Smoking the celestial dream

Steve Platt looks back at the role of cannabis in the 'counter culture' of the 1960s and 1970s and how people on both sides of the political and cultural divide believed that a hardy psychoactive plant could change the world. He wonders how it could ever have aroused such passions - both for and against its use - and asks why it's still illegal

July 12, 2008 · 15 min read

‘The dope dealer is selling you the celestial dream. He is very different from any other merchant because the commodity he is peddling is freedom and joy. In the years to come the television dramas and movies will make a big thing of the dope dealer of the sixties. He is going to be the Robin Hood, spiritual guerrilla, mysterious agent – who will take the place of the cowboy hero or the cops and robbers hero.’ (Timothy Leary, ‘Dope Dealers –

New Robin Hood’, 1967)

‘SCHOOL FOR JUNKIES SCANDAL: Boys and girls of just 12 are smoking “pot”. Hardly a senior school in the south east has not been troubled by ruthless drugs exploiters. Addiction, at an all time high, is likely to explode into an epidemic of juvenile junkies within five years. Tomorrow could see a massive new national health social problem with youngsters at present in schoolcap or gymslip having a 25p dare “joint” and joining the queue for killer “trips” to living nightmares. Shocking facts. But this, say the experts, is London, drugs capital of Europe 1972.’ (London Evening News, 5 October 1972)

There have always been two myths about marijuana, one of the Reefer Madness genre, which has otherwise normal people turning to crime, promiscuity, dissolution and ultimately death through addiction; the other talking of change, visions, insight and the curative qualities of this magical, mystical weed. On the one hand we have Richard Nixon holding it to blame for ‘the decline in civilised standards of behaviour throughout the western world’; on the other we have Allen Ginsberg declaring that ‘if Kruschev and Kennedy turned on together it would end world conflict’. Yeah right, man.

Dope mythologies

There is nothing new about these dope mythologies. As long ago as the 1270s Marco Polo was relating a tale that has since passed into popular legend, about Hassan-i-Sabbah, who led an offshoot of the Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims and allegedly used hashish to encourage his followers in the assassination of his enemies. Polo’s account, based on secondhand information about events that occurred almost two centuries previously, gave the hashishin (hashish users) a murderous reputation which, even if it was deserved, had little to do with a penchant for cannabis.

The hashish stories were in large part a product of the Christian and Sunni Muslim propaganda machines of the time. (Hassan’s assassins claimed various prominent Sunni, as well as Christian, victims; and they even made a number of attempts on the life of the great Muslim leader Saladin himself.) It is significant, too, that the etymology of the word ‘assassin’ appears first – and almost certainly wrongly – to have been identified with hashishin by French linguists and historians in the 19th century, when Jean-Jacques Moreau’s Hashish Club of Paris was earning itself a reputation as a centre of immorality and subversion. In the 1960s, when a different social grouping had rather different propaganda needs, William Burroughs was on hand to rehabilitate Hassan-i-Sabbah and his followers. They were, according to Burroughs, a much-misrepresented community of libertarian individualists and mystics. You can distinguish the dope smokers from the non-smokers by their differing interpretations of history.

From time to time the great dope myths collide, turning the consumption of a hardy little plant with an ability to flourish under just about any conditions into a burning political issue. Never was this more so than when the US crackdown on drug use, almost as much as the Vietnam war, drew a whole generation of middle class American kids into open conflict with the state in 1964-74 (the cultural, rather than chronological, ‘sixties’).

The biggest civil disobedience campaign of the era was not draft evasion, nor the civil rights movement, but recreational drug use; and the slogan that best-expressed the yearnings of the youth revolt wasn’t ‘Victory to the Vietcong’ but Timothy Leary’s ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out’. The ‘Declaration of a state of war’ by the Weathermen group, which carried out a series of bombings, robberies and kidnappings from 1969 onwards, even stated: ‘We fight in many ways. Dope is one of our weapons … Guns and grass are united in the youth underground.’

Property is theft – smoke dope

You didn’t need to be a Weatherman to know which way the smoke blows. In England, the hippy occupation of 144 Piccadilly in the summer of 1969 was advertised by graffiti declaring ‘Property is theft – Smoke dope – Drop out’, and by leaflets urging the reader to ‘Get high’ because ‘You’ve got to feel good to do good’. One famous poster of the time, emblazoned with the slogan ‘Build the revolution’, showed a huge pair of hands crumbling a brown herbal substance into outsized cigarette papers. Another showed Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers before and after smoking weed. The ‘before’ sketch portrayed them as three clean-shaven, respectable boys ready to ‘kill a commie for Christ’ in their smartly-pressed army uniforms; after a few tokes they transformed into the long-haired, tripped-out hippies that readers came to know and love in Skelton’s best-selling comics.

