Marijuana’s rising acceptance comes after many failures. Is it now legalization’s time?

In the San Francisco Bay Area, activists who've been rallying for marijuana reform for decades see a new wave of politics and public opinion that may change California's cannabis laws to come. (Chris Hardy and Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

In the “medication area” of the nation’s biggest marijuana exposition, scantily clad young women hand out marshmallows they’ve dipped into a rushing fountain of pot-laced chocolate. A few steps away, Anthony Ramirez offers free hits from a bong filled with the waxy marijuana extract that his family started producing when a friend’s mother needed relief from the pain of lupus.

Across a vast outdoor plaza lined with hundreds of booths, this month’s Cannabis Cup gathering in Southern California has attracted more than 10,000 visitors at $40 a ticket. By midafternoon, some of them are sprawled on overstuffed couches that merchants have thoughtfully provided. Others move from booth to booth, sampling wares from businesses that have risen from the underground economy to create a burgeoning industry of hazy legality.

Vendors hawk brightly colored candies, chocolate bars, slickly designed jars of gourmet peanut butter — all infused with weed. Smokers sample e-cigarettes, vaporizers and the latest in bongs and glassware. Agricultural firms display industrial-sized machinery for harvesting plants, electronics firms offer a dazzling array of grow lights, and everywhere, growers lovingly explain the virtues of dozens of plant strains such as Gorilla Glue, Silver Haze and Crystal Coma.

All in a state where marijuana is not yet quite legal, and all without a single police officer to be seen.

America has been at the edge of marijuana legalization several times during the past half-century, but never as close to mass acceptance of the drug as the nation is today.

Since the 1960s, the United States has traveled on a herky-jerky trip from hippies and head shops to grass-roots backlash by suburban parents, from enthusiastic funding of the war on drugs to a gathering consensus that the war had little effect on marijuana use. Now, for the first time, marijuana legalization is winning majority support in public opinion polls and a drug used by about 6 percent of Americans — and one-third of the nation’s high school seniors — is starting to shake off its counterculture reputation. It is winning acceptance even from some police, prosecutors and politicians.

But is this time really different? Why is the current campaign for legalization resonating when previous ones did not? Today’s leap toward legality is entwined with the financial desperation of cash-strapped states, an Internet-driven revolution in how Americans learn about marijuana and its medicinal uses, and a rising libertarian sensibility in which many liberals and conservatives alike have grown skeptical of government’s role in telling citizens how to medicate themselves.

The skies looked bright for legalization at several other points in recent decades, and those efforts ultimately went nowhere, as campaigns by parents combined with sharp opposition by law enforcement and elected officials to keep marijuana on the list of substances that can land you in jail.

But in 20 states and the District, the booming medical marijuana industry (the drug first became legal to treat ailments in California in 1996) has raised expectations of full legalization. In 2012, legalized marijuana outpolled President Obama in Colorado; the votes for pot and Obama in Washington state were almost identical at 56 percent each.

Activists in at least six states and the District are working to put legalization initiatives on the ballot this year or in 2016, and legislatures in 13 states are considering bills to legalize a plant that in 80 years has traveled from widely used patent medicine to felony to misdemeanor and now to the cusp of acceptance as one more taxed and regulated mind-
altering substance, akin to alcohol or tobacco.


Mike Aldrich, with the support of his wife, Michelle, has been pushing for the legalization of marijuana for over four decades. He now predicts that “marijuana’s going to be legal in the United States in 10 years. Of course, I first said that in 1967.” (Chris Hardy/for The Washington Post)
The seeds of change

Michael Aldrich remembers the day: Aug. 6, 1963.

He was a kid from South Dakota, a Princeton junior studying at Harvard for the summer, out on a date with a beautiful beatnik woman he’d met in a class on contemporary British poetry. She was dressed all in black. He was smitten. They’d spent the evening at Club 47, a legendary folkie spot, and now, as they walked through Harvard Yard, she turned to him and asked, “Ever try this?” She showed him a tiny, skinny joint.

They lit up right there in the Yard.

“We were in bed within the hour,” Aldrich recalls. “I was sold.” He began smoking pot every day, a practice that would continue for half a century.

