The Grassroots Origins of the War on Drugs

October 13, 2015

DuftonEmily Dufton (Ph.D., American Studies, George Washington University, 2014) is an ACLS Public Fellow at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., where she’s working as an engagement analyst. Her book, A Higher Calling: How Grassroots Activists Launched America’s Marijuana Revolution and Shaped the Modern War on Drugs, will be published by Basic Books in 2017. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Atlantic and History News Network. She lives in Washington with her husband, Dickson Mercer, and their wonderful dog Bruno. Follow her on twitter @ebdufton

What drew your attention to this topic? 

My last year of undergrad I came across Martin Torgoff’s book, “Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000.” It was a social history of the effects of drug use, and drug users, on America, and it just leapt off the shelf at me. Its cover was very catchy: bright yellow with blocky font and a picture of a joint. I bought it and read all 475 pages in two days. I was enraptured: You could talk about America this way? You could view American history through its moments of acceptance—and rejection—of intoxicants? Hippies and outcasts and angry parents were just as worthy of historical inquiry as presidents, governors and first ladies? I had never seen anything like it before.

The book stayed with me for years, but I didn’t really consider using its lens until a couple of years after I began my coursework in American Studies at George Washington University in 2008. I knew I wanted to study social movements but couldn’t quite figure out how, or why. I liked drug history, and I was working with Leo Ribuffo, who encouraged me to look into conservative social movements, but nothing was gelling. Then, in 2011, lightning struck. I realized that Torgoff paid a lot of attention to pro-drug movements—the beatniks, hippies and activists who had spent the past five decades advocating for the legalization of marijuana—but he ignored, and even dismissed, the anti-drug activists who had done as much, if not more, to influence federal policy.

There’s nothing more exciting than finding a gap in historical research that you feel compelled to fill. I realized that writing the history of the parent movement—the largest and most powerful grassroots anti-marijuana movement in American history—was less a simple dissertation topic and more of a calling. I saw the connections between these groups of grassroots activists in the late 1970s and the zeitgeist of the anti-drug obsession in the 1980s, spearheaded by Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and knew I wanted to draw the lines between them. So the dissertation presented for me an opportunity to combine fields I was already quite interested in (drug history, conservativism, social movements) with an area that historians had neglected for, I felt, far too long. That the first marijuana legalization votes were made just a few months later, in 2012, and that they’ve continued to pass in states across the country since has been the icing on the cake. It’s nice when your dissertation topic is surprisingly culturally relevant.

What particular sources proved the most useful in your work?

The first thing I knew I wanted to do was contact as many former parent activists as possible. To my great happiness and surprise, many of them were still alive, and many were very eager to share their side of the story.

Parent activists have been unfairly maligned for decades. They’re been considered irrational zealots who pushed federal and state legislators to harshly punish all adult drug users in order to create a “drug-free world” which would be safer and less tempting for their children. But this is not quite the case: the first parent activists, who started the movement in Atlanta, GA, in 1976, were all liberal Democrats and great fans of Jimmy Carter, who grew concerned by the rising rates of adolescent drug use in the wake of the widespread decriminalization laws passed by eleven states between 1973 and 1978. They didn’t advocate lifelong sobriety or dismiss the idea that an adult could make the choice to use legal (or even illegal) drugs safely when they came of age. Instead, they argued that young children and developing adolescents should avoid smoking marijuana until they were at least 18, and that parents had a role to play in keeping their kids away from drug use. It was the Reagan administration that took these ideas and transformed them (with several historical circumstances leading the way) into the harsh drug laws that have shaped the American drug war for over three decades.

I wouldn’t have known all this without contacting the parents themselves, however. And the parents were wonderful. One man even scanned all of his organization’s early newsletters and mailed them to me on a thumb drive. It was material no researcher had seen before! I also benefited from the fact that parent activists were extremely prolific. There are dozens of guidebooks, pamphlets, newsletters and government documents that I found at the Library of Congress, online, and through interlibrary loan. I cannot say enough good things about interlibrary loan.

I also found numerous useful things in archives everywhere from the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA, to the special collections of the University of Virginia Law Library in Charlottesville. I asked pro-legalization organizations like NORML if I could peek into their archives in their office in Washington, D.C. I developed my own private collection of old magazines (like vintage copies of High Times and Stone Age) that I bought on eBay. Basically, as far as sources were concerned, nothing was off-limits: I tracked down everything I could get my hands on and filed everything in as organized a manner as I could.

But the interviews—with parent activists, with legalization advocates, with federal employees working in the Carter and Reagan administrations—those were by far the most helpful and the most interesting. I say this as vehemently as possible: If you are working on a historical subject whose players are still alive, reach out and contact them. Don’t be shy or scared. You’ll be amazed by who wants to talk to you, and what they’ll have to say. And your work will be all the richer for it.

What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

I am very happy to say that I recently sold the expanded version of my dissertation to Basic Books. The complete history of marijuana activism—both pro-legalization and against, and the influence of these grassroots activists on American social and political history and drug policy—should be hitting the bookshelves in late 2017.

I’m excited about the future for marijuana studies. (Is that a thing? It should be. Drug and alcohol studies should be far more widely known.) I’ve been talking with scholars across the country who see its possibilities for their own work, whether they’re journalism professors in legalized states like Oregon or history professors hoping to show students how influential past events are on modern policy debates. And it seems like things will just keep changing. Now, if history is any guide, legalization will not win outright, at least not in the way we expect it to. The decriminalization movement of the 1970s, despite its widespread support from federal legislators and voters, still foundered on the shoals of its own success when decriminalization outpaced proper regulations and controls and historically unprecedented numbers of kids started to smoke. The same thing may very well happen again. So the questions that will continually need to be asked are about how states are enforcing safety laws, how a brand new industry is regulating itself, what the role of the federal government is in states’ shifting laws about legalization, and how America, which has always had a very mixed relationship with marijuana, will move forward with a divided number of states allowing, or barring, the use of this drug.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

Think about all the possibilities for your work. It’s not news that everyone getting a doctorate in the humanities isn’t going to land a tenure-track job, and the dissertation could be an excellent opportunity for you to position yourself to launch into another field.

I always knew that I wanted to publish my dissertation commercially, so I worked with my advisor and my committee to ensure that I could keep a semi-commercial voice at its core. If your work has this same potential and you want to venture into the world of the public intellectual, try the same thing. If you’re interested in working in government, or in private industry, or as a high school teacher or journalist or consultant, also keep this in mind. The dissertation is an opportunity for you to prove yourself in any number of fields, not just academia. And you’ll save yourself time when it’s finished because you won’t have to translate an overly academic work into something more digestible for a different field.

If you have any questions about this, or just want to talk about it more, anyone can feel free to email me at email me. I’d be happy to talk more about my transition, fellowship programs that ease academics into other fields, or anything else that might ease worried minds about the current disparity between the growing numbers of Ph.D.s produced every year and the piddling number of available academic jobs.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

Many things, I hope! The biggest being a greater understanding of how a scrappy group of grassroots activists from across the country transformed how Americans think about drug use. And the second being the real possibility for exploring the role of unexpected things—marijuana for me, but it could be anything for someone else—in determining the shape and scope of the American experience and the construction of American identity.