Author/historian Martin A. Lee will join us on Saturday, October 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Oaksterdam University (1600 Broadway, Oakland) to talk about his new book Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana — Medical, Recreational, and Scientific. The 58-year-old resident of Healdsburg is also the co-founder of ProjectCBD.org, which examines the medicinal uses of cannabidiol. He released his new nonfiction book in August on major imprint Scribner (a division of Simon & Schuster), and it’s an essential, vital historical reference tome that should stay within arm’s reach of any weed activist.
With writing résumé that includes Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD, Lee weaves a rich tapestry of pot history in his new book, spanning millennia, challenging dogma, and rewarding the curious reader, as well as the devout reformer. He spoke with us via phone about the book, the presidential race, the crackdown, and Los Angeles. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
Legalization Nation: President Obama and Mitt Romney debated in Colorado, a state that could legalize marijuana for the first time in about 75 years this November. It’s historic, but the issue didn’t come up. Do you think the issue will come up in the next two presidential debates?
Lee: I doubt it. There’s some great ironies there. The candidates will basically agree if it does. I think there’s a lot to win if they take a bold stance on this, but I don’t think they would. Obama’s going to have to lean in the opposite direction. Everyone knows he was a stoner as a teenager. That makes law enforcement, nationally, suspicious.
Legalization Nation: He has to be the model minority?
Lee: He has to almost bend over backward to tell everybody, particularly law enforcement, that no, no, he’s not a stoner. He’s left his past and they shouldn’t worry about that. Even a hint of moving toward legalization or better policies and it would be, “Oh, look, at that guy. Stoner is doing just what we expected.” It’s just the opposite of Nixon going to China. Obama can never go there. He’s already on the suspect list.
Legalization Nation: Are you at all hopeful about the 2012 election cycle?
Lee: It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Washington and Colorado. I suspect those initiatives will pass and the response by the federal government will be quite interesting. I don’t know what they’ll do.
Legalization Nation: As a historian, what’s your view of the now year-old crackdown on medical marijuana in California and elsewhere?
Lee: I think it’s futile. It’s not going to stop what’s going on. It’s not going to stop the spreading of this movement across the states. Marijuana is very popular. It’s incredibly mainstream at this point. It’s not going to go away. So the government can do whatever it’s going to do; it’s not going to stop you and me from smoking a joint if we want to, whether [we’re] medical card holders or not. I think that’s basically the truth.
Legalization Nation: History paints this picture of the drug war as theater. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics started with about 80 men for a country 3,000 miles wide. Is it theater?
Lee: It’s not about stopping drugs. It seems to be about something else, and what they say it is shifts from time to time. It’s a very useful tool for social control to have these drug laws that they can enforce capriciously and unevenly, where you can target whomever you want to target. For law enforcement — who has the most invested in continuing the drug war — it’s been a gravy train.
Legalization Nation: Smoke Signals opens with an ex-cop who travels America on horseback evangelizing for the drug war’s end. He’s a member of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Do you think L.E.A.P. will be historically significant?
Lee: Well, it reminds me of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the 1960s and 1970s. … It’s not just a longhair or a stoner saying this is wrong. It’s a cop. It gives the person immediate credibility, particularly with an audience who may not be enamored of Obama. How it’s going to play out in the future of prohibition, it’s impossible to say. We’d like to think we’re in the ending phases of it.
Legalization Nation: Los Angeles banned pot shops only to see its citizens gather 50,000 signatures in nine days to repeal the ban. Are you optimistic?
Lee: It’s the same crazy story. The city authorities never seem to be able to respond in any kind of sensible way, because, in part, they don’t even want to make any kind of sensible regulations. That would be furthering the rights of medical marijuana patients, and they’re so hung up on the reefer madness bullshit. … Where’s the harm? That’s the main point. When we talk about the tumultuous situation in Los Angeles, what are they upset about in terms of actual harm?
Legalization Nation: The term “chaos” is bandied about quite liberally.
Lee: “Chaos” is trying to drive in Los Angeles if you’re not from there. That’s chaos.
Legalization Nation: How does this book add to cannabis history?
Lee: There hasn’t been a really full-fledged social history with a sweeping perspective. Larry Sloman’s Reefer Madness was written in the Seventies. There’s quite a gap there and obviously a lot has happened. What led to Prop 215 passing, and what’s gone on since 215 has really been told piecemeal. … I think it’ll stand the test of time. It deserves a place on the shelf right next to Dan Baum’s Smoke and Mirrors and Marijuana Conviction by Bonnie and Charles Whitehead.