Updated: Jul 15, 2019
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Flash back a few decades, and the substance was heavily stigmatized as a gateway drug to other dangerous forms of addiction. In fact, the earliest anti-marijuana campaigns in the United States came soon after the repeal of Prohibition, fueled by exaggerated accounts of crimes allegedly caused by marijuana.
But many years later, here we are, with marijuana closer than ever to becoming a nationally decriminalized and legal substance and more socially acceptable than ever. It’s no accident that the tide has turned. Over the last half century, cannabis advocates from all walks of life have taken huge strides in the push to get kush legalized throughout the U.S.
Meanwhile, we should remember the men and women who spoke the truth and set the foundation for the bright cannabis future we embrace today.
1. Jack Herer
While some may associate the name with one of the most popular strains of cannabis, many cannabis advocates consider Jack Herer to be the father of the modern movement to legalize marijuana. Born in 1939, Herer initially worked as an electric sign repairman. By the 1970s, he was one of the leading figures of the marijuana legalization movement.
In 1985, Herer released "The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” a book heavily criticizing political and big business interests for maligning cannabis. Herer’s book would go on to sell over 700,000 copies while igniting the ongoing push for nationwide marijuana legalization. After decades of advocacy, Herer died in 2010 of a heart attack. The community mourned his passing as he had only just lived long enough to finally see cannabis moving towards mainstream and legal acceptance.
2. Keith Stroup
Keith Stroup is a D.C.-based public-interest attorney best known for founding the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML. In his own words, he actually started smoking marijuana much later in life than one would expect. “I was a farm boy raised in southern Illinois and I didn’t know much about this marijuana.” But his knowledge soon expanded while attending law school in the late 60s.
When Stroup and a few friends put NORML together in 1970, public opinion was staunchly against marijuana legalization, with only 12 percent in favor of the possibility. It takes an extraordinary amount of faith in one’s cause to push for legalization in an environment that overwhelmingly opposes your beliefs. But Stroup persisted and NORML eventually expanded to 135 chapters and 550 lawyers, becoming the largest grassroots organization in the world dedicated to marijuana legalization.
3. "Brownie" Mary Jane Rathbun
Mary Jane Rathbun is often called the “Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement,” and the comparison is an apt one. Although she was a leading advocate for cannabis legalization from the 60s on, it was her work with AIDs sufferers during the 1980s for which she’s best known.
At the height of the AIDs epidemic, Rathbun used her signature marijuana brownie recipe to help reduce pain among those suffering from the disease. Eventually, the San Francisco Police got wind of her baking ventures and raided her home in 1981. Rathbun was 57 at the time of her arrest, and the idea of sending a grandmotherly figure to jail for trying to offer comfort through her cooking didn’t sit well with the American public.
Rather than sentence Rathbun to any serious time, she served 600 hours of community service. This didn’t deter Rathbun in the slightest as she used her fame and visibility to continue to push for cannabis legalization. She’s partially credited with the success of the 1996 California State initiative that made marijuana conditionally legal.
4. Tom Forcade
Considered one of the unsung heroes of the counterculture movement, Tom Forcade is best known for founding the influential marijuana-centric magazine High Times in 1974. Within a couple of years, the magazine boasted a readership of four million readers. Although Forcade committed suicide in 1978, his legacy in the form of a rebellious, thought-provoking magazine continues.
Initially, the tone of High Times focused more on how to get access to imported cannabis. However, as times changed, it developed into more or less a guide to growing cannabis -- a definite sign of the shifting conversation surrounding marijuana in the United States.
5. & 6. Cheech Marin & Tommy Chong
Although many of the better-acknowledged marijuana advocates exist purely in the political arena, the comedic duo of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong were among the first to bring recreational marijuana use to the mainstream. Their iconic 1978 comedy “Up In Smoke” was the sleeper hit that helped to normalize the concept of recreational marijuana at a time when it was still largely viewed in a negative light.