In short order, Aldrich began his life’s work. His campaign for legalization seemed in its first years like a blend of academic exercise and cultural rebellion, but it contained the seeds of arguments that would gradually shift social attitudes toward the drug.

As a graduate student traveling abroad, Aldrich explored marijuana’s role in the mythology of India. As a doctoral student at the state university in Buffalo, in 1967, he founded the nation’s first campus group advocating for legalized pot, LEMAR, as in LEgalize MARijuana. They were 15 longhaired hippies who thought they could change the world.

Aldrich challenged the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Henry Giordano, to a debate. Giordano argued that marijuana was worse than heroin and that efforts to legalize the weed were “just another effort to break down our whole American system.” Aldrich answered with a history of pot’s use as a relaxant, sedative, painkiller and inspirational aid.

Aldrich organized the first national conference on legalization and met the poet Allen Ginsberg, who hired him as his personal assistant and launched a New York City chapter of LEMAR. In 1969, Aldrich moved to California to teach and joined other activists there to create Amorphia, which made and sold Acapulco Gold brand rolling papers and used the proceeds to fund a drive for “free, legal backyard marijuana.”

Marijuana by that time was a symbol of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the hippie counterculture; only 12 percent of Americans favored legalizing pot. Amorphia — a core group of 30 hippies, many of whom lived communally in a house north of San Francisco in Marin County — didn’t need to reach much beyond their peers to collect enough signatures to put a legalization initiative on the ballot in 1972. In the face of a wall of opposition from politicians, police and parents, the hippies had forced the issue.

California would vote on making pot legal.


A bridge over ideology

Back in Washington, from the perspective of the Nixon White House, marijuana was at the core of the nation’s deepening generational, social and political divide. Young people seemed out of control, detached from institutions and traditions, determined to smash the rules and go their own way.

One of Nixon’s youngest advisers, Gordon Brownell, was a native Washingtonian who came to the White House fresh out of college. He had founded Colgate University’s first conservative club, and in law school he had remained a loyal conservative but secretly smoked pot with a friend who later became a federal drug prosecutor.

By the time he returned to Washington, Brownell had put marijuana out of his mind. He was profoundly alienated by longhaired radicals. When they surrounded the White House to protest the war, he walked through the crowd to get to his car and saw that “I was on the other side of a cultural divide. I was not one of them.”

In 1969, when the daughter of TV host Art Linkletter killed herself and her father blamed the death on her use of LSD, Brownell wrote a memo urging that Nixon come out in favor of a national crusade against the “social evil” of drugs.

A year later, Brownell, then 26, left Washington to take a top post in California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign. Living in Los Angeles, Brownell dated a woman who reintroduced him to marijuana and also shared mescaline — a drug with effects similar to LSD. Thrilled by the psychedelic journey, he nonetheless felt like a criminal.

“Possession of marijuana was a felony in California,” he says. “I still supported Reagan, but I felt for the first time the tension with being a Republican as Nixon and Reagan waged war on drugs.”

After the campaign, Brownell moved to Mendocino, rented a cabin by the sea, let his hair grow, and spent nine months writing a novel about a conservative young woman whose life pivots when she discovers drugs. He met and hung out with hippies who smoked a lot of dope, and he never let on that he’d worked for Nixon and Reagan.

A few miles away, the hippies of Amorphia realized they had no clue how to run a statewide campaign. They needed professional help, a bridge to the 90-plus percent of Californians who were not pot-smoking radicals.

Brownell had taken a job in Washington to write for a conservative newsletter, but a newspaper story about the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the marijuana legalization lobby, changed his direction. “Reform was stalled because it was associated with hippies, antiwar activists and radicals,” he says. “I could put a different face on marijuana.”


Gordon Brownell’s home office contains memorabilia of his days working for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He believed a libertarian appeal would persuade Californians to approve a 1972 ballot initiative legalizing marijuana. It won only 35 percent of the vote. (Chris Hardy/For the Washington Post)

Brownell moved back west to become political coordinator of the California Marijuana Initiative. Many of the hippies thought he had to be a narc. His friends from the Reagan campaign thought he’d gone mad. “A lot of doors just closed on me,” Brownell says.

