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Review: ‘Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America’

"Grass Roots" author Emily Dufton (Photo by Travis. S. Pratt)

Well researched and packed with insightful analysis, Emily Dufton’s Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America (Basic Books) chronicles how cannabis went from verboten to Main Street commerce in the U.S during the last 50 years.

When did the effort to end pot prohibition exactly begin in America? Trivial Pursuit fans will learn that the first modern marijuana-law-reform activist was Lowell Eggemeier, who in 1964 lit up a joint in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice and dared police to arrest him, which they did. “I’m starting a campaign to legalize marijuana-smoking,” he declared. A year later, LeMar (short for Legalize Marijuana) was founded (without Eggemeier’s help).

Through numerous interviews with many of the principals involved in early cannabis-law reform efforts, Dufton (pictured above) aptly discusses the origins of the first three separately organized pioneering groups: LeMar and Amorphia, which in short time evolved into the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), founded in 1970.

With NORML leading the public charge, Congress formed a commission that recommended decriminalizing marijuana in the 1972 Shafer Report. Despite President Richard Nixon disparaging its findings, 11 states decriminalized pot in the ’70s, starting with Oregon in 1973.

Dufton also correctly acknowledges glaucoma sufferer Robert Randall, who received cannabis from the federal government from 1975 until he died in 2001, as the first bona fide medical-marijuana patient in the U.S. In the ’80s and ’90, a myriad of second-wave reformers like Randall and his organization Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics pivoted away from advocating primarily for decriminalization in favor of enabling patients’ access to medicinal cannabis.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980—who toughened drug-law enforcement on multiple fronts, and, along with his wife, argued that people should “just say no”—put a chill into the legalization movement, but Dufton notes that a 1978 scandal involving NORML and White House drug czar Peter Bourne didn’t help. “The downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of (NORML founder) Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close,” she writes.

EXCERPT: “Aided by the experienced marijuana activist Allen St. Pierre, who ran the day-to-day operation of the group, NORML came back to life at the precise time when medical-marijuana laws were beginning to sweep the country, and its insurrection aligned with a renaissance of interest in the drug, heralding a moment that was ripe for the return of marijuana lobbying and activism on a national scale.”

While examining the work of cannabis activists and their strategies over the last six decades, Dufton casts nearly equal light on anti-marijuana groups like the Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) and the “parents’ movement” of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Government funding kept PRIDE and other similar groups going.

In contrast, cannabis-law reformers relied largely on small donations from hundreds of thousands of stakeholders. That changed in the mid-1990s, when a triumvirate of supportive billionaires (Geroge Soros, Peter Lewis) provided the massive funding necessary for a series of successful state medical-marijuana ballot initiatives from 1996 to 2001.

The passage of California’s Prop 215 in 1996, establishing an individual’s right to use cannabis therapeutically, marked the end of the grass-roots advocacy era in cannabis-law reform. After that, “grasstops” organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Marijuana Policy Project relied almost entirely on the largesse of a handful of rich donors and family foundations, most of which favored ballot initiatives and litigation over activism and public protests.

Dufton’s Grass Roots is the best non-autobiographical account of the modern effort to reform U.S. cannabis laws. It’s must-read.

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