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Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America

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How earnest hippies, frightened parents, suffering patients, and other ordinary Americans went to war over marijuana

In the last five years, eight states have legalized recreational marijuana. To many, continued progress seems certain. But pot was on a similar trajectory forty years ago, only to encounter a fierce backlash. In Grass Roots , historian Emily Dufton tells the remarkable story of marijuana's crooked path from acceptance to demonization and back again, and of the thousands of grassroots activists who made changing marijuana laws their life's work.

During the 1970s, pro-pot campaigners with roots in the counterculture secured the drug's decriminalization in a dozen states. Soon, though, concerned parents began to mobilize; finding a champion in Nancy Reagan, they transformed pot into a national scourge and helped to pave the way for an aggressive war on drugs. Chastened marijuana advocates retooled their message, promoting pot as a medical necessity and eventually declaring legalization a matter of racial justice. For the moment, these activists are succeeding -- but marijuana's history suggests how swiftly another counterrevolution could unfold.

320 pages, Hardcover

Published December 5, 2017

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Emily Dufton

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Displaying 1 - 20 of 20 reviews
Profile Image for Peacegal.
9,928 reviews90 followers
December 30, 2017
4.5 stars -- I’m pleased to report GRASS ROOTS was exactly the book I was hoping it would be: an intelligently written history of one of America’s high-profile controversies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Dufton’s aim isn’t to write an advocacy book or take sides; rather, she seeks to accurately recount often-overlooked movements and the people behind them. The only problem I had with the book is the author’s tendency to repeat herself.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, marijuana use was seen as a political act; a way for Beats and hippies to show up square society. Today, of course, that’s changed, and smoking a joint is no more of a political indicator than drinking a glass of wine. Even the famously right-wing country singer Toby Keith has a song celebrating cannabis. However, even widespread acceptance across the social spectrum is not enough to keep marijuana users safe, as we have seen in the past.

The 1970s were a time much like the 2010s in that it saw a majority of Americans agreeing that legal penalties against cannabis were too harsh. While there weren’t regulated marijuana stores like there are in some states today, there was a tremendous push for decriminalization. In quick succession, multiple US states passed legislation to lessen or eliminate penalties for personal use. Decriminalization activists had the ear of Carter’s White House, and many Americans believed that pot would be completely legal across the US in short order. However, as they rested on their laurels they ignored a potent movement just bubbling under the surface.

As pot was enjoying increased acceptance, head shops were springing up across the nation. Unfortunately, many of these stores behaved irresponsibly and didn’t restrict their commerce to adults only. When young teenagers were caught legally purchasing paraphernalia, as dramatized in this memorable scene from The Facts of Life, parents were incensed. (Indeed, the pioneers of the Just Say No movement were not the types one might expect.) Yet the pro-pot side showed little incentive to clean up their industry, and they paid dearly. With the election of Ronald Reagan and the country’s extreme conservative shift, permissive pot laws were in the crosshairs, and the decimalization laws were overturned in rapid succession. Nancy Reagan famously made “drugs” her national platform, with no distinction between the most addictive hard drugs and marijuana. One could argue that the culture of the 1980s was a violent reaction to that of the 1960s.

As a child of the 1980s I grew up surrounded by the “Just Say No” campaign. Anti-drug propaganda engulfed the culture. Nearly every cartoon and sitcom I watched boasted a “Very Special Episode” that dealt with drug abuse. “Say No to Drugs” was emblazoned on the most random items, particularly school supplies like rulers and pencil boxes. We had the DARE program, in which police officers gave presentations in the classroom that imbued every substance with the same amount of danger. I have a vivid memory of my mom making me watch Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue over my protestations that it was “for babies.” Anyway, as a small-town kid, I has precious little grasp of what drugs even were, and I suspect that it was that way for most of my peers going through the Just Say No and DARE programs.

In the 1990s and 2000s, anti-pot attitudes began to lessen, after recognition of how harsh penalties destroyed the lives of young people, particularly minorities, and the discovery of how cannabis can ease the suffering of patients with severe chronic illness.

The lesson of the 1970s and ‘80s is that policy regarding marijuana is mercurial, and more permissive attitudes aren’t guaranteed to last. Today’s twentysomethings who helped legalize cannabis in a handful of US states are too young to remember the 1980s’ rapid cancellation of all similar gains made in the 1970s. And Trump supporters who are also pot smokers (there are more of them than you’d think) just helped elect an administration that wants to treat them like hardened criminals. Dufton quotes US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who states that he believes that marijuana users are “bad people.”

