Home Politics Politics News

Grass Makes First Concerted Move on D.C.

Congress faces first bill that would legalize marijuana use

smoking, marijuana joint

Conceptual photograph of man lighting up a joint

Diverse Images/ UIG/Getty

Washington, D.C.

Congress is now being confronted with the first bill ever put before it to legalize marijuana. Backed by Senators Harold Hughes and Jacob Javits and by Representative Ed Koch, it would make it legal to smoke grass in the home and to sell or carry around an ounce or so for private use.

This does not mean, of course, that the time has come to roll up the blinds, lean out, and fire up a joint. In this election year, the bill’s most likely fate will be to vanish into the Senate Judiciary Committee like a little fish into the jaws of a whale, with as much chance of emerging. In the words of the senate aide who had the most to do with drawing up the measure, “Its chances right now are at best doubtful. I don’t think it will have a great amount of support.”

But if the backers can put together enough support to help lend legitimacy to the issue, the way could be smoothed for a vote next year — the earliest anyone expects such a law might be passed. This tactic might work, for as corpulent and stolid as the government may be, there have been recent signs of stirrings in its belly. Specifically: •

  • Senator Barry Goldwater told a reporter for the National Observer, “Frankly, I haven’t seen any friend of mine who uses pot be hurt by it, and I think anybody can agree that whisky is worse for you than marijuana.” •
  • John Finlator, 60 years old, retired as number two man at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, announced that he thought “we must stop sending people to jail for smoking marijuana.” He said privately that top men at the bureau have conceded legalization to be inevitable and regard current marijuana busts as little more than holding actions. •
  • Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa, cosponsor of the marijuana bill and the senate’s acknowledged expert on narcotics, said on television that he had smoked dope in Africa during World War II, didn’t think it hurt anybody much, and was favorable toward amnesty for those in jail for possessing small amounts of it. •
  • Nearly all the Democratic Presidential candidates have said they would like to liberalize the marijuana laws to one extent or another. In this they lined up left-to-right: McCarthy, Chisholm and Spock came out for complete legalization, McGovern said he would at least end prison sentences for simple possession, Muskie declared himself against “harsh” criminal penalties and Humphrey contented himself with vague euphemisms. •
  • And, of course, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, nine of its 13 members appointed by Nixon, came out for “decriminalization” — a nonsense word which means allowing its private use and not much else. In a wonderful paradox, the commission urged that marijuana outside the home continue to be viewed as contraband, so that it was all right for someone to have it in his home but not to bring it there. The Hughes-Javits-Koch bill, about to be introduced as we went to press, would avoid this bind by permitting public possession and non-profit sale of small amounts.

Doping Ubiquitous

One explanation for these rumblings of common sense is that more people are smoking grass than ever before, even in the District of Columbia. Increasing numbers of senators and congressmen have found smoking commonplace among their staffs and their children — some of whom have made headlines by getting busted. It no longer causes raised eyebrows at a Washington party to see a Justice Department lawyer or a White House aide taking up, and grass has even been smoked openly in the bar of Washington’s prestigious Watergate Hotel, where congressmen go to get drunk with their secretaries.

“It is everywhere,” said an ex-Senate aide with five years in Washington. “It’s in the Justice Department, in the White House, it’s in Congress. There isn’t a senator or congressman who doesn’t at least know somebody who smokes. Senators that I know personally have children who smoke marijuana, and have smoked it in the house.”

Another reason is that organized support for legalization — a legalization lobby — has appeared in Washington. Best organized is the National Organization for Reform of the Marijuana Laws — NORML — funded by the Playboy Foundation and run by Keith Stroup, a friendly and energetic lawyer who apparently would go into withdrawal spasms if he had to spend an hour without a phone stuck against his ear. NORML is run from a skinny house that sticks up out of a parking lot on one side and a Cadillac sales lot on the other, looking like a tenement in a painting by Thomas Hart Benton. Inside, its small staff mailed out “Liberate Marijuana” bumper stickers and letters to NORML branches in New York and Arizona while Stroup, wrenching from the phone, talked optimistically about the future:

“I think we should be able to get the federal government out of the picture within the next two years. Literally out, so that the states can do it on a one-by-one basis. That would give us several states we would immediately win. If the federal government backed out today, we would win within the first session in New York, California, Washington, Oregon. . .I would say within five years we would have all but maybe five states with legal marijuana.

“If we’re dealing with Nixon, oh, Christ, it’s going to be a struggle to get anything through, but if we have a President who’s willing to press the issue, I have no doubt we can get it through next year. Eighteen percent of the total vote in November is 18 to 24 years old — people who have never voted before in a presidential election, and the same people who have a 39 percent usage of marijuana rate. Now, that 18 percent can totally swing an election. If they understand that and they’re willing to use it, Nixon won’t be in office. It’s that simple. . .