This Hyde to Jeckyll transformation was a prominent feature in dope literature. BIT, a hippy advice centre in London, was fond of producing novel-length newsletters packed with epistles from former ‘straights’ who had undergone Damascene conversions due to a good smoke. One such contribution described, in ten pages of meandering prose, a personal life history in the first year AD (‘After Dope’). The author had been a happily-married office worker living in a suburban semi somewhere near Southampton until he ‘discovered’ dope. Since then he’d seen half the world and at the time of writing was languishing in a foreign jail awaiting trial on a smuggling charge. ‘Dope has changed my life,’ he announced proudly, without any hint of irony.

The idea that a few whiffs of marijuana could change consciousness – and with it the world – took on a quasi-religious dimension. An article in International Times, which, like its sister paper Oz, got establishment knickers in a twist with its licentious mixture of radical rhetoric, psychedelia and soft porn, put it thus: ‘Hash is God’s gift to save mankind. It is our sacred duty to turn on the masters of war and the parsons of profit. Keep the price low and your spirits high! Smoking shit can change the world.’

Stay high and love God

Even the dealers got in on the act, pushing quasi-mystical ideals along with the pot. There was a time when it seemed they all claimed to belong to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of drug-smugglers who saw dope dealing as something of a divine duty and who once paid the Weathermen $25,000 to smuggle Timothy Leary, who had recently escaped from jail, out of the country. Their slogan, ‘Stay high and love God’, became the false motto of every bent penny-ha’penny pusher west of Kashmir.

In reality the Brotherhood never numbered more than a dozen or so wild-idealed Californian freaks, but they added a whole chapter to the mythology of dope. In the words of Timothy Leary: ‘I can flatly say that the holiest, handsomest, healthiest, horniest, humourest, most saintly group of men I have met in my life are the dope dealers … I think it is necessary that at some time in your spiritual, psychedelic career you do deal. Not for the money but simply to pay tribute to this most honourable profession.’

As late as 1973 there were still articles in the hippy press bemoaning the fact that some dealers were ‘in it for the money’. ‘We deal because we couldn’t live with ourselves if we just provided our own stash and ignored all the other kids round here who need it to keep it together,’ said one article, signed ‘Mary Jane’ of Leicester. ‘But some people do it just for the LSD – the wrong sort.’ ‘It’s time that all dope smokers got together to maintain the quality of dope – i.e. plenty of black,’ said a letter to Oz in November 1972. ‘And to force the price down to its original price of £10 an ounce.’

Absurd and vicious

One of the reasons for the persistence of the dope myths was that the anti-dope fiends believed them too – and acted on them. There were notable exceptions. As early as the 1950s, New York judge John M Murtagh (who, ironically, became one of the Weathermen’s bombing targets in 1970) was arguing against the ‘legal approach’ to controlling drug use, which he later described as ‘just about the most absurd and vicious operation that man can imagine’. But the prevailing orthodoxy was that drugs were a threat not only to public health but also to public order, and that the state needed to come down as hard as possible on anyone involved with them.

So, when Timothy Leary was arrested at the Mexican border with half an ounce of grass on 22 December 1965, he received a 30-year prison sentence and a $30,000 fine. He managed to lodge a successful appeal against that conviction but got another ten-year sentence for a couple of marijuana butts three years later. His escape from jail in 1970 elevated him to the ‘Most Wanted Criminals’ list and prompted an international search involving hundreds of CIA agents.

Nor was such sentencing of those who mixed dope and politics exceptional. In 1969, the political activist John Sinclair, immortalised in one of John Lennon’s lesser works of creative genius, got ten years for two joints. In fact, Leary and Sinclair may have got off lightly – some states still had the death penalty for drug offences.

Moral panics

Even proposals for minor reforms in sentencing policy produced anti-drug hysteria on a scale that sociologist Jock Young famously termed ‘moral panics’. In the UK, the 1968 Wootton Report, which suggested no more than slight reductions in sentences for cannabis offences, was universally condemned by the press. ‘Psychiatrists Say: It’s a Junkies’ Charter’ bawled London’s Evening News. ‘Dangers in this Conspiracy of the Drugged,’ deplored the Daily Mirror. The 21st-century newspaper campaigns preceding last month’s government decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug are nothing new.

The media myths actually reinforced their opposites. On one side stood those who had never touched the evil weed, and were aghast at its alleged horrors; on the other were those who had enjoyed the experience (or were eager to do so) and were now singing its praises – sometimes quite literally.

In the midst of these extremities there were a few voices of sanity struggling to make themselves heard. Alan Watts warned, in Oz 39: ‘There can be too much pot – like too much booze or religion – and the result is not profound mystical contemplation, but the most ordinary lethargy.’ Jock Young, in Oz 45, dismissed the dope smokers’ revolutionary pipe dreams in an article headed ‘Watney’s hash: it’s a smash, smash, smash!’ (Watneys was one of the most popular beers of the day.)

Young argued that the system needed drugs to work, and that marijuana would be the next drug to be ‘normalised’. ‘That heady day when legalisation is achieved and [the drug advice charity] Release packs up its offices will not be such a grand victory as we all imagine,’ he declared. And David Widgery, tiring of the revolutionary romances of the pot propagandists, said that smoking dope had about as much effect as trying to ‘subvert the system by sticking bent coins in gas meters’.

