Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Grass Roots: the Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America - Emily Dufton (2017)

Full Disclosure: Emily Dufton is my friend and personal confidante, and she has been a contributor to Flying Houses over the past 5 years.  The things I have to say in this review may be different from the things other people have to say.  However, I am planning to do a podcast for this blog, for all of the things that are probably not prudent to print, or might be more entertaining in an audible format, and Emily is slated to be my first guest.  So due to that, I will try to avoid too many personal tangents.

I would not have read a book about the history of marijuana activism, truthfully, if Emily had not written it.  However, I would read absolutely anything she wrote, because she brings an intensity to the written word that I find lacking in others.  What Emily says matters, or what Emily says matters, matters.  I never read High Times.  I won't go into personal tangents here, as I said, but in carrying around this book, with its inescapable giant cannabis leaf on the cover, you sort of brand yourself.  This is precisely what makes Grass Roots so special, because it's about that.  It is about the nether region between pro-marijuana and anti-marijuana activists.  It is so rare in this day and age to read something and not feel like it is beholden to its ideologues.  

I enjoy reading history books, but they are often daunting in their length and predisposed towards excessive tangents.  Emily sticks close to the facts here, starting in the late 1960's and ending in present day, with crucial developments to the story and her theory occurring constantly.  Apparently Jeff Sessions has done something regressive lately.

At the heart of it, this book is really about NORML, and the Parent Movement.  Emily's portraits of Keith Stroup and Keith Schuchard, the respective leaders of each, are lovingly rendered.  Side note: it is too perfect that Marsha Mannatt Schuhard happens to go by Keith--how do you get Keith from that?

Take for example this brief description of Stroup after he went to work for Ralph Nader:

"Consumer advocacy was only one part of the equation, however.  The most important shift that occurred during Stroup's tenture with the National Commission on Product Safety was his transformation into a regular marijuana smoker.  There Stroup befriended Larry Schott, a fellow Midwesterner and heavy smoker who was serving as the commission's chief investigator.  As two of only a handful of staff members who weren't from the moneyed eastern elite, Schott and Stroup bonded immediately and began visiting each other regularly, getting high and going to see the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.  The rest of Nader's staff was experimenting with the drug as well.  While Nader was a straight arrow, Stroup, Schott, and the other commission members were not, and smoking together on the weekends 'created a bond among us,' Stroup remembered.  'We were fellow stoners daring to travel to new places in our minds.  We felt as if we were pushing the levels of our consciousness, and experiencing new realities.'" (35)

Grass Roots is also a story of Presidents, from Nixon through Obama.  It tells of how a congressional study (the Shafer Commission) found that it had less harmful effects than presupposed ("the drug's 'relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.'" (54)), and was shunned by Nixon, who effectively ended Vietnam and started the War on Drugs.  Most of the book, however, centers around President Carter and President Reagan. 

Under Carter, marijuana was effectively decriminalized, until the so-called downfall of Peter Bourne.  This chapter is probably the highlight of the book for me.  There were three images that were indelible to me in this book.  One of them is the scene of the NORML Christmas party where Peter Bourne, a senior-level member (Special Assistant to the President for Drug Abuse) of the Carter administration, allegedly used drugs.  However, it was this turn of phrase that I remembered best:

"Bourne tried to defend himself, to no avail.  In an interview with the Washington Post the day after the accusations aired, Bourne denied that he had ever used cocaine.  'I won't say that I've never used marijuana,' he said, 'but not since I've been on this job.  It's just not my style.  I use alcohol.'  In another interview, with the Associated Press, Bourne said that pot and coke were 'everywhere' at the NORML Christmas party, but 'No, no, I was not snorting cocaine.'  He tried to cool the mounting pressure by agreeing to take a leave of absence and abandon his role as drug adviser, while staying on as a White House staff member.  But as articles kept criticizing Bourne for everything from his alleged drug use to putting on European airs, Bourne recognized that he couldn't remove himself from the scandal he had created.  Hoping to spare the president some heat, Bourne officially resigned from the White House on July 20, 1978, eight months after the fateful Christmas party with Keith Stroup." (116)