The message he crafted for middle-class Californians was basic libertarianism: “I’d tell my Republican friends, ‘What you do in your own home is none of the government’s business, and that was central to Barry Goldwater’s message,’ ” Brownell recalls, sipping coffee from an Obama for President mug.

Nixon crushed George McGovern, 55 percent to 42 percent, in California that year. The marijuana initiative won 35 percent of the vote, well more than opponents had predicted, but the result was still a clear message that, as Brownell says, “it just wasn’t mainstream yet. We couldn’t counter that stereotype of who used marijuana.”

A push to decriminalize

In 1970, Nixon signed into law a measure that eliminated mandatory prison sentences for marijuana possession and required him to set up a commission looking into the dangers of marijuana.

Michael Aldrich and Allen Ginsberg cut their hair, shaved off their beards and donned neckties to testify before the commission. “ ‘Get straight and infiltrate’ was the idea,” said Aldrich’s wife, Michelle, who supported her husband’s ventures in pot politics by working as a stockbroker.

But the commission had little patience for those who portrayed marijuana as harmless or even a social good.

“It was an insane position then and now, given our understanding of smoking and health,” says Michael Sonnenreich, a former drug prosecutor who was staff director of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. “I’m a conservative guy, but it made no sense to overburden the police and the jails. The system was out of kilter. This never meant we were in favor of people smoking the crap.”

In 1972, too late to have an impact on the California initiative, the commission unanimously recommended that marijuana be decriminalized.

The administration was appalled. Nixon’s aides “believed that bad people smoked this,” Sonnenreich says. “The whole world was going upside down — the pill, assassinations, LSD, Vietnam. So certain people in the White House tried to convince me not to come out for decriminalizing.”

The report was one of three that year — the others were from Canada’s government and Consumers Union — to determine that marijuana was less harmful than other illegal drugs and to recommend decriminalization. In 11 state legislatures across the country between 1973 and 1979, penalties for possession were greatly reduced or eliminated.

Marijuana seemed to have made the jump from the counterculture into the mainstream. “I thought there was no turning back,” says NORML’s founder, Keith Stroup. In Washington, Stroup smoked pot with President Jimmy Carter’s son Chip while Secret Service agents stood outside the door.

Stroup drafted the statement the president sent Congress in 1977 arguing that “penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.” Carter urged Congress to accept the commission’s findings and decriminalize marijuana.

“Use was extremely widespread and there were clearly very few medical consequences,” says Peter Bourne, who was Carter’s drug czar. But Bourne and Carter couldn’t move the needle on decriminalization. Forty-five million Americans had tried marijuana, but as California’s commission on pot concluded, “progress is rarely linear.” To many parents, pot was a sign that they were losing their children.

The coverage of marijuana in PSAs, politics and pop culture has evolved quite a bit since the 1960s. See how the messages about pot have changed as much as the faces delivering them, from Sonny Bono to Barack Obama. (Gillian Brockell contributed to this video) (Kate M. Tobey /The Washington Post)

Parents turn the tide

For Carla Lowe, it was the calls she got as PTA president of her children’s high school in Sacramento. The school’s neighbors saw students smoking, and it didn’t smell like tobacco.

For Sue Rusche, it was a group of parents in Georgia who gathered after several middle school children were discovered smoking pot at a party.

From the late 1970s into the ’80s, Lowe, Rusche and many other mothers created a parents’ movement that halted, then reversed, momentum toward decriminalization. Starting in suburbs where teenagers turned to pot and turned head shops into hangouts, the movement compelled state and federal lawmakers to slam the brakes on Carter’s push for decriminalization and then feed the Reagan administration’s appetite for tougher enforcement.

“My son was a super athlete,” Lowe says, “and then, all of a sudden, he’d seem silly and inattentive. I didn’t know that it was marijuana. Then I was called into school because they found what I heard as a ‘bomb’ in his locker.” At school, Lowe learned that what her son had in his locker was a bong made from a tennis-ball can.

