50th Anniversary of First Pot Protest - August 16, 2014

SEATTLE - When thousands assemble to celebrate Hempfest in Seattle this weekend, Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of the first marijuana freedom protest.

On August 16, 1964, a lone crusader named Lowell Eggemeier marched into the San Francisco Hall of Justice, fired up a joint, and puffed it in the presence of the police inspector. “I am starting a campaign to legalize marijuana smoking," he announced, “I wish to be arrested.” He was promptly hauled off to jail for marijuana possession, at that time a felony.

Eggemeier’s solitary “puff-in” proved to be the spark for a movement that would grow over the next half century. His protest attracted the attention of a libertarian attorney named James R. White III , who described himself as “to the right of Barry Goldwater.” White filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus for Eggemeier’s release to the California Superme Court. He also organized the original marijuana reform advocacy group, LeMar (Legalize Marijuana), to support Eggemeier’s defense.

White’s petition argued that marijuana’s status as an illegal narcotic was an unconstitutional violation of the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s due process clause. The brief cited evidence that marijuana is less habit forming and toxic to the human body than tobacco, including excerpts from the reports of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, the Panama Canal Zone Commission, and others. Copies of the petition were published to help raise funds for Eggemeier’s defense.

In the first of a long line of court rebuffs for marijuana reformers, the court rejected Eggemeeier’s petition, and he ended up serving nearly a year in jail. Nonetheless, other LeMar groups formed in New York, Ann Arbor/Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, led by such advocates as poet Allen Ginsberg (pictured) and Ed Sanders. (Novelist Tom Robbins was also present at one of their protests in New York, and wrote about it in his recent book, Tibetan Peach Pie.)

As pot’s popularity soared in the 1970s, the movement gained momentum. California LeMar morphed into Amorphia, which would launch the first-ever ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, the California Marijuana Initiative of 1972. Although the CMI failed, it did much better than expected, prompting the legislature to decriminalize marijuana possession in 1975. Amorphia merged with the newly formed NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), founded by Keith Stroup in 1970, to become California NORML.

By the late 1970s, a dozen states had decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Although reform efforts were set back during the 1980s due to pressure from parents’ groups, the Reagan administration, and public hysteria over crack cocaine, interest resurged in 1996 with the passage of California’s pioneering Prop. 215, legalizing the medical use of marijuana. The movement took yet another quantum leap in 2012, when Washington and Colorado become the first states to approve full-scale adult legalization of marijuana.

As of this Hempfest, marijuana use is decriminalized or legal in 17 states and fully legal in Washington and Colorado; 23 states have medical marijuana laws on the books, and Florida will vote on one this year. Two more states, Oregon and Alaska, plus the District of Columbia will vote on legalization this year.

For all of that, it still isn’t legal to smoke marijuana in a police station like Eggemeier did, even in Washington or Colorado. At worst, though, public use is only punishable by a civil fine.

“Things have come a long, long way,” says Eggemeier, now 77. Though he no longer wishes public attention, he says “I’m certainly happy for a lot, a lot, of people.”