Marijuana has a lengthy history with a reputation to match. But outdated opinions are going up in smoke as weed becomes a recreational substance society is willing to tolerate.

cover story > weed resurgence

lydia | MAXWELL

To legalize or not to legalize, that is the question. It’s one that people in the U.S. have been pondering for decades. And in the last handful of years people have started changing their views on marijuana. 

Gone are the days when most people saw it as a taboo stoner drug reserved for hippies. Many also think it is ridiculous to outlaw a naturally grown plant, especially one that helps more than 2.3 million people get relief from their illnesses. 

Cannabis has been around forever. Hemp was an important crop way back when, and ancient cultures used marijuana as a herbal medicine. It probably first developed in Central Asia, and both hemp and psychoactive marijuana were widely used in ancient China.

Its use in America dates back to the early colonists who grew hemp to make textiles and rope. In fact, in the early 1600s, farmers in Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut were required to grow hemp. 

Early strains of the plant had low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects, and it really wasn’t used to get high in the U.S. until the early 1900s. But political and racial factors led to its criminalization in the 1930s. Propaganda spread throughout the decade about the dangers of not only alcohol but marijuana, and 29 states had outlawed weed by 1931. 

The first federal law to criminalize pot nationwide was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. It imposed a tax on the sale of all hemp products, which criminalized all but industrial uses of the plant. 

From there, public opinion spiraled out of control, eventually earning marijuana some ridiculous nicknames like the devil’s lettuce, sweet leaf and green badger.

And even though the New York Academy of Medicine declared in 1944 that weed did not lead to addiction or other drug use and did not cause violence, insanity or sex crimes, public opinion had already been set. By the 1950s, a first-offense possession conviction carried a minimum sentence of 2–10 years with a fine of up to $20,000. 

But thank goodness for the counterculture of the 1960s, who made a difference in what young people thought about pot and some of the over-30 crowd. A resurgence of sorts arrived as the cultural climate changed and young people tried to get in touch with their spiritual selves, even though a 1969 Gallup poll reported that only 4 percent of climate changed and young people tried to American adults said they had tried marijuana. Most over 30 still had a hard time looking past marijuana’s evil weed reputation, but lots of hippies, Vietnam War protesters and musicians were tokers. 

By 1970, the government had backed off a little and repealed the Marijuana Tax Act, only to sign into law the Controlled Substances Act. While more Americans were willing to admit they had tried marijuana, acceptance of it was still slow in coming. Pot was now viewed by the establishment as just as addictive and harmful as heroin, cocaine and LSD. That turned out to be nonsense. 

Government officials also said pot provided no verifiable medical uses and there was a high potential for abuse. With other drugs like cocaine becoming more popular and making their way into mainstream America, the War on Drugs was truly on. And even though 11 states decriminalized pot during the 1970s, the government’s war continued as addictive drug use increased and marijuana had to go along for the ride. 

Rob Griffith, professor of creative writing, was a college student in the late 1980s and said the messages about pot were much different than they are today. 

“[People] would say, if you smoke a joint, next you’ll be doing cocaine on someone’s bathroom floor,” he said. “The attitudes [of young people] weren’t that different from today, but it was a lot harder to get. Laws were a lot stricter and it was expensive.” 

Fast forward to 1996 when California becomes the first state to legalize pot for medicinal purposes. The most recent state to agree to medical marijuana was West Virginia, bringing the total to 29. Indiana is on the list but only marginally. 

Washington legalized pot for medicinal purposes in 1998. As a resident of Washington, senior Kaitlynn Gilmore said lots of people use CBD (the concentrated form of Cannabidiol, a liquid cannabis compound that has significant medical benefits) pens, which aren’t psychoactive. Her mother works in a doctor’s office and Gilmore said many older people use it because it helps with things like PTSD and epilepsy.

“I think people see more of the positive side because of Washington’s drug problem,” she said. “There is a huge heroin problem and it allows people to see the good about marijuana. I think [attitudes have leaned] toward the positive side because people realize the medical benefits.” 

In 2012, Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. As of this year, adults can also light up in Washington D.C., Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon.

While accepting the medical benefits and supporting the legalization of pot for that purpose is something a majority of people agree with, the recreational legalization has its enthusiasts and critics.  Junior Jake Gould, who is from California, said that although his state just recently passed a recreational legalization law, people can’t legally buy it until next year. 

