While New York fusses over a mosque and D.C. debates Glenn Beck's sanity—or lack thereof—California is getting ready to make a choice that could rock the nation. Or, rather, stone it. The state that brought you the Proposition 8 Gay Marriage Kulturkampf has a new battle brewing. In less than eight weeks California voters will decide on Proposition 19; a high-stakes (pun intended) ballot initiative that would essentially legalize marijuana in the Golden State, treating weed much like alcohol—to be regulated and taxed, but lawful for adults 21 and up to buy, possess and use.
Prop 19 would be a social experiment on a gargantuan scale, with repercussions too vast to predict. We can safely say that other states will be watching. Closely. If California's tax revenues go up and crime rates stay down, sweeping drug law reform in dozens of cash-starved states could ultimately force a change in Federal policy. Prop 19, in short, might just mean that the War on Drugs is over. And drugs won.
Whatever California decides, the public perception of pot has undeniably evolved over the past several decades. From a dire threat in the '30s, to a badge of youth rebellion in the '60s, pot now is an almost mundane part of daily life for millions. Especially on the health-crazed West Coast, lighting a perfectly legal tobacco cigarette will draw dirty looks, where sparking up a dank fatty will bring only smiles.
How did this change happen? Blame the music. Pop music brought Mary Jane to mass consciousness. And through generations of jazz, folk, rock, reggae, country, and rap, pop has played a massive role in winning mainstream acceptance for the drug. To see this dramatic shift at work, one only need take a tour of marijuana-themed music, of pop songs about pot, tunes about toking, compositions about the chronic, if you will. Or even if you won't.
We start, we do with most trends in American popular music, with Louis Armstrong. Way back in 1929, he recorded perhaps the first song about weed to reach a mass audience, "Muggles." Sorry, Harry Potter-ites, but it's true. Muggles" was a slang term for marijuana before there ever was a Hogwart's. Satchmo was joined by dozen of other jazz stars, like Cab Calloway singing about the "Reefer Man" and Benny Goodman's "Texas Tea Party."
But the straight world caught on, and pot was soon being portrayed in mass media as an evil temptress—as with the unintentional camp of "Sweet Marijuana." The faux-Busby Berkley production from a 1934 movie, Murder at the Vanities prefigures 1936's propaganda film "Reefer Madness," and the subsequent federal law, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act that made cannabis made illegal. Or "The G Man Got the T Man" as Cee Pee Johnson put it. Even St. Nick had to go underground in "Santa's Secret"—a song which does explain why the old elf is so jolly and his constant need for cookies.
Doobie tunes snuck back into the public mind though folk music, with innocuous-sounding titles like "Puff, the Magic Dragon," and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Dylan as folkie and later a rock star probably did more to promote the use of marijuana than anybody outside the Beatles. In fact, the so-cool-it-should-be-apocryphal story is that Dylan himself first turned the Beatles on to weed in a New York City hotel room.
Soon, coded songs about pot came fast, if not furious. The Byrds' "Eight Miles High," "Along Comes Mary" by The Association, "Let's Go Get Stoned" by Ray Charles, and Dylan's own annoying but inescapable "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," with its deeply insidious refrain.