As the author details, a new anti-pot movement is growing. This one is savvier than the parents’ movement of decades past, but their goal is the same: to keep marijuana a forbidden plant, especially for recreational use. Pharmaceutical companies, including the maker of the infamously hazardous OxyContin, are also pouring money into campaigns to defeat legalization bills. They of course wish to keep their customers buying their drugs, instead of chancing that they may turn to marijuana for pain relief instead. It isn’t unimaginable that in the next decade we could have another cultural shift, especially if legal cannabis users and retailers behave irresponsibly, that will once again drop the hammer on this burgeoning but vulnerable industry.
April 19, 2018
An excellent primer on the history of marijuana rights and activism (and, essentially, the drug itself) in America. Chapter one opens in 1964 and moves forward through the decades. Dufton started the book as a doctoral thesis and was "looking for a topic that offered something new, an area of history that was previously unknown." She has a love for drug histories and culture (same!!) and is "fascinated by how studying the use of illegal and taboo substances was a lens into everything that excited me about American culture: underground art, literature, and music; political protest and cultural rebellion; and psychological experimentation and the belief that humans can tap into greater powers of the mind."

When I read a thank you in her acknowledgements to Martin Torgoff for writing "Can't Find My Way Home" as sparking her interest in drug history, I felt a kinship. I discovered that book as a freshman in college and it was my primer on drugs, what they do to the body, how they're regulated, and how each one relates to a culture and scene.

Dufton's prose is easy, never floury, and straightforward. She is critical of people in power (especially Nancy Reagan) (which I am INTO) and found her way around more anti-drug parent groups than I knew existed. She keeps it topical.

In the "Conclusion" she lists six "lessons learned:" life lessons from activists from both sides and every rung of power. Dufton includes notes on the 2016 Election and Trump's stance, which reads like everything else he says...it's unclear.

Lots to consider here. It's always good to know your rights. Education is power. Just Say Know!
Profile Image for Sarah.
72 reviews
October 7, 2019
Overall, I enjoyed this book. Surprisingly, it takes a somewhat unbiased viewpoints on both sides ( anti -drug and pro-marijuana groups) and gives a pretty detailed history on anti-drug parent groups of the 1970s to 1980s.
3,777 reviews78 followers
September 4, 2018
Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America by Emily Dufton (Basic Books 2017) (362.295). This is an interesting history of the politics of marijuana in America. Author – historian Emily Dufton picks up the story of the legalization of marijuana in the 1930's just after Harry J. Anslinger, a functionary within the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, invented the idea of “reefer madness.” Anslinger spun a yarn to an uninformed and gullible Middle America that a tidal wave of illegal Mexican immigrants was pouring over the U.S. borders to prey upon white American women while under the influence of marijuana, a drug that was “as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake.” In July 1937, Anslinger published an article in The American Magazine entitled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth” which “...declared that the number of 'murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries, and deeds of maniacal intensity [marijuana] causes each year, especially among the young, can only be conjectured.” (Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall of Marijuana in America by Emily Dutton, p.4, quoting “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth from The American Magazine, July 1937).
Thanks to the scare tactics employed by Anslinger, a mid-level governmental functionary, Congress with little debate and no consideration swallowed Anslinger's bait. At the behest of Anslinger, Congress immediately classified marijuana, an innocuous weed which had been used medicinally in many different cultures for thousands of years, as a Category 1 Controlled Substance. Category 1 substances are those which have no valid medical use and whose use or possession are strictly forbidden.
Author Emily Dufton takes readers on a wild ride of discovery from the 1940's to the present day as Americans revisited and explored the purported dangers of marijuana for themselves. Beginning in the 1950's with “The Beats” through the 1960's and the hippies' “Age of Aquarius,” America's youth led a long-overdue reassessment of the humble plant. Dufton demonstrates how Richard Nixon's “War on Drugs,” the Ford and Carter presidencies of the 1970's, Mexico's use of the herbicide paraquat on multi-ton shipments of marijuana destined for use in the American market, and to Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980's has led us finally to the present-day status of decriminalization and legalization of this humble weed.
Dufton writes clearly and authoritatively on this subject sometime divisive subject. Her opinions and conclusions follow logically from her research. Readers will be well-served to compare the eighty-year shitstorm that politician Harry J. Anslinger created by lying to a gullible and misinformed populace about the dangers of what has turned out to be a useful and innocuous plant when his political intention all along was to terrify uneducated voters with threats of invading foreign hordes. This is genuinely a book for our time (September 2018). Alas, this is not a book that the followers of Donald John Trump will likely read much less draw obvious conclusions from. My rating: 7/10, finished 9/3/18.
763 reviews26 followers
July 9, 2018
This book does a nice job covering the ebbs and flows of the politics of marijuana over the years, paying the most attention to the first rise - and then fall. It really skims over the last two decades, providing comparatively little commentary.

