state and federal level wield their power, create laws that really are just, and find ways to create an industry out of nothing really, kind of out of thin air that would be as widely popular as I think people hope it will be. So, Lord knows what’s going to happen next, but I’ll write a sequel to Grass Roots in a couple of years and I’ll update you on everything by like 2025.
Jeff Boedges: We’ll have you back on the show then.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. Let’s do it.
Emily Dufton: That’ll be great.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. Well, we’ll do it when we launch our movie.
Jeff Boedges: Milk and Brownies.
Emily Dufton: Brownies and Milk.
Rick Kiley: Well, cool. Emily, thank you so much for joining us today. If people wanted to read more of your stuff, get your book, etcetera, where should they go? Where should they find that?
Emily Dufton: That would be great. Please feel free to buy a copy of my book for all of your families and friends in the upcoming holiday season. You can find more about me on my website at EmilyDufton.com. There you can find a link to Points, the website I edit and Grass Roots is available everywhere, local bookstore, at Amazon, at probably some used copies floating around by this point. So, if you seek, you shall find.
Rick Kiley: Awesome.
Jeff Boedges: Excellent.
Rick Kiley: Cool. Well, we really appreciate you joining us. We hope that as history continues to evolve, we can maybe come to have you on the show again. Thanks so much.
Emily Dufton: Thank you. It’s been so much fun.
Jeff Boedges: Have a great day, Emily.
Rick Kiley: Cheers.