This story was written by Charles Cooper and Declan McCullagh as part of a new CBSNews.com special report on the evolving debate over marijuana legalization in the U.S. Click here for more of the series, Marijuana Nation: The New War Over Weed
Norm Stamper still remembers the day, nearly six decades ago, when a police detective visited his elementary school class to warn of the dangers of smoking the "devil weed."
"That was the term he used -- and he even brought along a bag of marijuana to show us," said Stamper, 65, who would later become Seattle's police chief. "I remember him saying something to the effect that, 'If you smoke this, it will rot the membrane in your nose.' He was an authority figure, and so I figured he could tell me something about the dangers of this drug. That was my early education about marijuana."
By today's standards, such a warning might sound as dated as the bug-eyed, morally-depraved pot fiends portrayed in the 1936 movie Reefer Madness.
But it was in line with the prevailing view of the 1950s, which considered marijuana to be not just a dangerous drug, but a stepping stone to the use of heroin or even more dangerous controlled substances. In 1979, 27 percent of Americans favored legalization, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll at the time.
A new CBS News poll released today finds that more Americans now support legalization. Forty-one percent said they think marijuana should be made legal and 52 percent are opposed. That's even more than in a CBS News poll in March when 31 percent said they were in favor of legalization in all cases with another seven percent saying they would favor legalization if marijuana were taxed and the money went to projects. (Read more from the poll.)
"They told us that marijuana was a gateway drug," said Stamper, who these days is a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "It was not."
The story of how a child of the post-war era came to doubt, and then reject, conventional wisdom about the horrors of the "devil weed" parallels the story about how the rest of America has gradually rethought its views of marijuana. The transformation has been intertwined with the rise of the Baby Boom generation and its successors, the societal upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, and a generational shift that chipped away at long-held assumptions about trust and authority.
Today the potent smell of marijuana legalization is in the air. States including California and New Mexico -- and, as of mid-June, Rhode Island -- already permit marijuana's use for medicinal purposes. The success of those initiatives, coupled with an economic downturn, a president who did inhale and governors who are willing to discuss complete legalization, make it seem possible that legal bans on recreational use of marijuana will, in the not-so-distant future, go up in smoke.
Smoke or Fire: How Pot Got Banned
By historical standards, today's federal ban on possession of marijuana may eventually be viewed as something of an aberration. There's evidence that the intoxicating properties of cannabis were known to Chinese physicians about 2,000 years ago. And for the first few hundred years after colonies were established on Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, the possession of intoxicants was not forbidden.
That began to change about 100 years ago. In response to worries about opium addicts, the International Opium Convention was held in 1909, which led to a drug-control treaty signed three years later by the major nations at the time, including the United States.
The domestic political debate over opiates had unmistakable racist overtones. A 1914 headline in the New York Times said "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are A New Southern Menace; Murder And Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken To 'Sniffing' Since Deprived Of Whisky By Prohibition." Another article about a black man who was lynched refers to him as a "cocaine fiend"; another says that "opium, the most pernicious drug known to humanity, is surrounded, in this country, with far fewer safeguards than any nation in all Europe fences it with."
Congress enacted a law known as the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, which regulated cocaine and opiates. Because that era coincided with a robust view of states' rights, the federal law did not seek to prohibit the private possession of pot directly. Such a measure probably would have experienced a swift demise at the hands of the judicial system at the time. So the Harrison Act's drafters took a more circuitous approach: they imposed stiff taxes.
Cannabis was believed to be a narcotic having practically the same effect as morphine and cocaine, and state restrictions began sprouting like weeds.
Some western states seem to have restricted it out of hostility to Mexican immigrants; a Chicago Tribune article from 1919 called cannabis "a weed of the Mexican desert." During the debate on Texas' first marijuana law, The Legal War Over the Weed One year after the filming of "Reefer Madness," Congress enacted a law restricting the use of marijuana, cannabis or hemp. While it was a tax bill that did not officially ban pot, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first step toward a complete federal prohibition. (note: "Marihuana" was the spelling used in 1937)
The net effect of this Prohibition-era provision was to deter -- and stigmatize --recreational use of these substances for more than the next couple of generations. The Marihuana Tax Act is perhaps most remembered for the controversial testimony supporting its passage.
One of its chief proponents, Harry J. Anslinger, then the Commissioner of Narcotics for the Treasury Department, offered testimony depicting marijuana in stark terms.
"Some individuals have a complete loss of sense of time or a sense of value," Anslinger said. "They lose their sense of place. They have an increased feeling of physical strength and power. Some people will fly into a delirious rage and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes... It is dangerous to the mind and body, and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions."
At the time, there were more than two dozen medicinal products on the market which contained marijuana. In the new political climate, replete with warnings from the federal government, they didn't last long.
The anti-marijuana laws toughened up with the passage of the Boggs Act in 1951, enacted with the same justification that New York City invoked a generation earlier -- that while marijuana was not addictive, it could invite users to switch to heroin. First time offenders could receive up to five years in jail. For second-timers, the range was between five and ten years, while third-time offenders could wind up sitting in prison between ten to twenty years.