The first movement to legalize weed began in the 1960s, and really had a surge forward in the 1970s. The real concern was heroin by then, not pot. BUT - Nixon hated marijuana and he got it put on the list of really bad drugs. But after he was gone, it looked like the time had come. State after state started decriminalizing it at the local level. The organization NORML had been created as a lobbying organization and it had one of its key guys in the White House as a drug adviser to Pres. Carter.

Then it all completely fell apart. The pro-pot people felt so confident that they'd win out, that they decreased their pressure even before having success. The key adviser had a falling out with the White House and others. Most of all, a backlash set in. De-criminalizing pot led to the rise of the drug paraphenalia business, and it sold to everyone - even kids. Parents were outraged and began organizing. Beginning in the mid-1970s, states soon stopped decriminalizing the drug and the White House stopped talking about such matters. The election of Reagan brought back anti-pot forces into the White House. The War of Drugs became the approach and "Just Say No" was the slogan.

But the drug war provoked its own backlash. The massive incarceration led to concerns that too many were going in for too little reason. The book "The New Jim Crow" promoted the issue of how laws were re-segregating the country. NORML had shifted tactics, and now called for education about pot -and talked about working with other organizations to keep pot out of the hands of kids. The old parent organizations had fallen apart - once they were tied to Reagan, they lost their original mobilization. Also, the new rally cry became medical marijuana. Now in the 2010s, several states are out-and-out legalizing weed.

But author Dufton doesn't end on a note of marijuana triumphalism. Instead, it's a note of caution. After all, her book shows how the tide and turned several times in this debate. All the gains of pot are precarious, as at the federal level the drug is still illegal.

Dufton ends with six lessons, including: 1) people need to make their argument sympathetic, as what really gets people caring is the personal impact, not dry legal arguments. 2) The money matters. When one side gets good financing, bit things can happen. To this end, the strong opposition to legal weed by OxyContin is notable. They got deep pockets. 3) Your progress can disappear. 4) Don't rely too much on Washington DC. 5) Respect your opposition and be willing to listen to them, and 6) Keep a sense of perspective.

Overall, it's a very good book. The only main knock is that it takes 140 pages going over the first 15 years of the debate, but only 100 pages for the next 35 years.
Profile Image for Maria.
3,960 reviews101 followers
March 8, 2018
Marijuana is either the gateway drug to a life of crime and squalor or the new cure for cancer, safer than alcohol and tabacco. UK dangerous drug list of 2007. Dufton traces the political history of the drug, as it went from legal, to illegal, to almost legal and then finally legalized in some states. She profiles prominent individuals on both sides of the issue and highlights potential flashpoints going forward.

Why I started this book: Marijuana has been in the news recently as many states legalized the drug. I didn't know that much about it so I picked up this audio to learn more.

Why I finished it: Turns out that marijuana has been in the news for decades. And that both it's supporters and detractors have appealed to common American values of privacy, the Bill of Rights, the safety of children, social justice and caring for the dying. I hadn't realized just how politicized the drug was. This is a fascinating topic and I wish that there was more unbiased information like this available.
13 reviews
January 29, 2020
With the National elections coming up, about a week ago I decided it was time for me to start researching some new political topics, to ensure I was supporting the right candidate and everything they said made sense. The first topic I chose, was the Legalization of Marijuana. Grass Roots did a great job at explaining the story of Weed in America and I was very surprised by how mindless the system is, continuing to criminalize a substance that was only illegal in the first place to make for the rest of people easier! I enjoyed the book and though I had no precious experience on the subject, I will forever remember the things Emily Dufton taught me. The thing I think could have been done better however, is the tone of the book. It was too academic and the author never exposed her views, which made for a valuable experience where only facts were being stated to help her point, but it made for a boring read. I would recommend this book to anybody misinformed in the topic of Marijuana, if you go into this experience with an open mind, you will be shocked by how clueless our society is about the topic.
38 reviews1 follower
July 9, 2018
Grass Roots tells the history of activism around marijuana starting in the sixties and seventies through the present. Dufton talks about the efforts to decriminalize and legalize pot and the efforts against legalization and decriminalization as a cycle of backlashes where the failures on one side leads to a resurgence of the other side. By focusing on the history of activism, Dufton provides a unique outlook on the history on the later twentieth century. The lessons she draws from the successes and failures of the various movements around marijuana can apply to other political issues and I think this book is useful to read for anyone who is interested in politics in general, not just for people who's issue of choice in marijuana. However, because Dufton is writing an overview of the history of pot, there are ideas that she brings up that she doesn't explore in as much detail as I wish she would.
Profile Image for Jack Knorps.
231 reviews4 followers
March 18, 2021