Earlier in the book, however, this was the first ridiculous image that struck me, of an infamous smoke-in:

"According to Norman Mailer, who attended the rally and wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning 'nonfiction novel' The Armies of the Night about the event, Hoffman, Rubin, and Sanders planned to smoke marijuana and then 'encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet.  In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled.'  As people sang and grasped hands, Sanders would call upon Zeus and Anubis, the god of the dead, to 'raise the Pentagon from its destiny and preserve it,' forcing its inhabitants to end the war and bring peace to America and Vietnam." (23)

From this early focus on the rising use of marijuana in the hippie-era, the book shifts to the backlash against it from parents in the late 1970's.  As noted, Emily's ability to write sympathetically from the perspective of the Parent Movement should be lauded.  However, one does not really feel too badly for them.  They do seem to be more "careerist" than any of the pro-marijuana activists.  And it feels cheapened because their whole career is based on being against something.  Still, their concerns are valid, with respect to head shops and the shameless marketing of pot-smoking toys to children and teens.  And most people seem to be in agreement that they should just be restricted to over 18, but instead it became the sort of linchpin on which the national attitude towards marijuana shifted.  It hits its apotheosis in the Reagan era, and Emily's account of how Nancy Reagan hijacked the Just Say No campaign is part of the sequence of events that make up the third indelible image:

"On April 2, 1982, Reagan traveled to Atlanta, where she addressed over 600 cheering fans at the fourth annual PRIDE Southeast Drug Conference.  Bolstered by grants from ACTION, it was the group's largest and most spectacular meeting yet.  Three days of adolescent drug abuse prevention activities were interspersed with student groups performing musical acts, movies, and grand buffets.  There were also celebrity guests.  Standing alongside actress Melissa Gilbert (star of television's Little House on the Prairie) and Dr. Gabriel Nahas, Reagan commended the movement's work.  'I'm very happy to be here among all you concerned parents,' she said, 'because, while drugs have cast a dark shadow in recent years, the parent movement has been a light in the window--it shines with hope and progress.'  Even as she stood next to actors and scientists, however, the first lady was the meeting's true star.  After her speech, the journalist Michael Massing reported, 'members of the audience hoisted her on their shoulders and carried her around the hall as if she had just scored the winning touchdown of a football game." (153-154)

These moments epitomize the book for me.  I've said pretty much all I am going to say, without spoiling anything further (though the book is history and effectively cannot be "spoiled," the depth of Emily's research often yields a surprise).  Soon after this, we will be publishing the second entry in The Vonnegut Project, and I hope to speak to her further about Grass Roots in an interview of sorts.  I would point out the one tiny small criticism I have--which is that, in perhaps three or four instances, certain events are referred to as if previously unmentioned--but I doubt this will bother or faze anyone else.  I only noticed what I thought was one typo--in a transcription from a judicial opinion--and even that may be an incorrect observation.  In short, Grass Roots establishes Emily as one of the premiere writers and thinkers of our generation.  I have always considered her that, and now perhaps the greater public will too.    



Richard said...

Just a thank-you for this review and all the other highly intelligent and humane commentary you've given us over the years.

JK said...

There were actually a couple embarrassing editorial gaffes in this post that your comment spurred me to revise, so thank YOU.

Anonymous said...

Third Tier Reality is over. How are you celebrating?

JK said...

What is there to celebrate? I haven't written about these issues for years. We all know we are all fucked. I didn't disagree with the message, but the methods and presentation, and I didn't appreciate getting trolled. I didn't deserve that and it still makes me feel very bad about myself today. Nothing to celebrate.

Anonymous said...

No, we are only “fucked” if we choose to be. It’s all a choice. Change your outlook and realize there is more to life than just law. Nobody has a gun to your head saying you have to be a lawyer, or that you can’t also make money in other ways.