I attended my first cannabis activism event in the late 90’s (I’m 35 years old). It was a rally on the front steps of the Oregon Capital.
The rally was not the first of its kind. In fact, it was my understanding that the rally had been occurring annually for some time.
The rally was held every April 20th from 4-4:45 PM, the purpose of which was to protest cannabis prohibition. The rallies were not the sharpest back in those days, but they served as a foundation for more polished protests in the future.
Activism today is quite different than it looked many decades ago. Being an activist isn’t as risky as it once was. Unlike past decades, there are now many victories for activists to point to, and momentum to build on.
Suffice it to say, activists today have it much easier than activists of the past, because of the previous efforts of cannabis activists throughout the years.
Current legalization support was built via years of sacrifice and tireless effort by activists who dedicated their lives to reforming cannabis laws. Today’s activists need to recognize this, and always show tremendous reverence and respect to those who fought before us.
The early days of cannabis activism
Cannabis became illegal at the federal level in America 1937. There wasn’t a lot of activism between the late 1930’s through the early 1960’s which began with the counterculture revolution.
During this interim time, it seems people got busted for cannabis and spoke out publicly, mostly actors and musicians, but I don’t know if they considered themselves to be activists. More so, they were complaining about their situation, and rightfully so.
That all changed in the 1960’s when people started questioning the government and its policies. A cultural revolution was happening in America towards the end of the 1960’s, and cannabis was very much a part of that revolution.
In 1969, Timothy Leary, a prominent cannabis reform supporter, appealed his conviction for cannabis possession all the way to the United States Supreme Court and won, nullifying the law that federal prohibition was built on.
That law would be later replaced by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which is the federal law that still governs America’s cannabis policy at the federal level to this day.
Timothy Leary’s activism and legal battle moved cannabis activism and reform further into the national conversation. But it was still very much an uphill battle, with the first ever Gallup Poll showing just 12% support for ending federal prohibition in the same year Timothy Leary won his court battle.
NORML comes into existence
The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded in 1970 by Keith Stroup. It wasn’t the first organization to fight for reform, but it was the first organization to build real traction and develop what I call ‘advanced strategy.’
Prior to NORML, you had smaller organizations built almost entirely on counterculture principles, and were fairly unorganized. You also had individual activists doing their thing.
But NORML was the first to develop the approach of starting chapters across America, lobbying, and promoting awareness on a level that had never been done before.
NORML, of course, is still around to this day, fighting for cannabis reform. Today, this organization is joined on the reform battlefront by many other organizations. I personally think many of them wouldn’t exist had it not been for NORML doing it first, and for the efforts of people like Keith Stroup and the other early members of NORML.
Jack Herer and ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’
When someone talks about cannabis activism, and those that have fought for the plant throughout the years, Jack Herer’s name almost certainly comes up. And if his name doesn’t come up, you are hanging out with the wrong people.
Many people know about Jack Herer the cannabis strain, but don’t always know about the man himself, which is absolutely ridiculous. The strain named after Jack is phenomenal, but it means nothing without the efforts of Jack Herer the person.
Jack Herer was a longtime activist, promoting reform via the headshop he created in the early 1970’s. He really solidified his place in history with the release of his 1985 book The Emperor Wears No Clothes.
Jack’s book was extremely successful, and inspired a whole new generation of activists. Jack was very active in reform efforts, working with other legendary activists like John Sajo from Oregon to try to reform cannabis laws on the West Coast and beyond.
Jack Herer passed away in Eugene, Oregon in 2010. He had been battling health problems for quite some time. But many of the activists he fought alongside, including legendary Oregon activist John Sajo, are still around, and their stories are nothing short of historic.
Today’s activist need to always pay tribute to those that came before them
I have been absolutely blessed to have some of the best cannabis activist mentors that have probably ever existed. My buddy Adam Smith, who helped found Students for Sensible Drug Policy and StopTheDrugWar.org, has been invaluable in helping my growth as an activist.
There are countless others activists from newer generations who offer up their advice and guidance to me, and there are also many who mentored me and who are no longer here, namely legendary West Coast activist Jim Greig (RIP brother).
There are many activists these days, and I find there are even more consumers who aren’t activists; consumers who have forgotten about the hard work and sacrifices made by activists from years past, activists who created the foundation for the current momentum which has resulted in recent victories.
When someone loves the Jack Herer strain, but has no idea who the person was that the strain was named after, it cuts straight to my soul.
The Jack Herer strain exists because the man himself was an activist, and people wouldn’t be able to smoke Jack Herer freely in states which have legalized recreational and/or medical cannabis, without this man’s activism.
With the booming cannabis industry, and new found freedoms in many states, I fear the efforts of past activists will be forgotten. We cannot let this happen.
Older activists who have been around for decades, please share your stories. Younger activists that have only recent been around, listen to what these veteran activists have to say.
After all, they have many more years of experience, and have seen the ups and downs of a multi-decade fight for social justice.
If you see an older activist, give them a hug or a high five, and thank them for their efforts. Ask for their mentorship. Trust me, it will help you grow as an activist (and as a person!) in ways that you likely never thought possible.