This is not your typical MMJ book because it gives a voice to the other side. There is a complicated history here, and Ms. Dufton's research is thorough. Occasionally, it is hilarious, but mostly it is incisive. MMJ regulation has already changed drastically since 2018, and will continue to do so over the next few years, or decade. Most of these issues haven't changed, and so this book is mostly important for the influence it has exerted (and that it continues to exert). It is essential reading for any state or federal lawmakers contemplating a shift to legalization. (see link for full review)
Profile Image for Tim Basuino.
218 reviews
October 6, 2021
This was a pretty decent comprehensive look at the history of ganja in the United States. Dufton dives into public attitudes and its effects on legislation, the reasons why the tide of public opinion has shifted over time.

I like the fact that the author, who does seem to be sympathetic to the pro-legalization movement in general, gives time for all sides, going a lot deeper into the parental concerns than might be expected for a work such as this. The only thing that could've used more attention would be the editing - there was more repetition than I'm sure she'd be happy with.
Profile Image for Mark Sinnott.
126 reviews2 followers
March 21, 2018
This was a decent history of the issue of marijuana advocacy. As more states legalize the use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, it seems as if the time has come for it to be legalized federally. The positive attributes (pain relief, increased tax revenue, social justice changes, helping decrease opioid dependence, etc.) far outweigh any negatives associated with a drug that does very little harm to people when compared to alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs.
Profile Image for Darren Sapp.
Author 8 books21 followers
August 15, 2019
If you're looking for a detailed history of marijuana to the end of the 1980s, heavily told from the pro-recreational side, this is it. I would have liked to see a more balanced telling and one that gave more for-and-against arguments. Medical marijuana, that has lead the headlines for years, makes a brief appearance at the end with little pro/con elements. Too much detailed history and not enough analysis. It is well researched and written.
Profile Image for Annie.
289 reviews
March 29, 2018
I had no idea decriminalization/legalization has been so up and down over the years, had always thought it was just down and the recent attitude towards pot was brand new. This was hard to read at times (weird pacing and restating of things from two pages before) but not bad for a dissertation offshoot.
477 reviews20 followers
October 14, 2019
Gives a good sense of the factors (a lot of which is luck / random events / counter-signaling) that can contribute to the perception of something changing, and insight on effective activist movements in general. Also does a good job of laying out why Marijuana is such a charged issue that fits at the core of many other policy and culture questions.
11 reviews1 follower
January 3, 2019
Excellent and enjoyable read! It really sheds light on the activism that helped us get to where we are today as well as the forces that acted to incorrectly vilify the drug and how those forces were driven by racism and classism. A de-mystification that was long overdue!
Profile Image for jessica.
375 reviews2 followers
January 4, 2023
i appreciated that the author didn't insert her opinions into it. she offered an unbiased history of the positive and negative impacts of marijuana. definitely broadened my perspective on weed and it's influence on culture in america
Profile Image for A'Llyn Ettien.
1,179 reviews2 followers
February 14, 2018
Fascinating history, including a lot of details I never knew about the massive 'keep kids off drugs' movement of my own youth.
Profile Image for Chrissy Bell.
12 reviews1 follower
May 17, 2018
A history and commentary of the role marijuana has played in America. This book takes you from the early years of drug prohibition and the earliest activists, to Regan's War on Drugs and Nancy's JUST SAY NO. What is clear decriminalizing and offering reparations to those who have been imprisoned. Beyond limiting helpful treatment to the sick, and offering a relaxing recreating, marijuana prohibition has enacted segregation by incarceration. The majority of people who have suffered from the war on drugs are African Americans, and have been committed to prison for minor crimes. This book has so much information that I feel the author could have filled 2 more books with things they eliminated.
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