cannabis history

It’s Complicated: The History of Cannabis in America, Part II

Welcome to Part 2 in our series on America’s mixed up relationship with the venerable marijuana plant. We left off in Part 1 with the introduction of Reefer Madness and the collective panic spurred by the salacious propaganda piece.

The Birth of the Counterculture

Enter the jazz age and the beginnings of pot’s enduring association with the counterculture. In the 1930s, smoking joints became popular among hepsters—the black jazz scene made up of “hep cats” like singer Cab Calloway, who sang the popular song “Reefer Man.” Although still demonized by most of the middle class, marijuana was steadily making its way into the popular consciousness as a substance associated with creativity and cultural movements.

1950s America is stereotyped as a buttoned-up era of picket fences, pearls and penny loafers—characterized by a sunny Leave it To Beaver outlook, where everyone behaved, got ahead, and got along. During this time, post-war America was experiencing a surge of unprecedented wealth. The sudden interest in “keeping up with the Joneses” spurred some conspicuous consumerism. The middle class seemed singularly focused on the pursuit of the American Dream, with all of its trappings.

However, just below the surface, a countercultural movement was brewing. The Beat Generation emerged in the early 50s and epitomized the rejection of conventional society. The Beatniks were associated with bohemian and artistic ideals, and a freewheeling approach to life, including experimentation with drugs like marijuana. Icons of this period included the writer Jack Kerouac, who made this footloose lifestyle look effortlessly cool—especially when contrasted with the straight-laced ethos that dominated the decade.

During this period, there was a surge in stricter sentencing laws for cannabis use. With the Boggs Act in 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act in 1956 came mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. A first-offense possession charge carried a minimum sentence of 2-10 years and a fine of up to $20,000.

Enter the Hippies

By the mid-to-late 1960s, a new countercultural movement had emerged that truly turned America on its head. The hippie movement was born in reaction to a society that it perceived as repressive, conventional, and dysfunctional. During this time, the Vietnam war raged—which many fiercely opposed—, women’s’ rights and civil rights had a long way to go, and political dysfunction was at an all-time high (at least, by those days’ standards).

Disillusionment with the status quo and soaringly high ideals led youth in this period to push back against a culture they felt rejected their values of peace and idealism. Hippies believed that mainstream society couldn’t be trusted, and their approach to social reform was experimental at its heart—including with drugs traditionally considered off limits.

As hippie culture gained steam, so did cannabis culture. During this period, America experienced one of its greatest social upheavals to date. With it came a truly impressive surge of legendary artists, writers, and musicians—many of whom associated themselves with the countercultural movement and all that it entailed. Marijuana played a central role during this period, and the hippies did much to bring cannabis to the mainstream.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

This period of America’s history is truly characteristic of our country’s love-hate relationship with marijuana. Although attitudes towards marijuana relaxed slightly as more of the middle class began to partake, government policy reflected the country’s ambivalence.

Studies commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson found that smoking pot did not lead to violence or the use of heavier drugs, and policymakers began to reconsider criminal penalties. Nevertheless, Richard Nixon in 1969 drafted the Controlled Substances Act, which criminalized the use and possession of cannabis. This policy classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 Drug—meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no established medicinal value. 

In spite of this stricter take on marijuana, Congress in 1970 repealed most of the mandatory sentences for drug offenses. A consensus emerged that the mandatory minimums of the 50s were unduly harsh and had done little to curtail drug culture in the 60s.

In 1972, the government appointed the Shafer Commission to review marijuana policy. The commission concluded that personal use of cannabis should be decriminalized. Although President Nixon rejected the recommendation, over the course of the decade eleven states decriminalized and most others softened their penalties.

Since 1970, there have scores of petitions to reclassify cannabis. The first was filed by NORML in 1972 but only given a hearing in 1986. Another attempt in the early 80s was brought by a Connecticut politician but also failed to move forward. Since that time, petitions and denials continued on through the years.

In our next installment, we’ll talk about the rise and fall of criminalization, and exactly how we found ourselves where we are today.

Watch this space!

Christina Rock is a Seattle-based writer and photographer and probably a reincarnated Allman Brother.



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