She devoted the next three years of her life to ridding her city of paraphernalia — and the next 35 years to fighting liberalized drug laws. She got a bong of her own — and a buzzbee, a Frisbee rigged up with a pipe in the center — and brought it to PTA and church groups to let parents know that “your children are smoking pot and these are the toys and tools that are being marketed to them.”

The comedienne Carol Burnett called Lowe and offered to help. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) enlisted Lowe to join her campaign against paraphernalia. First lady Nancy Reagan joined the bandwagon with her ”Just Say No to Drugs” campaign. Attorney General Edwin Meese III saw a tough stand against marijuana as a way to push back against a counterculture that was undermining society.

The legalization movement entered an 18-year freeze.

“We were caught flatfooted,” Stroup says. “I thought nobody would take these moms seriously. Oh, was I wrong. There was a feeling that the country was getting out of control. I wasn’t sure we’d ever regain the momentum.”

The mothers didn’t do it alone. The rise of cocaine brought a constant supply of frightening stories that reinforced support for harsher enforcement: gun battles among powerful drug dealers, the rising power of cartels creating geopolitical strain between the United States and Latin American countries, the devastating impact of crack on cities, the overdose death of basketball star Len Bias, comedian Richard Pryor lighting himself on fire while he was using cocaine.

Lowe finally got her son to stop smoking pot when she “gave him three months to get cleaned out, or no college,” she says.

But she saw that stepped-up enforcement made little headway against marijuana’s popularity, and the parents’ movement could never raise significant funds.

“We basically died out in the early ’90s,” Rusche says. “We’ve never been able to find a single foundation willing to support this cause.”

By the mid-’90s, most parent groups had dissolved. Those that remained saw the tide turn against them once again. Rusche recalls Stroup telling her at a debate that although the reform movement appeared to be defeated, it would be back with a new strategy — positioning marijuana as medicine.

A shift in strategy

Gen. Barry McCaffrey never saw marijuana in high school or at West Point, from which he graduated in 1964. “Pre-pot,” he says. “My generation was a lot of alcohol abuse and everybody smoked cigarettes.” But when he got to Vietnam as an Army first lieutenant, McCaffrey saw pot having “a huge, pernicious effect on the armed forces” and beyond. “Bus drivers were stoned, students were stoned, reporters were stoned.”

By the time McCaffrey became the nation’s drug czar in 1996, he had launched a crusade against drug abuse. He saw pot as a crucial battleground because, he says, “marijuana’s a stalking horse for Darwinian, libertarian acceptance of drug use of all kinds.”

In those years, McCaffrey could depend on audience applause as he belittled those who would ease restrictions on marijuana.

“Woody Harrelson, the noted agronomist, is going to save America with a crop of marijuana,” the general would say of the film star and pot proponent. “But the American people, mothers and fathers, aren’t stupid enough to do that.” Whereupon audiences would cheer.

But in San Francisco during the ’90s, the 30-year culture war over marijuana had gone silent, replaced by a new urgency. In the city’s devastated gay neighborhoods, AIDS powerfully shifted the debate.

Dennis Peron was about the least likely person to become the symbol of a drive to redefine marijuana as a symbol of compassion and care. Peron, an insistent, rough-edged guy from the Bronx, was a pot dealer who’d been arrested more than 20 times. He’d been selling ever since he came home from Vietnam with a pound of pot and a habit acquired while working 16-hour days in an Air Force morgue, bagging and shipping bodies of fallen comrades.


After Dennis Peron’s lover died, he resolved to find a way to supply marijuana to anyone suffering from AIDS. The Cannabis Buyers Club he launched in San Francisco was instrumental in winning legal status for medical use of the drug. (Chris Hardy/For The Washington Post)

Peron is gay, and his longtime lover, Jonathan West, had AIDS and was dying. Peron supplied West and other AIDS patients with marijuana to ease the side effects of their medications.

“It gave them the munchies so they’d eat something,” Peron says. “I could help these people, sell them marijuana and make a little money.”

He says he required customers to show physicians’ letters confirming their diagnoses; this, he hoped, might protect him from prosecution.

