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.

In Dokoupil's telling, the high-water mark was a Christmas party thrown in 1977 by NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Guests included the founder of High Times, a variety of journalists from traditional media organizations, Hunter S. Thompson, NORML founder Keith Stroup, and Peter Bourne. Bourne, a British-born physician and Vietnam veteran, was the Carter Administration's point man on drug policy. Though he had a reputation as a reformer, Tony Dokoupil reports that even those present were surprised when Bourne was offered cocaine and calmly took two hits from a fancy twist-top dispenser. Bourne has always denied taking coke at the party, but the incident was widely witnessed and, later reported.

"My God, man, we'll all be indicted," Thompson exclaimed.

Instead, Bourne was caught writing a prescription under a false name several months later. Reporters got a whiff, so to speak, of the party story and both Jack Anderson and The Washington Post reported the story, forcing Bourne's resignation in June 1978. (He's since gone on to an entertainingly eclectic career as a UN official, Castro biographer, and elderly distance runner.) His exit cast Carter's loose drug policies in a darker light as the president's political fortunes were flagging.

On the defensive, Carter reversed course. The government began prosecuting pot more harshly, and the media followed up with stories about newly discovered health risks. And after Ronald Reagan's triumph in November 1980, he instituted in a far less tolerant regime of "Just Say No" and strict enforcement. The number of annual users in the U.S. dropped by 10 million between the Carter and Reagan administrations. And as the Gallup chart above shows, support for legalization stagnated for nearly a quarter century.

Needless to say, this doesn't mean a weed winter is right over the horizon. Bourne's bust was a bit of a black swan, and the idea that it alone is responsible for the downturn in marijuana's fortunes seems too pat, like the notion that Will and Grace is responsible for the sudden, recent acceptance of gay rights: The underlying political dynamics were there already. And the landscape today is also substantively different: Public support was nowhere near 50 percent in 1977. And the pro-legalization side didn't have the benefit of a costly and ineffective drug war on one hand, and several generations that grew up toking up and aren't scared of weed on the other.

Nonetheless, it's striking to notice just how confident reformers are today, as though none of this had ever happened and legalization is inevitable. "A major corner has been turned in American politics," NORML's Allen St. Pierre said after the Washington and Colorado votes. "Without being too hyperbolic, for all intents and purposes cannabis prohibition likely began its end last Tuesday night." Similar quotes abound. Dokoupil's book offers a timely reminder that—as a cinematic masterpiece in 1978 pointed out—what looks solid can go up in smoke.