Trail Blazing: Eight Great Pioneers of Pot
Photo by Timothy Norris
Tommy Chong is perhaps the biggest celebrity on this list, as a longtime comedian, movie star and half of the still-working duo Cheech & Chong. He is both a hero, as a longtime marijuana advocate, and a martyr, as a veteran of nine months in federal prison for running a bong business.
Chong has been honored for his advocacy in many places, such as his High Times Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Los Angeles Medical Marijuana Cup. But it's also worth remembering his role as cultural warrior.
Some marijuana advocates may object to his comic portrayals of the hapless, confused or vacant stoner in films, TV shows and recordings — such as the classic "Dave's Not Here." But these essentially benign portrayals showed cannabis users as harmless or even lovable, a 180-degree turn from the menacing, sex-crazed marijuana demons in films such as Reefer Madness.
In 2012, Chong announced that he was fighting prostate cancer. Naturally, he told CNN, "I'm treating it with hemp oil, with cannabis." He told the crowd at a Medical Marijuana Cup cannabis "doesn't really cure it, but it gets the cancer cells so stoned that they forget why they're there."
Mary Jane Rathbun, later known as Brownie Mary, didn't have the easiest existence. Born in Chicago in 1922, she was a waitress most of her life. She married after World War II but soon was divorced, with a daughter. In the early 1970s, her teenage daughter was killed by a drunk driver.
Rathbun moved to San Francisco in the 1970s. She was diagnosed with several painful and chronic illnesses, including pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis and colon cancer. Yet her personal problems did not stop her from helping others.
Rathbun, a hospital volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital during the "plague years" of the 1980s and '90s, became known as Brownie Mary for baking marijuana brownies for dozens of local residents with HIV and AIDS. She was arrested three times, but public outcry made it difficult for local authorities to prosecute her for possession.
She helped to win approval of San Francisco's Proposition P in 1991, as well as supporting California's landmark Proposition 215, approved in 1996. Rathbun also was involved in the establishment of the first medical pot dispensary in the United States, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. After her death in 1999, more than 300 people attended a candlelight vigil in her honor.
Lester Grinspoon was senior psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center for 40 years and is an emeritus professor at Harvard Medical School. The distinguished doctor has been a proponent of pot since publication of his book Marihuana Reconsidered in 1971. Later, he published Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine. In addition to his professional research demystifying pot, he says marijuana eased the pain of his son's battle with leukemia.
Today, he says, "I do believe the end of this dastardly prohibition is upon us. We're on the cusp of victory."
Grinspoon was close to superstar astronomer Carl Sagan, also a well-known marijuana advocate. When Attorney General John Mitchell tried to have John Lennon tossed out of the U.S. after a London hashish bust (a move that, according to many critics, was really due to Lennon's peace activism), Grinspoon testified on Lennon's behalf.
At 84, Grinspoon still speaks out on cannabis issues. A board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, he says the rules contained in Washington state's proposed DUI test for weed are "silly. ... If you smoke it over the evening, you can drive perfectly well the next morning."
You might not recognize Steph Sherer's name, but she's founder and executive director of Americans for Safe Access, whose goal is to provide "safe access" to cannabis for medical marijuana patients. She founded ASA in 2002 in response to federal raids on patients and providers in California.
A medical marijuana patient, Sherer led ASA in its lobbying efforts on behalf of Senate Bill 420, which codified the medical marijuana law in California in 2003. Other achievements of the 30,000-member organization include successfully suing the California Highway Patrol and thereby compelling CHP to stop confiscating patients' medical cannabis; providing outreach services to many medical marijuana collectives; and working with local officials to enact ordinances permitting medical cannabis collectives, with more than 20 cities and seven counties now allowing such dispensaries to operate legitimately.
Dennis Peron, born in New York in 1945, came to San Francisco after serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Openly gay, he's a legendary figure in San Francisco politics as a marijuana dealer, AIDS activist and friend to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the city's Board of Supervisors.
In the 1970s Peron ran one of San Francisco's most famous marijuana distributors, the Big Top pot supermarket, from his home in the Castro District. Frequently arrested, he became an activist for decriminalization. In 1978 he authored San Francisco Proposition W, directing the district attorney to stop arresting people for possessing, transferring or growing marijuana. It won by a landslide. In 1991 Peron authored another successful ballot measure, Proposition P, which asked the state to legalize the use of medical marijuana, a term Peron is credited with coining.
