The Points Interview: Emily Dufton

Today’s Points Interview is with Dr. Emily Dufton, Points managing editor emeritus and author of the new book, Grass Roots: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Marijuana in America – available today!

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
Over the past five decades, grassroots activists have shifted America’s marijuana laws three times. In the 1970s, they passed decriminalization laws in a dozen states. Then, in response to rising rates of adolescent marijuana use, a movement of concerned parents recriminalized the drug in the 1980s, ultimately influencing how Nancy and Ronald Reagan approached drug use as well. But in the 1990s and 2000s, a new movement emerged, one that tied legalization to movements for social justice and civil rights. This new push for legalization seems unstoppable today — after all, 8 states and Washington, DC, have legalized recreational use, while 29 states and DC have medical marijuana laws — but I argue that the history of marijuana activism shows the cyclical nature of the drug’s social acceptance and surrounding policy. New grassroots movements continue to form, and, depending on a variety of factors, including who is in the White House and how marijuana is generally viewed, today’s push for legalization could birth a movement for criminalization tomorrow. Ultimately, I believe that the pendulum on public approval of marijuana won’t stop swinging any time soon.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Grass Roots is the first marijuana history that explores the specific effects of grassroots activism on state and national drug policy. These activists’ influence has been acute: after all, no drug has ever moved so repeatedly between legality and illegality quite like pot, and not since federal Prohibition has an intoxicant inspired so many people to take to the streets, working for or against drug use.

But it also shows how powerful marijuana is as an idea. For each activist, marijuana means something far more than its role as an intoxicant. For those who support decriminalization and legalization, marijuana represents freedom: freedom from invasive government influence and judicial overreach, or even just the freedom to do what you want. For those who support criminalizing the drug, marijuana presents a dangerous path toward a public health crisis and a threat to the nation’s kids. I argue that future activists need to understand both the legitimacy and historical nature of these views, and orient their arguments accordingly. The history of marijuana activism shows that the most sympathetic arguments are also the most persuasive.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I love Brownie Mary, whose story I tell in Chapter 12. Well into her fifties, Brownie Mary became a marijuana and gay rights activist when she realized that pot brownies could help ease the suffering of AIDS patients. She was a remarkable woman: a former IHOP waitress and Castro District resident who cursed like a sailor and called everyone “hon,” Mary had wit and compassion. She died in 1999, but she’s someone I still really admire and respect.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

What saddened me about Grass Roots was that there were numerous stories that went untold. I wish I could have included the stories of Mark Miller, Sandee Burbank, and their group MAMA in Oregon, and Vonneva Pettigrew’s activism in Washington, DC. But I had a firm 100,000 word limit and not everything could fit in. Still, I hope to find other ways to tell these activists’ tales. Maybe a sequel! What do you think of Grass Roots 2: The Roots Grow Deeper?

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
There is an audio version of the book! It’s read by Greg Baglis. But I secretly wish Willie Nelson had read it aloud. Him, or me. I wanted to pull a Toni Morrison and read the audio versions of my own work.