“First we’ll probably get legal marijuana, probably in one strength only and probably only domestically grown. Perhaps two years later, we’ll be able to expand that and get it done in a more meaningful way. What we have to do is to get a legal source created, then to try to get a good legal source. I would love to see marijuana available legally from ten different countries, in ten different strengths. You know, a supermarket.”

Big Square on Bandwagon

For a contrast with NORML, one has only to walk over to Connecticut Avenue to the elegant offices of Washington’s other important dope group, the National Coordinating Council on Drug Education. Carpeted, terrazzoed and furnished in accordance with its annual budget of nearly $500,000, it is something other than funky. Its meeting room is dominated by a billboard-sized photograph of a black kid shooting up. (“Untogether,” it says, as if the kids were going to whisper “untogether” with wide eyes and thrust aside their works). Its publication is cutely titled Grassroots, its director, Peter Hammond, wears a tie and its president — ready? — is Art Linkletter.

All this notwithstanding, Hammond may be doing something worthwhile. Over the past three years he has been lassoing inhabitants of a flat but important part of America — the Jaycees, the American Legion, the American Medical Association, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Salvation Army — and having roped them all, and dozens more, into the NCCDE, now seems to be moving them resolutely toward the day when nobody will get busted for smoking dope.

If Hammond brings these people around, it will probably be because he knows how to speak their language. If the Lions Clubs believe in “audio visual aids” to the extent that they would employ them against a national outbreak of infanticide, well, NCCDE screened all the most widely circulated films on drugs, found many of them pure gunk, and put out a report saying so. If the Optimists are unable to act on anything until verbal anesthesia has been performed upon it, indeed the NCCDE stand on grass is a mincing dance full of phrases like, “The council encourages all states which have not already done so, to take immediate action to reform their marijuana laws and bring the penalties for possession of marijuana into a more proper perspective. . .”

This may be pretty suffocating to anybody who doesn’t get off on Robert’s Rules of Order. But it works with those who do, and Hammond, without directly saying so, gives the distinct impression of a man steering the ship toward legalization. Of the National Commission report he said, “Regulation of marijuana was an alternative available to the commission. Their cop-out was, ‘Well, there’s no effective regulatory mechanism.’ That is begging the point. It’s their job to come up with a mechanism.”

About Linkletter, the nation’s most conspicuous hard-ass on dope, Hammond gave this history: “The council [that is, the NCCDE] was politically in some trouble because of the film evaluation. We didn’t support the President on Drug Abuse Prevention Week — we said screw it — and we sued the FCC on drug lyrics. Well, when you’re in Washington and don’t have a strong, strong financial support, that tends to get you in trouble. . .

“We detected an early shift in Link-letter’s philosophy and we knew we could do two things — if we made him president of the council, we could capitalize on his visibility and at the same time speed up his education process. Both things happened.”

At least to an extent. Linkletter has not come out for legalization, but he did sit down with Nixon — who thinks of Linkletter as a narcotics expert — to tell him that marijuana is different from smack. Today Linkletter goes around telling his people that drugs are a complicated issue, a stance which contrasts with his attitude of two years ago, when he urged the National Association of Manufacturers, with reference to Timothy Leary, to “kill the son of a bitch.” If society’s most luminary squares can change, Hammond’s reasoning apparently goes, the rest should be close behind. A new drug legalization lobby is to open in Washington in a few weeks, financed by Amorphia, a California-based organization which sells “Acapulco Gold” rolling papers and uses the proceeds to promote legalization.

“We see the issue a little differently than most people,” said Blair Newman, one of the directors of Amorphia. “Our starting point is that legalization is absolutely inevitable. There’s no question but that marijuana smoking is going to be legalized. Government and big business are already selling legalization in their own way; for example the commission report, a blatant public reeducation effort by the government. The real issue now, at least as far as heads are concerned, is consumer versus corporate control of the cannabis industry.”

It is an important issue to Newman at least partly because he sees himself becoming, upon legalization, the nation’s first marijuana magnate. Amorphia already has made enough on rolling papers alone to have earmarked $15,000 for the California Marijuana Initiative last month, and by July Newman expects to be taking in at least $30,000 a month. The potential profit if Newman could step straight into grass is, as they say, boggling.

Newman described Amorphia’s Washington off shoot as a “psychedelic lobby,” pushing for action on all drugs, not just marijuana. Things being what they are these days, it will be operated by a former White House aide who served under Nixon.