Seeing many friends, including his boyfriend, dying in pain, Peron co-founded the Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco. After several busts led by state Attorney General Dan Lungren, Peron helped launch the campaign to make medical marijuana legal statewide. He is credited with helping to organize the 1995 effort to gather 763,000 signatures to put Proposition 215 on the ballot. Statewide legalization of medical marijuana passed in 1996.A Republican and a Buddhist, Peron now says he's semiretired and running a B&B in the Castro.
Author-activist Ed Rosenthal has been researching and writing about marijuana for more than 35 years but is probably best known as a grower. His books, including Medical Marijuana Handbook, Marijuana Garden Saver, Best of Ask Ed and Marijuana Grower's Handbook, cover gardening, law and social policy. His books have sold more than 2 million copies. He also has been active in developing marijuana regulation and taxation policy, as reflected in his hometown of Oakland.
Rosenthal is a member of the International Cannabinoid Research Society. cq But he also has credentials in the staid, straight world of gardening, as a member of the Garden Writers Association of America. As The New York Times noted in January 2003, "Mr. Rosenthal is the pothead's answer to Ann Landers, Judge Judy, Martha Stewart and the Burpee Garden Wizard all in one."
With the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, Rosenthal was deputized by the City of Oakland to provide pharmaceutical-grade cannabis to patients. This led to his arrest and conviction in 2002, a verdict some of the jurors denounced after learning he was growing on behalf of the city, a fact that was withheld during trial. Rosenthal was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer to only one day in prison. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court overturned Rosenthal's conviction.
Longtime marijuana advocate Jack Herer died in 2010. Brilliant, scholarly and above all passionate, Herer, known as "the Hemperor," was a tireless advocate for cannabis legalization and the industrial and retail use of hemp fiber. A decade of research led to the 1985 publication of his book The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy, originally printed on hemp paper. Currently in its 11th printing, the book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In 1973, Herer opened one of the first hemp stores in Venice Beach. His family-owned head shop, the Third Eye, has been going strong in Portland, Ore., since 1987.
According to Herer, the first and second drafts of the U.S. Constitution were written on hemp paper and Old Glory was created from cannabis fibers. He was inflamed by the U.S. government's suppression of hemp, as he saw the plant as a renewable source of food, fuel, fiber, medicine and construction materials.
To Herer, it was a conspiracy to protect big U.S. businesses like the oil companies, which provide the raw goods for nylon rope. Thanks in part to his activism, sales of hemp-based clothing, body oils and even automotive body-panel materials are rising.
Herer received the ultimate honor when a prize-winning strain of hemp was named after him. His widow, Jeannie Herer, told Culture magazine, "He was an educator who believed that he — that we — could save the world, if we just knew all the facts about hemp."
Richard Lee once was described as America's first legal marijuana millionaire, although he gained his fame backing the campaign for legalization in California. While Proposition 19 went down to a narrow defeat, legalization has succeeded in Colorado and Washington. He reportedly put $1.5 million into the Yes on 19 campaign, telling L.A. Weekly, "Yes, I'm a 'former millionaire.' I always thought the money was for the 'war effort' — not mine."
Lee co-founded a hemp store in his native Texas in 1992. A wheelchair user due to a severe spinal injury, he moved in 1997 to Oakland, where he co-founded the Hemp Research Company, supplied cannabis to the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Club and researched cannabis horticulture. He opened several outlets, including the Bulldog, Blue Sky coffee shop and a gift shop/nursery in a rundown section now called Oaksterdam.
In 2003 Lee founded the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance, which helped pass Oakland's Measure Z to make private sales, cultivation and possession of cannabis the lowest law-enforcement priority and mandating city taxes and regulations on cannabis.
Lee also founded Oaksterdam University, which offers cannabis-related classes and has educated 15,000-plus students. The Harvard-influenced school seal includes marijuana leaves, with "Veritas" replaced with the word "Cannabis."
The Oaksterdam businesses, launched in a desolate area, brought jobs and tax revenue to Oakland.
The school, Lee's cannabis-related businesses and his apartment were raided by the feds in 2012 in what some have called a witch hunt.
In 2011, Lee told the Weekly, "I like to watch war movies, so for me it brings up the Churchill quote, 'Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.' "
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Rain Could Douse This February Heat Wave. Maybe.
- City Cracks Down on Happy Ending Massage Parlors
- With the Coastal Commission's Chief Axed, Will SoCal Become the Jersey Shore?