“It’s honestly kind of always been legal,” he said. “If you want it, you can get it. A lot of people smoke and it’s fairly common.” 

Gould said he has also noticed that the attitude about pot is greatly different in Indiana than in California. It is an accepted form of recreation there, and people are open about it. Some families even toke together. 

The Denver Post reported that 21 percent of Colorado users have either smoked marijuana in front of their parents or shared a joint with them. And the Washington Post reported that of the 55 million people who smoke pot in the U.S., 35 percent of parents have smoked with their adult children. 

If you bring up the subject with parents in Indiana, it’s more conservative,” Gould said. “Parents in [Los Angeles] are open about it and will be honest if they do smoke. There is a major difference in cultures.” 

The Pew Research Center found that most Americans favor legalizing pot and the number continues to increase. About 57 percent of American adults in 2016 said the use of marijuana should be legal, with a Gallup poll completed last month showing that a record 60 percent are now in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. And young adults have been the driving force behind public support, although other generations are starting the see the light as well. The number of students who say they have used marijuana in the past 12 months jumped from 30 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2015, according to researchers who have been tracking college students since 1980. Pew also reported that millennials are more than twice as likely to support legalization. 

Alaska legalized pot in 2015. Junior Allie Poe, who grew up there, said there was an initial uproar after legalization passed because Alaska is a pretty conservative state. 

“The whole thing has calmed down,” she said. “People still have issues with public use instead of private use, but lots of people are more relaxed about it.”


Marijuana’s high is getting higher. Researchers measured in 2016 the levels of THC, the ingredient that intensifies the effects of marijuana, in more than 38,600 samples of marijuana seized by the DEA over 20 years. They found that the levels rose from about 4 percent in 1995 to about 12 percent in 2014. More THC also means pricier pot. 

Poe said people are also more open about using it and daily life hasn’t changed much because of pot’s legalization. 

“It’s the same, as I don’t think Indiana would radically change if [stores] could suddenly sell alcohol on Sunday,” she said. “It’s not like we’re venting it into the school system.” 

The biggest problem facing legalization is overcoming the stigma of cannabis with facts. While UE is a fairly liberal campus, most of Indiana is not and many residents view pot as an illicit substance that will only lead to more dangerous drugs. 

“I think it will be the very last state to legalize,” Griffith said. “It’s a really red state. People have an invested interest in it not being legalized. I don’t see it happening anytime soon.”

Over the years, several Indiana state representatives have introduced bills suggesting both medical and recreational legalization, but they never passed. The most recent attempt, while technically legalizing medical marijuana, was passed for only those with unmanageable epilepsy. 

That was a big step for Indiana, but not big enough. Some law enforcement have even used it as an excuse to crackdown on anything involving marijuana. The Indianapolis Star reported that the Indiana State Excise Police used the new law to seize more than 3,000 marijuana products, including CBD, in September from the 25 legal dispensaries statewide that supply prescribed marijuana. 

For those living in legal states, nervousness over getting busted has disappeared. And while the laws differ from state to state, you can be more relaxed about smoking. 

“The attitudes of law enforcement have definitely changed [in California],” Gould said. “Before, you saw people handcuffed and arrested over a joint.” 

In Indiana, pot is smoked under the radar and you don’t talk about it with anyone besides the friends you smoke with. But in states where marijuana has been legalized, people aren’t hiding anymore. Gilmore said her state seems fine with their choice.

 “Pot in Washington is like coffee,” she said. “You use it when you need a little kick in the morning.” 

Anyone who has lived in Indiana knows how sketchy the weed scene is. Besides having to sneak to get your hands on it, just like when people don’t drink alcohol regularly, they go overboard when they are not used to smoking it. 

“The people who smoke as much as they can, to the point of passing out, are in Indiana,” Gilmore said. 

The dangers of marijuana have also been pounded into our heads and, unless you had liberal parents, you would get lectured about it repeatedly. So, what is pot’s role in our alcohol-approved world? 

“I don’t think it will take its place, but a lot of people say they would rather smoke than drink alcohol because there’s less of a hangover,” Poe said. 

It appears that people are starting to realize what other cultures have known for a long time: weed can be fun, and for people who need it medically, it can be a lifesaver. Vikings used it for pain. Native Americans have long known about its benefits. And there are those who remain optimistic about a time in the future when you can smoke whenever you please. 

“I certainly think it will be legalized nationally in our lifetime,” Poe said. 

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