It didn’t. In 1990, San Francisco police raided Peron’s apartment, which for years had been a place where gay men could hang out and get high. They arrested him for selling marijuana. Later that year, two weeks after testifying on Peron’s behalf, West died. Peron then resolved to find a way to supply pot to anyone suffering from AIDS.

He launched the Cannabis Buyers Club in a prominent storefront and invited TV stations to interview his customers. He wanted to force lawmakers to confront marijuana use as medical care. He won enough attention and support that, in 1991, a nonbinding resolution he wrote asking the state to make marijuana legal for medical purposes won a citywide vote by a 79 to 21 percent margin.

City police left him alone after that, but once Peron’s club attracted more than 4,000 members and had 90 employees, state officials decided they could no longer ignore such a flagrant violation. They raided the club in 1996, arresting Peron once more. Again, he took his case to the people.

“I’d lost my lover, my friends were dead, I had nothing to lose,” Peron says. “I wasn’t the right symbol — a gay guy, busted for pot — but no one else wanted to do it. So we went statewide.”

The 1996 campaign for medical marijuana in California pushed aside groovy graphics and hippie rhetoric and repositioned weed as a tonic for cancer, glaucoma and AIDS patients. Grandmothers took to TV to explain how marijuana eased their pain, and Peron enlisted doctors in a campaign that asked: “If it’s helping people, how can we keep it illegal?”

Back in Washington, strategists at NORML were skeptical of using medical benefits to back-door marijuana into legal status.

Peron insists there was no subterfuge. “All use is medicinal,” he says. “All people, even those who say they’re using it recreationally, have clouds in their lives. Marijuana makes you see the silver lining in those clouds. That is a medical use.”

That argument was not going to win an election. With the campaign running behind, even true believers saw they needed a different way. Enter billionaires George Soros and Peter Lewis, who each pumped half a million dollars into the medical marijuana effort. Peron never spoke to his campaign’s benefactors. “Soros doesn’t understand marijuana’s true benefits,” Peron says. “He’s just against the war on drugs.”

The initiative won 56 percent of the vote, opening the door.

During the next decade, 20 states and the District followed the same path, but with extremely different results. In California, where medical marijuana permits are as easy to get as a bottle of scotch, more than half a million people have cards letting them shop in hundreds of dispensaries. In the District, where the law requires a 14-page application and recognizes only four diseases as warranting treatment with marijuana, just 120 people have been approved to purchase it since the first dispensary opened last July.

Peron, now 67, closed his cannabis club and says he stopped selling pot in 2001. “I was glad I didn’t have to sell pot anymore — too much stress,” he says. “I’d rather Walgreens did it.”

Accepting drug abuse?

Today, Boulder, Colo., is a city of 100,000 that has three Walgreens — none of which sell marijuana — and more than 100 medical marijuana dispensaries, even before licensing commences for shops that seek to sell weed for recreational use. Major national chain stores are not yet applying to sell pot, but at the Cannabis Cup convention and on hundreds of Web sites of marijuana-related businesses, the battle against liberalizing pot laws seems lost.

“The momentum to treat marijuana as a legal drug is irreversible,” says McCaffrey, the former drug czar. He no longer accepts invitations to appear on television to debate the issue because he says the networks “only wanted a rented idiot general who didn’t understand that marijuana was harmless and filling America’s jails. The opposition has gone silent. The politicians, police, judges know this is bad policy but they don’t make a peep. So we’re going to end up with impaired surgeons and air pilots. We’re just accepting another drug of abuse.”

After half a century of advocacy, Aldrich now predicts that “marijuana’s going to be legal in the United States in 10 years. Of course, I first said that in 1967.” He laughs. But this time, he says, it’s unstoppable: “It’s taken 40 years to reach a point where our national leaders have smoked. The last three presidents have admitted it.”

If legalization spreads beyond Colorado and Washington state, it likely will be because of a confluence of forces that have gathered steam during the past decade: Big money is backing the new, aboveground marijuana industry, the Internet has altered the kind of messages that Americans hear about pot, Americans have grown more libertarian in their perspective on personal freedoms, the most anti-marijuana generation has passed on, and people across the ideological spectrum have grown frustrated with the cost, both financial and social, of decades of arrests and imprisonments.

