The history of marijuana in America has long been a history of competing narratives, dueling interpretations. Some believe the official line that cannabis (the preferred name for marijuana in medical and scientific circles) is a major drug of abuse and a gateway to the harder stuff. They see marijuana first and foremost as a dangerous mind-altering substance, a harbinger of social decay. Others are just as adamant that cannabis is a safe and effective medicine for many ailments. Millions use it for pleasure and relaxation. And so it continues.
At the center of this controversy is a hardy, adaptable botanical that feasts on sunlight and grows like a weed in almost any environment. The gooey resin on the serrated leaves and matted flower tops of marijuana contains dozens of unique oily compounds, some of which, when ingested, trigger neurochemical changes in the brain.
Cannabis has a rich cultural history. A plant native to Central Asia, it figured prominently in the shamanistic traditions of many peoples. Handed down from prehistoric times, knowledge of marijuana's therapeutic qualities and the utility of its tough fiber slowly spread throughout the world. As it traveled from region to region the aromatic herb never failed to ingratiate itself among the locals. Once marijuana arrived in a new place, it never left. Never. Yet it always moved on, perpetually leaping from one culture to another.
Smoke Signals is a panoramic, character-driven social history of marijuana and its shifting role in the American narrative. The book tells how cannabis first came to the Americas -- with Africans who brought seeds aboard slave ships -- and how the plant was vilified and banned in the United States during the reefer madness era.
Smoke Signals chronicles the development of a grassroots movement that began in the 1960s, when cannabis first emerged as a defining force in a culture war that has never ceased. Opposition to draconian marijuana laws would grow into a widespread populist revolt against conventional medicine and extraconstitutional authority.
The great leap forward came in 1996, when California voters shocked the political and medical establishments by passing Proposition 215, which authorized doctors to approve marijuana use by patients. Similar laws have since been enacted in 16 other states and the District of Columbia. Initiatives to legalize adult marijuana use are on the ballot in several states in November.
What follows are 13 slides of key moments in the history of marijuana in America.
Louis Armstrong, the jazz marvel, gained fame initially as a horn player and later as a vocalist, a musical ambassador, and a character of epic proportions. Known as "Satchmo" and "Pops" to millions of fans, the trumpet maestro swore by "gage," one of the preferred nicknames for cannabis in jazz circles. Satchmo, a notorious pot smoker, often touted the benefits of the herb. "We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine," he stated. Armstrong, the grandchild of a slave, said he used reefer to unwind, to relieve stress, to ease the chronic pain of racism: "It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro."
The Hotel Delmonico on Park Avenue, NYC, where Bob Dylan turned the Beatles on to marijuana on August 28, 1964. Beatlemania was then at its peak, and twenty police stood guard outside the Beatles' sixth-floor suite, while behind closed doors Dylan lit up and handed the Fab Four their first joint. A few minutes later everyone was laughing uproariously. "We were kind of proud to have been introduced to pot by Dylan," Paul McCartney remarked. Just as the jazz vipers of an earlier era had portrayed reefer as a kick not to miss, rock stars promoted a similar message to a huge audience. Cannabis opened the door to new dimensions of popular music, and Dylan and the Beatles carried the youth of the world with them across the psychoactive threshold.
Marijuana legalization was not on America's political radar when Allen Ginsberg, the famous beat poet, led a pro-marijuana march outside the Women's House of Detention on Sixth Avenue in lower Manhattan on January 10, 1965. A dozen demonstrators chanted slogans and waved placards, resulting in one of the quintessential images of the Sixties: a photograph of Ginsberg, snowflakes on his beard and head, holding a sign that said, POT IS FUN. Another picket sign read: POT IS A REALITY KICK. The pro-pot protest was the inaugural event of the Committee to Legalize Marijuana (LEMAR) in New York City. It was the first organization in the United States to publicly agitate for marijuana law reform.
Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam and his colleagues at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem first synthesized and elucidated the molecular structure of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana's principal psychoactive ingredient, in 1965. Although he didn't know it at the time, Mechoulam had lit a slow burning fuse that would detonate a revolution in medical science. In the early 1990s, Mechoulam's team discovered a natural THC-like substance, an endogenous compound, in the brain and body (our "inner cannabis"), which protects neurons, stimulates adult stem-cell growth, and regulates a broad range physiological processes, including glucose metabolism, blood pressure, bone density, intestinal fortitude and pain perception. Within the scientific community, the discovery of the "endocannanbinoid system" is increasingly recognized as a seminal advancement in our understanding of human biology.
Inside Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, headquarters of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, where American soldiers were given an array of mind-bending drugs, including an exceptionally potent synthetic marijuana derivative. These secret experiments took place in the 1960s, when U.S. national security strategists were high on the prospect of developing a so-called humane weapon that could knock people out without killing them. Top military officers hyped the notion of "war without death," conjuring visions of aircraft spewing clouds of "madness gas" over enemy territory that would disorient the bad guys and dissolve their will to resist. In pursuit of this pipe dream, army medical officers inadvertently discovered marijuana's powerful anticonvulsive properties. Cannabis, an army chemical warfare specialist concluded, "is probably the most potent anti-epileptic known to medicine."
