Seeds of Change in the Early 60s

Photo by: Beyond THC

Photo by: Beyond THC

Harry Anslinger must have been feeling pretty good about the progress of his war on  cannabis at the dawn of the 1960s. Despite some writers, artists, and jazz musicians going against the grain, the cultural and legal prohibition against cannabis use had really never been stronger. Simple possession was a crime punishable by decades in prison, and no doubt as a result of this, as well as decades of propaganda, drug use was not something to discuss at all in polite mainstream America. Even the middle class beatnik movement was small and must have been pretty far below Anslinger’s radar at that point. At the start of the decade, Anslinger had set his sights on an international cannabis ban, at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Mostly, this campaign for an international ban relied on Anslinger’s decades old arguments against cannabis, but Anslinger also used United States U.N veto power to blackmail his way towards the ban through the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, in 1961. For Anslinger though, this represented yet another incomplete victory. The convention did not rule out medical or industrial use, and instead allowed for some countries to wait 25 years before discontinuing cannabis use.  In the end proposed ban was only signed by sixty member states. 

At age 70, Anslinger retired in July of 1962, some believe he was forced to retire by the relatively forward thinking Kennedy administration. (Booth, Chapter 17) Later that year in September, Kennedy held a Narcotics and Drug Abuse conference, in which five hundred delegates took a new look at the past decades of cannabis propaganda. A paper, authored by retired Supreme Court of Appeals Judge E. Barrett Prettyman, suggested no link between cannabis and criminality, and called for a removal of long mandatory sentences from federal drug law. The next year, a Presidential Advisory Committee on Narcotics and Drug Abuse further rejected Anslinger’s perspective on cannabis. Respected writers including Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer discussed their own cannabis experiences on a popular television chat show. Anslinger garnered air time to publicly refute this discussion, but at this point had clearly been put on the defensive. The host of the talk show, John Crosby, in turn responded publicly to Anslinger’s rebuttal, agreeing with Mailer and Ginsberg that anti-cannabis efforts had become overblown and less than truthful.


The Great Divide


By the arrival of the mid 60s, American society was greatly divided. There was the older generation who had largely accepted Anslinger’s views for decades, a new generation ready to challenge much of the status quo, and then a whole segment of Americans who had always been victimized by the status quo to begin with – including many non-white Americans and immigrants.  By 1965 about half the population was under 30. Along with the birth of student activism and feminism, and increased militancy in the civil rights movement, this new generation was willing to openly challenge attitudes towards cannabis in a way that had been impossible in earlier decades. Not only was this new culture emboldened by the slightly more relaxed attitudes visible in the early 60s media, it also embraced the use of cannabis in a way not seen in prior decades. The new culture spread quickly across traditional lines of class and race until it presented a genuine alternative to traditional mainstream values. By the middle of the 1960s, this divide was becoming a fact of daily American life. An article on cannabis and psychedelic drugs on campus, in The Nation magazine from 1965, begins:

“Within the last five years the ingestion of various drugs has become widespread on the American campus. Until recently, drugs were used almost exclusively by those clearly out of step with conventional American life.”

It goes on to accept a fairly progressive stance on the “dangers” of cannabis:

“It is difficult to fashion a serious case against smoking marijuana except that a user will find himself in serious trouble if he is caught by the police. The effects on society at large, were pot smoking to be as ubiquitous as the consumption of alcohol, are unknown, but within the current limits of use, there is little evidence that marijuana damages the individuals who smoke it.”

Photo by: The Stoner's Cookbook 

Photo by: The Stoner's Cookbook 

Besides the new experimental college culture, the youth of working class America established their own new link to cannabis culture as soldiers in Vietnam. Cannabis was widely available there, as It had been for thousands of years, and a culture of permissiveness in the army allowed battle weary soldiers to use cannabis to relieve their extreme stress. The “cannabis problem” became bad enough that the American government pressured the South Vietnamese government to take action to limit availability in 1968. Cannabis use continued nonetheless, and veterans came back home to America familiar with the practice. This added another element of familiarity to American society – one separate from the middle class culture of the collegiate smokers back home.

The establishment of a prominent, if not mainstream, cannabis culture in America forced Anslinger’s agenda to contend with a new enemy: reality. Now most people were less insulated from actual cannabis use and could see what its effects were and what they were not. The line of thinking that associates cannabis with violent criminality began to gradually fall out of use in cannabis propaganda. However, the Americans most visibly using cannabis at the time were also challenging other social norms in America, so conservative Americans became even more entrenched in their view that cannabis use goes against the grain of mainstream American culture. It wasn’t simply that conservative America was wrong about the effects of cannabis, it was also that cannabis use (especially at the time) really was linked to challenges to American consumer culture as well as to white dominance itself. While the causation between these trends is debatable on an individual level, there is no question that the subculture promoting cannabis use was the same subculture presenting alternatives to racist and materialistic American culture at the time. Most likely this had less to do with the effects of cannabis and more to do with the idea that challenging one social norm tended to lead to challenging others – especially in this period of social rebellion. 

Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, this subculture would build alternate communities of communes, health food stores, music venues, cannabis friendly social networks, and shape whole neighborhoods and small towns to be friendly to this new lifestyle – especially in California and New York. (Booth, Chapter 17) This new culture was not only challenging to the mainstream in a “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” sense, but also provided a haven for ideas like feminism, black power, and a new socialism – ideas that would directly challenge white dominance and materialism. The new culture would take on the “hippie” label in this period, a nod toward the terms “hep” or “hip” taken from the original black bebop culture from which the beat writers had themselves picked up cannabis use. In 1968 these hippies were measurably a small group (around 200,000 according to sociologist Lewis Yablonsky), but their effect on the rest of society, thanks to media coverage, was significant by the dawn of the 70s. (Booth, Chapter 17)

These alternative communities are still very much visible today despite decades of having been watered down, invested in, and packaged for a new kind of consumerism. Nonetheless, many of these values have remained – including an attitude of acceptance toward cannabis that was impossible to find before this social revolution. Anslinger, now aging and quickly losing relevance, was actually proven right in this sense – surely this new society represented a challenge to the conservative and often racist “American values” he had tried desperately to preserve. Anslinger would die at age 83 in 1975, having suffered from a number of health problems for years, including blindness. 


A New Approach


New lines had been drawn, but the cultural battle would go on for decades – “conservative” versus “liberal” social values still dominate elections today, in a dichotomy that didn’t really exist before the early 70s. The battle against cannabis prohibition would see some early victories in the 1970s, including decriminalization in 11 states – including California. These new laws reduced punishments for possession to fines rather than imprisonment. Nonetheless, the anti-cannabis fight continued in the media, and still does today. In the 60s, anti-cannabis sentiments began to rely on public service announcements and short videos shown in schools. By the late 60s, this propaganda began to “level with” its audience, contending with actual facts – and a direct challenge - more than had ever been necessary. This move also highlights the racism inherent in cannabis prohibition itself – when cannabis use was associated with non-white, foreign influences, the answer was to make ridiculous claims about its effects, and to sentence people to decades in prison for mere possession. When cannabis use became associated with white youth, the answer was to focus on cannabis as a mental health issue, and to decriminalize. Still, some pretty ridiculous claims were being made by propaganda in this era.  

1968’s PSA, Marijuana, featuring Sonny Bono, depicts the arrest of a party full of hip looking youth, who are shown arguing against the fundamental ideas of cannabis prohibition as the police arrest them. At this point, the cannabis users are mostly white and relatively sane looking, in contrast with the propaganda of earlier eras. This PSA represents the beginning of a decades long trend of using popular culture to rail against cannabis, as Sonny Bono attempts to refute each pro-legalization argument made by the youth. For the most part, this relies on the theme of becoming incompetent while under the influence – leading one young driver to forget she is a driving a car, and topple off a cliff. The gateway drug argument is utilized heavily, and while claims of violent behavior no longer appear, the video does show cannabis related poor judgement leading to non-violent crime. There is a focus on mental and emotional health, and then the video wraps up with a disturbing portrayal of a “bad trip” in which one youth goes to bed after a night of smoking, only to have a gun pointed at him by what appears to be himself dressed as a woman. The video focuses on exploiting fears based on exaggerated versions of the real effects of cannabis – as opposed to the totally fabricated effects in propaganda of decades past. It is geared towards an audience who has actually witnessed or even experienced cannabis use. 

Photo by: Marijuana Politics

Photo by: Marijuana Politics

This new kind of propaganda would set the stage for the coming decades. The 70s, while seeing a current of decriminalization, also saw a backlash as president Nixon declared his war on drugs which continues today. A Hanna-Barbara cartoon from 1970 focuses on cannabis’s potential as a gateway drug – once again using popular culture, in the form of a style of animation, to make its point. In the 80s, even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were featured in anti-cannabis propaganda.  At this point, blatant, overt racism was no longer an acceptable feature of anti-drug campaigns. The golden age of Anslinger’s cannabis propaganda was now over. But this, as well as decriminalization, yielded little improvement in terms of racism in the actual enforcement of drug laws. President Ronald Reagan went further in ramping up the “war on drugs” in 1982, also beginning of a period of mass incarceration of non-white communities in America. Kenneth B. Nunn explains the immediate effects of drug laws in the 80s through today:

“Although the overall federal prison population was only 24,000 in 1980, by 1996, it had reached 106,000. The federal prison population continued to grow in the 1990s. In 2000, the federal prison population exceeded 145,000. Fifty-seven percent of the federal prisoners in 2000 were incarcerated for drug offenses. In 1982 there were approximately 400,000 incarcerated persons. By 1992, that number had more than doubled to 850,000. In 2000, there were over 1.3 million persons in prison. From 1979 to 1989, the percentage of African Americans arrested for drug offenses almost doubled from 22% to 42% of the total. During that same period, the total number of African American arrests for drug abuse violations skyrocketed from 112,748 to 452,574, an increase of over 300 %.”

These stunning numbers show how the war on drugs, a direct result of decades of racist propaganda, has led to a criminal justice system that brutally enforces institutional racism. While progress has been made in removing cannabis from this equation, fully legalized in a handful of states by 2016, the war on drugs continues to incarcerate thousands of people. Even if cannabis does not suffer another backlash, and continues to be legalized throughout America, the disproportionate enforcement of the war on drugs also warrants reform. Cannabis is the most obvious example of failed policy, but a more realistic approach to drug law involves treating even truly harmful drugs as a public health issue instead of a menacing, criminal one. Drug laws need to be divorced from the punitive racist culture that designed them in order to take a more realistic approach to helping addicts. The approach of Anslinger and his era – that drug use is an act of criminal aggression against mainstream America, deserving of punishment – needs to be abolished from American law. Only then can these original racist roots be torn from the practice of law enforcement.