When Nancy Reagan uttered the words “Just Say No” in that Orwellian year of 1984, she borrowed the phrase from a movement of mothers and fathers in the late 1970s that managed to reverse the momentum of marijuana law reform through grassroots action, aided by the government officials they turned into allies.
Emily Dufton, in her new book “Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America,” puts her pen on the pulse of that anti-pot “parents’ movement,” in a way no other writer has. In our current era of legalization and its backlash, her book contains lessons we need to learn from today.
“Grass Roots” began as Dufton’s PhD thesis and it is thoroughly researched and engaging. An introduction offers a sweet and succinct history of marijuana and its legality (the Jazz Age, the beats, the hippies) and the first chapter begins with the often overlooked first marijuana protest: Lowell Eggemeier lighting up a joint in protest at the San Francisco Hall of Justice on August 16, 1964.
Dufton enlivens her history by telling it through the eyes of activists who often “felt a personal stake in determining the future of pot.” She profiles and interviews key figures in early marijuana law reform, such as Michael Aldrich, who co-founded LEMAR, the first marijuana reform organization, and Keith Stroup of NORML, the longest-lasting reform group. The successes of these early reformers are covered, right up to Alaska’s ruling that marijuana use was legal under their constitution in 1975, as well as the presidential election of pro-decriminalization candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Dufton then takes us to Atlanta, Georgia where one mother, Martha Schuchard, became alarmed when she found empty beer bottles and roaches in her yard after her teenage daughter’s birthday party. Schuchard concluded after reading available research on marijuana that not enough was known about its effects on teens. She began organizing parents in her neighborhood at meetings where information was shared about the growing “drug culture” and its possible effects on their children.
Schuchard shamed government officials, notably then-NIDA chief Robert DuPont, into reversing their liberal stances on marijuana and instead basing policy on the “message” decriminalization might send to children. Dufton recounts national conferences that were held by groups like PRIDE (Parents’ Resource Institute for Drug Education) and profiles other members of the parents’ coalition like Sue Rusche, another Atlanta mother who became active after discovering paraphernalia in a record store.
It’s instructive to read how the Carter Administration caved in to pressure from parents, who formed chapters across the country and supported Republican candidates who were tougher on drugs. Enter the Reagan Administration and Nancy Reagan’s embrace of the issue, which Dufton explains was an effort to popularize her image and change the public perception that she was a spoiled rich woman.
The book goes on to describe the revival of marijuana reform via the medical marijuana movement of the 1990s, told through the stories of glaucoma patient Robert Randall, who successfully sued the U.S. government for his medicine, and of Brownie Mary, a feisty little old woman who baked brownies for AIDS patients in San Francisco.
“Grass Roots” concludes with a warning for the current marijuana reform movement: Do not ignore potential threats to its progress of the sort that cropped up in the ’70s. Some of the parents from that era are still around, and they’ve adopted the next generation’s drug warrior Kevin Sabet like a son. Sabet, who co-founded SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), is also profiled in the book. Plus, Robert DuPont, who founded a urine testing company after leaving the Reagan administration, is now advising U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions on drug policy.
Missing from the book, however, is CADCA (Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America), the government-funded community groups that are also descendants of the parents’ movement. Dufton also doesn’t address the social justice concerns of the modern marijuana movement, such as the provisions allowing former felons to enter the legal cannabis industry in California and the racial equity programs underway in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
For example, Dufton could have profiled another Atlanta mother, Sharon Ravert, who more recently became active when police came to her house and tore it apart looking for marijuana in her friend’s backpack. Ravert, with her daughter, founded Peachtree NORML and was instrumental in bringing the Drug Policy Alliance conference to Atlanta last year. The city, ashamed at having the worst marijuana arrest record for black people in the country, decriminalized just before the event.
Perhaps because she’s a woman, Dufton seems to understand better than writers before her the power and determination of a mother protecting her young. Studies are showing that youth marijuana use is staying steady or even decreasing, but fears about youth access continue to be raised at every level of government. Those who cannot remember their herstory are doomed to repeat it.
TELL US, what is your favorite book about cannabis?
Originally published in Issue 31 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE