JOHN SINCLAIR: A Brief History of the Movement to Legalize Marijuana


A Brief History of the Movement to Legalize Marijuana

Looking ahead to next month’s long-anticipated popular vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana in California, it seems like a million years ago when I went to the West Coast in 1972 to campaign for the original Proposition 19 – the first California Marijuana Initiative.

Out of prison for only a few months and still celebrating the reversal on appeal of my conviction for possessing two joints that had forced me to serve 29 months of a 9-1/2-to-10-year sentence in the Michigan prison system, I had been recruited by my friend Mike Aldrich to join him on the board of directors of a pioneering marijuana legalization organization called Amorphia: The Cannabis Cooperative.

Amorphia was spearheading the campaign to repeal the state’s laws against adult use, possession and cultivation of marijuana, and Aldrich was assembling a team of activists to tour the state’s college campuses, give press conferences, and speak publicly on behalf of Proposition 19.

So, at his behest, I joined Keith Stroup, a young lawyer from Washington, D.C., who headed another fledgling organization called NORML – the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws – and a number of local luminaries to drum up support for CMI. As I recall, Keith and I went on to make appearances in Phoenix, Ariz., and Santa Fe, N.M., on the same legalization tour, had a ball, and became fast friends for many years to come.

Amorphia had been established in 1970 by Blair Newman to manufacture and sell Acapulco Gold brand rolling papers to raise money for a marijuana legalization movement that would include a media campaign, a news service, a speakers’ bureau, court tests of pot laws, and funding expert witnesses to appear before state legislatures to lobby for legalization.

Further, Newman was convinced that when marijuana was legalized (by 1980, he projected), Amorphia could produce high-quality marijuana on communal farms and import the best foreign marijuana, then market its products under the Acapulco Gold trademark and use the expanded profits for social change.

Newman “estimated that the legal marijuana market would be about $3 billion a year,” Patrick Anderson points out in High in America: The True Story Behind NORML and the Politics of Marijuana. “If Amorphia could control one sixth of that, it would gross $500 million a year and should have a profit of $30 million a year to put into social action.”

“Let It Grow!” was Amorphia’s battle cry as the Cannabis Cooperative took its first steps under the banner of “free legal backyard marijuana,” and soon Newman brought in Dr. Michael Aldrich, head of Buffalo LEMAR and publisher of Marijuana Review, to join him in San Francisco as co-director of the ambitious little organization.

Already known as Dr. Dope and shortly to become founder of the FitzHugh Ludlow Memorial Library, Aldrich quickly teamed up with law professors Leo Paoli and John Kaplan to organize the 1972 California Marijuana Initiative as the first full-scale attack on America’s insane drug laws. Their efforts led to placing Proposition 19 on the ballot by means of a genuine grassroots, all-volunteer organizing drive, and the initiative attracted a remarkable 33 percent of the vote – more than twice the predicted size. The movement was greatly encouraged by the election results and looked forward to fighting on to ultimate victory.

But Amorphia was already starting to stagger under the weight of what had turned out to be a very bad business decision: trying to develop the first hemp rolling papers for U.S. distribution, a proposition that eventually swallowed up all available funds and sent Amorphia’s legalization activities into a tailspin.

The momentum generated by the surprising level of public support for Proposition 19 was picked up by Stroup and NORML, whose concept of correct strategy differed fundamentally from the approach adopted by Newman and Aldrich and their associates at Amorphia.

The groups had attempted to co-exist and work together during the CMI campaign and thereafter – Blair Newman had even moved to Washington, worked out of Stroup’s basement office, and called himself co-director of Amorphia and deputy director of NORML – but Amorphia’s business problems drove the legalization organization farther and farther from its chosen course of action in the political arena.

In the end, NORML prevailed and, finally, in 1974, Amorphia was folded into the NORML structure and reconstituted as the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The next year, California NORML successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass the Moscone Act of 1975, which “decriminalized” marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, with a maximum $100 fine for 1 ounce or less. At this point, spirits were at an all-time high among the proponents of legalization, and the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 after the eight long years of darkness drawn down over America by Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford raised our hopes even higher.

Stroup became intimate with the Carter administration and its drug policy director, Peter Bourne, and it seemed that NORML would lead the nation into a bright new future where the recreational use of drugs would no longer be a criminal matter.

But the legalization movement foundered on the shoals of a major scandal when Bourne, Stroup and their pals were exposed in media reports as snorters of cocaine at White House parties, and the carefully cultivated image of marijuana as a harmless, even benevolent recreational substance deserving of decriminalization at least was smeared with the brush of “hard” drug use. People in the government who had been leaning toward legalization began to back away from the issue, and the prospect of progressive marijuana legislation now being passed was effectively dead in the water.

The White House cocaine controversy also clashed severely with NORML’s lawyerly, socially conservative “decriminalization” image and the illusion of American “normalcy” it was meant to project, seriously undercutting the efficacy of the organization in terms of effecting real changes in the law.

For the next 20 years, the marijuana legalization movement remained at a virtual standstill while NORML was basically relegated to a place where you could be referred to a lawyer who would arrange a plea bargain with the prosecution to keep you out of jail but otherwise fully within the confines of a system that viciously persecuted millions of Americans who liked to get high on weed.

With all due respect, the NORML regime remained fully in control of the issue for a quarter of a century yet failed to take legalization even one step further than the Moscone Act of 1975. It wasn’t until the Medical Marijuana movement led by Dennis Perrone in San Francisco and Scott Isler in Los Angeles mobilized AIDS patients and other medicinal marijuana users in 1996 to succeed in exempting this segment of the populace from the draconian punishments meted out by the generals of the War on Drugs.

Since then, 14 states and the District of Columbia have voted to legalize medical marijuana despite the unrelenting opposition of the government and its storm troops. While most of us may qualify as patients, the principle of liberation for the recreational user has gone begging until just now, and the moment of truth is finally at hand.

By the time my next column appears, we’ll have our answer – and, hopefully, the true dawning of a new age.

2 thoughts on “JOHN SINCLAIR: A Brief History of the Movement to Legalize Marijuana”

  1. I voted for the original Prop. 19! It was the very first time I ever voted. Now, I have the opportunity to do it again, and this time we’ll win!

    Still, in 1972, we got 33% of the vote, which was astounding for the time.

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