Opposition in Disarray

It is important to keep in mind that most of the people in jail on marijuana charges were convicted under state, not federal law. If Congress repealed its marijuana laws tomorrow, smoking would still be illegal in all 50 states. (Michigan had no grass statute for a few weeks last month, but now has a new one on the books which punishes possession by up to a year in jail.) So to strike at the heart of the issue, groups in five states are gathering signatures to get legalization on the November ballot. The states are Arizona, Alaska, California (See “RS Issue 106”), Washington and Oregon.

Here are some local groups working on referenda and other reform issues: •

  • California: Amorphia, Box 744, Mill Valley; California Marijuana Initiative, 2221 Filbert St., San Francisco. • Hawaii: Humane, P.O. Box 456, Kailua. •
  • Massachusetts: Sane (Committee for a Sane Drug Policy), P.O. Box 345, Cambridge. • 
  • New Jersey: New Jersey Committee to Abolish the Marijuana Prohibition, Box 14, Verona. • 
  • New York: Ad Hoc Lawyers Committee to Legalize Marijuana, 101 W. 109th St., Apartment 310. • Washington: Blossom, P.O. Box 1951, Olympia. • 
  • Wisconsin: Zippies, Box 706, Madison.

A striking aspect of the legalization effort is that it has no coherent adversary. “There is no organized opposition,” said Stroup, who spends a couple of nights a week giving speeches in the Washington area. “I have never yet gone to a place to speak where there has been anybody on the other side. No one has ever come anyplace we’ve been and said, ‘I think people should go to jail for smoking marijuana.'”

The assumption usually made is that if strong opposition does get together, it will come from the liquor industry. But like the idea that the tobacco companies are tooling up to make grass, the liquor speculation has yet to be supported by any evidence.

A lobbyist for one of the nation’s biggest distillers suggested why. A beefy man in his 60s, with a drinker’s face netted with wrinkles, his eyes set deep in puffy bags above a bulbous, purpleveined nose, he spoke slowly in a voice harsh and remote as a bear growling in a well: “Frankly. . .we’ve got too many people on our backs already. The highway. . .safety people. . .are very pointed. . .on the number of highway deaths. . .related to alcohol. This industry spends over $2 million a year on. . .research. . .into the causes of alcoholism. If a distiller were to be discovered. . .doing. . .something like that. . .well, the risk is just too great.”

Madness Viewed Possible

Should the liquor lobby stay clear of the issue, opposition might yet come from the government, either as part of a more general repression or in a specific burst of lunacy aimed at drugs. Little bubbles of dope irrationality have surfaced in Washington with regularity in the recent past, and might conceivably combine into a bigger one in the future. If this seems impossible, consider two of Nixon’s recent actions against marijuana: Last year the administration spent $80,-000 to eradicate domestic fields of wild cannabis, which considering how much wild grass there is altogether, was money better spent had Nixon chewed it up and spat it into the Potomac. In a related aberation, NASA is using infrared sensors on its Earth Resources Technology Satellite to see if it can spot marijuana fields from space.

Another possibility is a groundswell of genuine public opposition, perhaps in response to a dope scare story. Again unlikely, but consider the remarkable flurry with which the Campbell, Evans, Thomson, Williams report was made public last December. Widely circulated in the US and England, this report by four British doctors suggested that smoking grass causes cerebral atrophy, or irreversible shrinking of brain tissue; it provided anti-legalization people with their only fresh ammunition of the year.

It was one of the least conclusive studies of marijuana ever released. The report was based on only ten subjects, all of whom came to the doctors in the first place because they suffered from severe headaches, memory loss and other problem carrying with them the increased suspicion of brain damage. All had taken acid, some as many as 20 or 30 times. Most had a history of using speed and alcohol as well, and the study, which refers to its subjects as “addicts,” noted that cerebral atrophy had long been associated with alcoholism. Yet out of this, an international marijuana scare of modest but real proportion was concocted.

But barring some sudden right-angle turn by the nation, legalization of grass is only a matter of time. By the government’s own figures, 24 million Americans have smoked dope; the number is expected to reach 30-50 million by 1976, even if the stuff is still illegal.

The time left for marijuana prohibition may be two years, five or ten — and no doubt it will pass more slowly for the thousands of people in jail on marijuana charges — but as Stroup points out, the time is limited: “The growth of the use of grass is still geometric, and it is all among the younger segments of society — 40 percent of those 18 to 25 years old smoke dope, and 51 percent of the college students — while the opposition to legalization is almost all among the older segment. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that in a very short time we’re going to have legal marijuana.” 

In This Article: Coverwall

Show Comments

Newswire

Powered by
Close comments

Add a comment