Are Pot Reformers Too Optimistic? The View From 1977

That year, Jimmy Carter's drug czar attended a marijuana-soaked party in Washington and reportedly used cocaine. You won't believe what happened next.
A volunteer arranges jars of marijuana at a dispensary in Los Angeles. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

They say the grass is always greener on the other side, but for grass activists, things look pretty green right here and now. But look back at the heady days of the late 1970s teaches a lesson in how fragile political movements are, how quickly momentum can shift, and why it's important for activists to keep their hubris in check.

To be blunt, these are high times for cannabis campaigners. After years of slow expansion of support for medical marijuana, two states fully legalized recreational use in 2012, and so far the results look promising: plenty of tax revenue and none of the chaos naysayers predicted. Now more states are considering following in Washington and Colorado's footsteps. And most promising of all, popular support for legalization crossed 50 percent in the last couple of years and continues to grow:

Yet at the risk of inspiring paranoia, are advocates getting ahead of themselves? There's no doubt that the situation looks more hopeful for legalization than ever before. But an excellent new memoir by journalist Tony Dokoupil provides a sobering reminder of how quickly a moment can pass. Dokoupil's The Last Pirate is part personal and family narrative, part investigation, and part history of marijuana in America from around 1970 to 1985.

Starting as a low-level local dealer, the author's father, Anthony, moved up in the weed business until he was moving literally tons of Colombian bud into the U.S. Once, in the mid-1980s, "In a single load he supplied enough marijuana to levitate every college-age person in America and send them sideways to the store for snacks." (Anthony Dokoupil's story doesn't exactly have a happy end: Addicted to cocaine and estranged from his family, the law finally caught up with him—six days before the statute of limitations ran out.) 

As the 1970s drew to a close, Anthony Dokoupil saw his business changing. Though pot was still legal as the 1970s dawned, Nixon cracked down on the drug. But the Carter Administration brought winds of change. There's just one other stretch on Gallup's graph above where support for legalization has grown as quickly as it has in recent years: 1969 to 1978.

In 1972, a presidential commission recommended decriminalization; more than 30 states reduced penalties for possession; and the editors of both The New York Times and National Review called for decriminalization. In 1976, the elder Dokoupil realized the biggest threat to his business wasn't a jail term but legalization: "He imagined the Marlboro company flipping a switch to produce Marlboro Greens, the first mass-market marijuana cigarette, and it occurred to him that there weren't many people making money off moonshine these days." In August 1977, Jimmy Carter himself told Congress he supported ending all federal penalties for marijuana possession up to one ounce.

If that sounds familiar, you're not imagining things. In 2014, the editors of National Review have endorsed legalization. Carnegie Mellon professor and legalization expert Jonathan Caulkins worries about the dangerous effects of Big Tobacco capturing the marijuana business as more states adopt legalization. And while the Obama Administration hasn't gone quite as far as the Carter White House, the president has been frank about his own past use and, his team has has decided to stay out of the way of state-level legalization—at least for now. 

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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