Regulate It, Man

Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos
Teenagers smoking pot, Southern California, 1979

One of the few issues that many Americans can agree on in 2018 is, improbably, marijuana legalization. Pot is now legal in thirty-three states and Washington, D.C. In April, John Boehner, the former Republican Speaker of the House, made the rounds of the morning TV talk shows to announce that he now supported decriminalization. Boehner, a former Big Tobacco lobbyist, had declared in 2015 that he was “unalterably opposed” to making pot legal. Now, perhaps hoping to cash in on the marijuana “green rush,” he sits on the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a New York City–based marijuana startup headed by investment bankers. Acreage hopes to be to Big Pot what R.J. Reynolds, Boehner’s other employer, is to Big Tobacco. Acreage’s CEO, Kevin Murphy, optimistically predicts a “massive consolidation in this business” that will earn his company billions by 2020.

Can anyone corner the market on this plant, which has flourished all over the world for thousands of years? Those who have spent their entire lives managing the variables of the marijuana trade are less certain than Murphy or Boehner that monopolizing the market is possible. They know that the only certainty in this industry is uncertainty.

Emily Dufton’s timely book Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America deftly chronicles the battle over the most popular semi-illegal substance in the US. It is a story of revolution, counterrevolution, pyrrhic victories, and, now, crass opportunism. Above all, it is a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of myopic zealotry. Dufton interweaves a history of 1960s counterculture with the emergence of marijuana advocacy groups like the well-known National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and lesser-known activists.

Those who did not live through the 1960s may find it difficult to appreciate just how subversive this plant was once thought to be. Because the US government viewed pot smoking as a rejection of postwar American values, it considered the battle against marijuana an important front in the culture wars. To the Nixon administration marijuana was not a legal or economic issue—it was a moral one. The president considered homosexuality, marijuana, and immorality “the enemies of strong societies” and compared them to the “plagues and epidemics of former years.”

Grass Roots and most scholarly studies about pot have a large and excusable blind spot. Much of the history of the American marijuana business is unknown simply because of its criminal nature. Perhaps the most important activists among those who found what Dufton describes as a “higher calling” in the battle over cannabis during the 1960s were men and women whose deeds spoke louder than their words: the hippie smugglers and clandestine pot farmers that Timothy Leary called “prophets,” “righteous dealers,” and “spiritual outlaws.” The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, based in Laguna Beach, California, was thought…

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