This federal act increased penalties for drug violators -- marijuana newly included -- and the individual states followed Uncle Sam's lead. But it was the return of the stepping stone thesis which made headlines. Once again, testimony surfaced linking marijuana with harder narcotics, and Anslinger returned to the microphone to sound more alarm bells.
"The danger is this," Anslinger said. "Over 50 percent of these young addicts started on marijuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin. They took the needle when the thrill of marijuana was gone."
As the Beat Generation discovered its voice after World War II, it nonetheless remained a dangerous time to be caught with a joint. The hipsters remained a distinctly small minority, and movies like "High School Confidential" (1958) depicted marijuana infiltrating a small town high school. Marijuana possession was considered a felony in all 50 states punishable by punitive prison terms.
But social upheaval loomed. When the youth counterculture emerged in the 1960s, its embrace of drugs forced lawmakers and police to deal with a sudden demographic change: Marijuana was no longer a problem confined to Hispanics and blacks. The sons and daughters of the white middle class were also toking up, and in significant numbers.
Although public opinion was slow to catch up to the shift -- only 15 percent of the American people polled in a Gallup poll at the time favored marijuana legalization -- by the end of the decade, the laws recognized the difference between marijuana and more dangerous narcotics.
Taking stock of the chronology of events in February 1970, the New York Times noted: "The problem has begun to come home to roost -- in all strata of society... suddenly, the punitive, vindictive approach was touching all classes of society. And now the most exciting thing that's really happening is the change in attitude by the people. Now we have a willingness to examine the problem as to whether it's an experimentation, or an illness rather than an 'evil.'"
In subsequent years, the push behind marijuana legalization began to receive broader support. It was even supported by conservative icon William F. Buckley, who argued that the war against pot was wasting time and money.
"Most transgressors caught using marijuana aren't packed away to jail, but some are, and in Alabama, if you are convicted three times of marijuana possession, they'll lock you up for 15 years to life," he warned in 2004.
Gradually, but consistently, social acceptance of marijuana continued to climb. By the 1980s, over 80 percent of high school students said they had easy access to marijuana. By 1988, no less an authority than the Drug Enforcement Administration's administrative law judge, Francis Young, concluded that "marijuana may well be the safest psychoactive substance commonly used in human history."
As they do each April 20, when pot enthusiasts gather for so-called "smoke-out" events around the nation, the pro-legalization movement points to the greater acceptance of marijuana use as a harbinger of legal changes. Keith Stroup, founder of the marijuana legalization organization NORML, earlier this year told CBS News.com that "within 5 years we're going to stop arresting responsible marijuana smokers in this country."
Meanwhile, medical marijuana initiatives have carried the day in several states, including California, Washington, Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada and Maine. And even though federal law continues to prohibit smoking marijuana even for medicinal purposes, the Obama administration has said it would no longer send federal police to conduct armed raids against dispensaries in states where voters have legalized medical marijuana.
As for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use: So far, most politicians seem wary of the topic, and are being more conservative in their public statements than polls would suggest.
When Mr. Obama, who has admitted to smoking pot, held a virtual town hall meeting in March, tens of thousands of Americans voted via the Internet on questions that he should be asked. Marijuana legalization was by far the most popular topic, with questions such as this one: "What are your plans for the failing, 'War on Drugs', that's sucking money from tax payers and putting non-violent people in prison longer than the violent criminals?"
The president's answer: "No, I don't think this is a good strategy to grow our economy."
"If (politicians) weren't congenital cowards, they would do it. But nobody wants to be the first to jump into the pool," said Jack Woehr, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times in Jefferson County, Colorado, where he argued that marijuana decriminalization is a civil rights question. "I think it will happen in the next six years. Somebody's going to do it, and the politicians will discover that the other side simply doesn't care that much."
Another impetus that has been prompting calls for legalization is the lingering disparities in the legal treatment of affluent users who have tried marijuana -- and poorer Americans arrested on drug possession charges who are unable to navigate the legal system.
Nationwide, police arrested over 820,000 people for marijuana possession as of 2006, according to FBI statistics, or one arrest every 38 seconds. Even in famously liberal San Francisco, possession of greater than 28.5 grams of cannabis is punishable by up to six months in jail, and racial and wealth disparities remains an issue.
Carol Ruth Silver, a former Freedom Rider who served on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors for more than a decade, had worked with the local sheriff's department as director of prisoner legal services until earlier this year. But in February, she resigned her post over frustration that prisoners are still being incarcerated on charges of felony possession of marijuana.
Silver said: "I had never seen or fully understood how totally wrong and unjust laws are that are keeping vast numbers of people in jail for exactly the same behavior that our presidents, law students and judges have engaged in -- which is the recreational use of drugs. Some people get caught and wind up in jail. Some people wind up in the White House. It became very difficult for me to have to look at somebody and say, 'You're in jail for something that I did and my friends did and the president did -- but you have to stay here when I walk out the door.'"