Despite what many may think, the duo never actually smoked weed on set. Said Marin, “We had to sustain a level of energy, especially making movies. We had long days on set. If we got stoned, we wouldn’t get it done.”
7. Steve DeAngelo
Steve DeAngelo has featured in news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, BBC, and Fortune - just to name a few - during his more than 40 years of cannabis legalization advocacy. He was strongly influenced by his parents’ close work with the Kennedy Administration and Civil Rights movement. As a teen, DeAngelo dropped out of high school and became the key organizer behind annual July 4th “Smoke-In” protests in front of the White House.
In 1998, DeAngelo was once more a central figure in the push for legalization, this time taking part in the landmark passage of the 1998 Washington D.C. medical marijuana Initiative 59. Later in 2006, DeAngelo co-founded the wildly influential Harborside, which boasts the reputation of being the world’s largest dispensary. A year later, he helped launch Steep Hill Labs, which set the bar for safety screening and quality assurance.
Overall, DeAngelo is largely credited with transforming the image of cannabis from a taboo scene populated with deviant users to a professional, mainstream-friendly business venture.
8. Snoop Dogg
As with Cheech and Chong before him, Snoop Dogg is a pop culture figure that helped embrace cannabis as a socially acceptable pastime. However, despite being synonymous with smoking, Snoop has in recent years branched out into other uses for cannabis. That includes “health, tech, financial services, technology, media, compliance, and laboratory technology verticals.”
Snoop founded Casa Verde Capital in 2015, and in just three years managed to raise $45 million for future endeavors -- most of that coming in just the last year alone. He’s not the first celebrity to transition from recreational smoking to making his connection work for business purposes. However, Snoop’s attempts to diversify investments in cannabis-related industries definitely signals a forward-thinking behavior that many would not expect from the laid-back rapper.
There’s really no telling where the cannabis industry could be headed over the next decade, or the potential influence Snoop could have over its mainstream trajectory through name brand recognition alone.
9. Ethan Nadelmann
Not many people can call themselves the spear to the heart of the “War on Drugs.” Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, has that distinction. He’s spoken about the issue of drug reform on both left and right-leaning platforms, driving home the non-partisan nature of his approach to changing public and political opinion about how the United States approaches illegal drugs.
His approach to legalization has always been one of practicality. “People believe that a generational shift makes marijuana legalization inevitable [just like] back in the late 1970s,” said Nadelmann. “Notice that support dropped by the late 1980s.”
Nadelmann didn’t want the movement to make the same mistake today as advocates made in the 1970s; just assuming that public attitudes would favor cannabis legalization forever and simply waiting for the presumed inevitable. Instead, he pushed for ballot initiatives, literally letting the public decide for themselves (during a window of high pro-legalization public sentiment) to make cannabis legal state by state. Despite his influence, he’s a controversial figure with some disagreeing with his more conservative views about marijuana usage and the specific conditions of its legal nature.
Even so, it’s hard to ignore his contribution to updating the state-by-state legal perspective of cannabis in the 21st century.
10. Dennis Peron
Like Mary Jane Rathbun, Dennis Peron was largely spurned to legal advocacy by the devastation of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and losing a lover to the disease. He saw firsthand how cannabis eased his loved one’s suffering, and after his death, became a staunch advocate for marijuana decriminalization for medicinal usage.
In 1991, Peron was a key supporter of Proposition P, which encouraged the city of San Francisco to push California to add marijuana to its list of approved medicines that treat illnesses ranging from AIDS to glaucoma. He also helped to write Proposition 215, also known as the California Compassionate Use Act. The historic law made it legal in the state of California to both grow and possess marijuana for legal purposes.
Additionally, Peron supported cannabis legalization for recreational use, famously saying that “all use is medical.”
It’s truly fascinating to consider the types of people that have helped push marijuana forward: different stories, different experiences, and yet all of them contributing towards a better understanding of cannabis by the public. Now, thanks to their advocacy, cannabis is more widely and legally available, and it may soon be completely legal. Well done, Pioneers of Pot!