Legalization drives are underway mainly in states facing tough budget problems. Just as casino gambling spread first among states hungry for new tax revenues, so too are hard-up states now realizing, as Stroup says, that “big money can be made and suddenly the sin doesn’t matter that much.”


Buds of GT Dragon, a potent hybrid strain of cannabis, are displayed by a San Diego medical marijuana delivery service at the 2014 Cannabis Cup in California. (David Walter Banks/For The Washington Post)

Angelo Capozi’s company TwoSticky.com marketed marijuana-infused honey and peanut butter at the 2014 Cannabis Cup. (David Walter Banks/For The Washington Post)

The burgeoning marijuana industry has flourished on the Internet, where back channels filled with anecdotal accounts of marijuana’s medicinal benefits have fed consumer appetites for everything from seeds to growing equipment to edibles.

Angelo Capozi, 45, spent decades as a chef, even appearing on TV’s “Iron Chef America,” before starting TwoSticky.com, which makes marijuana-laced peanut butter and honey. He made the switch after experimenting with recipes on behalf of his father, a cancer patient looking for relief from pain.

Capozi believes the doorway to legal status opened as his parents’ peers began to die.

“Once that generation’s out of here, it’s going to really open up,” he says. “Within a few years, I expect to be able to put my product on a supermarket shelf with a bar code.”

The passing of the baby boomers’ parents has created the first cross-generational consensus in favor of liberalized laws, says Stroup, now 70. “We knew we were going to win demographically, eventually,” he says. “I just wasn’t sure I’d see it in my lifetime.”

The generational shift change has greatly diminished the organized opposition. Few parent groups remain active; Rusche’s National Families in Action still exists, but its founder now supports decriminalization. Rusche, 75, still believes marijuana is harmful, but she has concluded that the parents’ movement erred in failing to present alcohol and tobacco as the same sort of gateway drugs as marijuana.

“There are a whole lot of arrests that shouldn’t be happening,” Rusche says. “We don’t want to see laws unfairly applied with people of color overwhelmingly being the ones arrested.”

Her longtime ally is startled to hear of Rusche’s altered stance.

“I’m just stunned,” Carla Lowe says. “Decriminalization is just a step to legalization. What we’re seeing today is a grab for taxes and a power play by a fast-growing industry.”

Even with a diminished opposition, the path to legalization faces considerable obstacles, especially from parents who don’t want their teens to be too easily tempted by the drug, city residents who envision street corners teeming with kids getting high, and sheriffs and police chiefs who say marijuana arrests remain a powerful tool against drug abuse and other crimes.

Diane Goldstein, a retired police lieutenant in Redondo Beach, Calif., went from busting drug users to working for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a nonprofit group critical of “the failures of our existing drug policies.” Some ex-
colleagues tell her she’s dishonoring officers who died enforcing drug laws, but Goldstein, a Republican and a grandmother, says her audiences at Rotary clubs and Republican women’s groups increasingly support taxing and regulating marijuana.

“We’re never going to be drug-free,” says Goldstein, who says she hasn’t used pot since high school. “But we can make it less available to kids by making it legal and restricting access. And we can stop marginalizing people because they’ve been arrested for pot and can’t get student loans or jobs.”


From left, Makoto Anderson, Anthony Ramirez and Jeremiah Harvey help Cannabis Cup attendees take sample “dabs” of concentrated marijuana. A metal tool with a small amount, or “dab,” of resin is touched to a heated titanium nail fitted inside a glass pipe, and the resulting vapor is inhaled. (David Walter Banks/For The Washington Post)

As the rhetorical battle continues and politicians remain cautious about speaking out on marijuana, the facts on the ground are changing fast. The Cannabis Cup, an open-air marketplace the size of two football fields in the San Bernardino Valley, featured open consumption of pot-infused sodas, candies and cookies and displays of whole marijuana plants — staged with virtually no controversy.

“Generations coming up now don’t see what the big deal is,” says Brian Wansolich, 39, wearing a white coat emblazoned with the logo of his online cannabis ratings service, Leafly. “My parents still have moral problems with it, but now they see we can tax this and get states out of trouble. It’s the American way.”

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