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.