Weed’s 2021 legalization battle has a lot of ’70s parallels
When Keith Stroup founded the National Organization for Marijuana Law Reform with friends and fellow lawyers in 1970, they thought it might take them ten years to achieve nationwide decriminalization. And for a while, it seemed like they were on track to meet that date – and maybe go even faster.
By 1978, NORML had helped eleven states decriminalize marijuana, and Stroup had managed to cultivate relationships within President Jimmy Carter’s administration, most notably Carter’s drug policy czar, Dr. Peter Bourne. More concerned with quelling the heroin epidemic, Bourne lent a sympathetic ear to Stroup’s cause, even attending NORML parties in New York City where Bourne allegedly consumed his own illegal substances. The cocaine had entered the chat, and there was no turning back.
Stroup’s relationship with Bourne exploded after a rumor Bourne made a line of cocaine at a NORML party, a story Stroup admits to leaking to the press after he felt the drug tsar was wrong. pretty fast with the reform of the pot. Bourne was forced to resign, Stroup was ousted by NORML’s board of directors, and the marijuana connection with the White House was gone. Ronald Reagan was elected less than two years later, just behind the Just Say No and DARE programs. After nearly a decade of relentless progress, public support for marijuana plummeted in 1980 and remained at less than 25% until 1996, when the medical benefits of cannabis began to gain attention.
Stroup goes into detail about the Bourne incident on Slate’s new podcast centered on the late 1970s, but the momentum of the marijuana legalization movement, then the slowdown, then the surge currently has several parallels across the country. We sat down with Stroup, now legal counsel for NORML, to see if history repeats itself.
Word from the West: Given your relationship with Peter Bourne and your early ties to the Carter administration, did you think NORML could achieve its goals within ten years?
Keith Strup: Well, that’s an interesting concept. I realize that when people come back and watch the Bourne incident and the Carter era, it’s easy to conclude that we missed a real opportunity to move forward. But, honestly, we didn’t have more than six or seven members of Congress at the time that even sat down with us. A Gallup poll on the legalization of marijuana in 1969 showed that only 12% of the public supported legalization.
The only reason we gained momentum in the 1970s was because of a 1972 report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. No one expected them to do an honest job, as nine of the thirteen members were nominated by Richard Nixon, and the other four were members of Congress. They still surprised us. They didn’t have the guts to recommend full legalization with a legal market and dispensaries, but they said we should completely eliminate the penalties for possession and use of marijuana, and they even recommended that adults can share it with other adults. friends without pay. It was a fairly progressive report, but that commission went bankrupt, so NORML spent the next seven or eight years traveling the country, trying to convince any state legislature willing to consider decriminalization.
There was momentum, but public support started at 12%, and it maybe reached 26 or 27% in the mid-1970s. But then in 1978 it started to drop again and stayed around 22. % until 1990. The last state to adopt the decriminalization of marijuana in the 1970s was Nebraska in 1978. We expected from 1978 to 1996 a single statewide victory for decriminalization. We started to go down in ’78 and didn’t start to go up again until 1990. So the reality is that there was no way we were going to change federal law in the 1970s.
Now I will say that Jimmy Carter sent a message to Congress to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. It never happened, obviously, and after the Bourne event it didn’t happen again for a while. But we never had a committee hearing or vote in Congress on it. It’s easy for people to look back and say we missed a lot. I totally agree that it was not a good strategy to break this relationship, because we had a good share of the contribution with the children Carter and his drug czar – but it was not enough. to change the laws. We needed public support well above 50%. The reasons we’re finally winning is public support, which is around 68% right now.
What about a decree from Carter? Was there a chance for that?
It wouldn’t have changed the state’s laws, however. Probably the best he could have done was order the DEA to reprogram marijuana from something lower than Schedule I. But today we want it to be taken out of the law altogether. controlled substances.
Why do you think there was such a decline in public support for legalization in the 1980s?
There has been a real change in the mood of the country. Those of us who were young and idealistic at the time, we thought it was only a matter of time before we won the whole country because we are gaining a few points in the polls every year. But in 1978 or 1979, public support declined. You had Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Just Say No movement, and parent groups. We did not take them very seriously because they proposed not to legalize anything that would be dangerous for children. Even though it seemed absurd to us and ignored them, the audience didn’t.
We were losing a lot of support every year until California resurfaced in the 90s with medical marijuana, which was a new way of looking at it. In the 1970s it was all about decriminalizing the user, but after California in 1996, the problem was to allow patients to use marijuana as a medicine. It was a reasonably attractive new way to present marijuana reform to non-smokers. These people had enough stories of cancer and chemotherapy patients, and we all began to realize that there was something to medical marijuana. And that’s when it really took off.
Much of the momentum in the 1970s was related to the relative safety of marijuana compared to the ongoing heroin epidemic. Flash-forward to the mid to late 2010s, and marijuana gained a similar reputation compared to opioids. But recently there has been an increase in voice groups of parents who do not want to see the commercial potty standardized. Does that stuff always take two steps forward, just to take a step back?
It’s sort of fascinating to follow prohibitionist arguments over the years, like the SAM Project. At first they were all about reefer madness, but they didn’t win that argument and started to back down. Now they’re not saying marijuana is worse than heroin, but instead focusing on the dangers to children or that there will be more stoned drivers on the road – even if our experiences with legalization don’t. have not shown.
They always present their propaganda as if they are restraining these evil forces. We now have eighteen or nineteen states that have fully legalized marijuana. I don’t mean to suggest that once you legalize marijuana the job is done because it isn’t. We want responsible marijuana smokers to be treated fairly in all aspects of their lives. We don’t want them to fight for custody of their child just because a noisy neighbor smells of marijuana and reports it to the child welfare agency. It still happens all the time.
What do you think of the proposed THC potency limits starting to gain traction in legalized states?
What all the data suggests is that smokers who like strong concentrates are adjusting their consumption. The marijuana is stronger than before, but that’s okay. The question is, how does this impact you? Someone who drinks hard alcohol does not drink the same amount as if they were drinking beer or wine. Going too far makes you sick and has a bad experience, and too much THC can do that too. The argument against potency would essentially cause people to buy on the black market again. Legalization aims to bring the market above the ground, so that marijuana is tested in certified labs, labeled accurately, and contains no pesticides. The argument for power-based limits is nonsense.
To what extent are these major societal trends changing support for the legalization of marijuana?
Whenever conservatism grows stronger, it makes legalization proposals harder to push forward. Over the past several decades, the Conservatives have generally supported anyone who uses drugs other than alcohol or tobacco to be considered a criminal. We reached 50 percent support nationally in 2005 and it has continued to increase, however. None of us know exactly where the problem is, but once you get enough support for the underlying problem, you are free to go home. So many people today are comfortable with legalization. My generation was the problem. We went through the reefer madness and bought the whole line of crap no matter how much information and advocacy we used.
You can see that with [President] Joe Biden at the moment. [Vice President] Kamela Harris supported legalization in the Senate, but I do agree that Biden has spent much of his life being a hero in the War on Drugs. He is largely responsible for the mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, which have ruined countless lives over the past thirty and forty years.
On the other hand, social fairness helps our cause a lot. It is permissible for people like [New Jersey] Senator Cory Booker, for example, to present himself as a strong advocate of legalization without saying that it is okay to smoke weed. It comes from a perspective of impact on minority communities. By including these social equity provisions, we now have this more compelling argument to help the communities most affected by prohibition. Politicians who approve of it won’t appear so radical.