At a time when the therapeutic use of marijuana had been abandoned in the United States, Dr. Tod Mikuriya fought to restore cannabis to its proper place in the Western pharmacopeia. While serving as director of marijuana research for the National Institute of Mental Health in1967, Mikuriya rediscovered the forgotten medical literature on cannabis and brought it to the attention of physicians and scientists. Almost singlehandedly, he kept the issue alive while very few Americans--even pot smokers--were aware of marijuana's medicinal history. Mikuriya would play a crucial role in drafting the language of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana in California not just for a shortlist of specified diseases but also for "any other illness for which marijuana provides relief."
Robert Randall, the Rosa Parks of the medical-marijuana movement, made legal and medical history in 1976 when he successfully sued the U.S government for access to cannabis, the only remedy that controlled his glaucoma. Rather than copping a plea after he was busted for growing pot, he chose to fight the criminal charges on the basis of "medical necessity." Randall argued that any sane person would break the law to save his eyesight. DC Superior Court Judge James A. Washington agreed and Randall was acquitted. This landmark verdict compelled the Food and Drug Administration to establish a "Compassionate IND [Investigational New Drug] Program," which continues to distribute government-grown marijuana to a handful of medical necessity patients - while U.S. officials allege that cannabis lacks therapeutic value.
Jack Herer, the patron saint of hemp, promoted a unified field theory of cannabis as a multifaceted sustainable resource, an eco-friendly source of food, fiber, medicine and recreation. Herer was instrumental in catalyzing a renewed interest in the many forgotten industrial uses of a plant once prized by America's Founding Fathers. He maintained that hemp possessed a near limitless potential for replacing petrochemical and timber products and phasing out environmentally destructive industries. Herer's boisterous marijuana evangelism broadened the scope of the drug policy reform movement and set the stage for the reefer resurgence of the 1990s. "It's the safest, smartest, best medicine on the planet. You'd be stupid not to use it!" he declared.
More than any other factor, it was the AIDS epidemic that made medical marijuana an urgent, cutting-edge issue in America. Mary Jane Rathbun baked as many as 15,000 marijuana brownies a month and distributed them free of charge to HIV-infected patients in the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital. Sickened gays found that cannabis, an appetite stimulant, was the most effective and least toxic treatment for HIV-associated anorexia and weight loss. Without marijuana many AIDS patients would not have been able to tolerate the harsh side effects of potent, life-saving protease-inhibitor drugs when they became available in the late 1980s. Brownie Mary's repeated run-ins with law enforcement generated national media coverage of San Francisco's burgeoning medical marijuana underground.
Dennis Peron, California's most vocal, effective, and controversial marijuana activist, standing outside the entrance to the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club, at 1444 Market Street near the Civic Center. Founded by Peron with the tacit approval of City Hall, the Cannabis Buyers' Club openly defied federal law by providing marijuana to thousands of people with AIDS and other ailing Bay Area residents. More than anyone else, Peron was responsible for catalyzing the grassroots social movement that culminated in the passage of Proposition 215, California's landmark ballot measure that legalized cannabis for therapeutic purposes in 1996. More than a dozen other states would soon break ranks from America's drug war juggernaut and legalize medical marijuana.
Although federal officials maintain that marijuana is properly classified as a Schedule I substance of abuse with no therapeutic value, the federal government awarded the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services a patent titled "Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants" in October 2003. The patent was based on research sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, which found that THC and cannabidiol (CBD), two biologically active compounds unique to the marijuana plant, protect the brain against neurological insults, inflammation, and oxidative stress. Subsequent research by investigators at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, showed that THC inhibits an enzyme responsible for the accumulation of amyloid plaque that disrupts communication between brain cells, the hallmark of Alzheimer's-related dementia.
Oaksterdam University, a trade school for the cannabis industry in downtown Oakland, was raided by federal agents on April 2, 2012, as part of a stepped-up campaign to roll back the gains that medical-marijuana supporters thought they had achieved through democratic means with the passage of Proposition 215. The assault on California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act would turn courtrooms into stages for show trials, send the innocent to prison, deny medication to the seriously ill, threaten doctors, and terrorize America's weakest citizens with fascistic paramilitary raids that ransacked their homes and property. Instead of abiding by California law, state and local cops conspired with federal authorities to undermine the will of the electorate.
The Seattle Hempfest: On the third weekend of August, several hundred thousand people converge at Myrtle Edwards Park, a mile-long strip of greenery and winding paths along the waterfront, to celebrate their favorite plant. Revelry and civic-mindedness mix as ganja lovers from all corners join a throng of locals in what is by far the biggest pro-pot gathering in the world. In keeping with Seattle's reputation as a progressive, cannabis-friendly bastion, the police refrain from arresting marijuana smokers. "Hempfest is about promoting the freedom to choose and human rights," chief organizer Vivian McPeak asserted. "No political or human rights movement in America has made it this far without eventually winning. It's just a matter of time."