It wasn’t so much that there weren’t people around who could see through the illusions of the dope haze as that they weren’t saying what people wanted to hear. The truth is that revolution – or even radical change – was only a small part of what the ‘youth revolt’ of the 1960s was really about. Nor, for most people, despite the high-blown rhetoric, did the use of drugs have a lot to do with personal transformation or religious experience.

A large part of the appeal of the sixties ‘counter-culture’ was in having a good time; and drugs – dope in particular – offered instant gratification. That was also, at the root of it, what appalled its opponents – after all, you were supposed to work, sweat and toil for your rewards in this world, not inhale them through a funny-looking cigarette.

Arthur Koestler put his finger on the reality of the drug boom at the time. ‘There’s no wisdom there,’ he said after his first drug experience. ‘It’s fake, ersatz. Instant mysticism. There is no quick and easy path to wisdom. Sweat and toil are the price of knowledge.’ And then: ‘But I never felt better in my life.’

There are a hundred and one theories for the collapse of the sixties’ subculture and the hippy dream. It was co-opted by the state, bought up and sold back to the punters; it got killed by its own contradictions, by its sexism and other cultural limits; it ignored the working class; it grew old and boring, had kids and settled down. Many of those who came across it in Britain in the 1970s, as punk prepared to burst upon the cultural scene, think it simply fell asleep.

As Baudelaire said, after his dope-smoking days at the Hashish Club of Paris: ‘Hashish is not suited for action. A great languor takes over your spirit. You are incapable of work and active energy.’ By the mid-1970s, all over the world there were thousands of former hippies, crashed out in smoke-filled rooms with the sounds turned up high, who would have had to agree – if only they could be bothered. ‘Hung up on dope?’ asked an advert in one of the late issues of Oz. ‘Lonely? Need advice on drugs? Ring NOW at 351-0386. We try to get it together.’

The drugs trade today

While the dope smokers (now some 160 million people, 4 per cent of the world’s adults, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) were trying to get it together, the dope dealers were certainly doing so. The UN’s World Drug Report 2005 estimated the global illegal drugs trade at $320 billion, of which cannabis accounted for almost half, some $142 billion. (The cocaine trade was estimated at $71 billion, opiates $65 billion.) That’s the equivalent of 14 per cent of all agricultural exports worldwide, according to the UN.

And it’s not just exports. Marijuana is grown in 172 of the 198 countries for which the UN obtained information. It is by far the biggest cash crop in the US, surpassing the production of corn and wheat combined. An economic analysis by the drug reform group Norml, Marijuana Production in the United States 2006, estimated that US domestic marijuana production had increased tenfold in 25 years to 10,000 metric tons per year, with an estimated annual value of $36 billion. Cannabis ranks as the top cash crop in twelve states and is worth more than $1 billion annually in five: California, Tennessee, Kentucky, Hawaii, and Washington. If ever the US were to win its decades-old ‘war on drugs’, it would plunge the agricultural economy into a global depression.

It doesn’t stop it trying – and filling its jails with the biggest prison population in the world as a result. In 1968, 162,000 drug arrests were made nationally in the US. In 1977, after Richard Nixon’s ‘war on crime’ had taken effect, there were 569,000. By 1989, following Ronald Reagan’s declaration of ‘war on drugs’, there were 1,150,000. In 2000 the total had reached 1,579,500.

In 1980, before Reagan’s war on drugs, around 40,000 prisoners, out of just over 300,000, were incarcerated for drug offences. Today it’s half a million out of 2.3 million, the vast majority for simple possession. Three-quarters of them are African-Americans, despite the fact that African-Americans make up only 13 per cent of the total population and 13 per cent of all drug users. The drug laws are not only ‘immoral in principle and unworkable in practice’, in the words of the famous advertisement in favour of legalising marijuana, which appeared in the Times on 24 July 1967. They are also racist.

Most of the great dope myth-makers and idealists of the 1960s are largely forgotten now. John Griggs, who started the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, died of strychnine poisoning from adulterated psilocybin in 1969. Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was said to have turned on the Kennedys, was found shot on a canal towpath, reputedly, in dope folkore, the victim of a CIA assassin. Neil Cassady, nicknamed the ‘Johnny Appleseed of dope’ because of the numbers he introduced to the drug, died of exposure in Mexico in 1968.

Timothy Leary spent his old age talking about life extension, intelligence increase and space migration. Before he died he said he was ‘increasingly convinced that the individual’s right of access to his or her own brain [through drugs] has become the most significant political, economic and cultural issue today.’

For some people the pro-dope myths never died. And it is clear that Gordon Brown and his government, in deciding last month to overrule the overwhelming opinion of their experts and re-reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug, still believe in the greatest anti-dope myth of all – that somehow the best way to deal with drug use is by deploying the full force of the law against drug users.

Steve Platt deals in celestial dreams at Plattitude

Review – Ravenna: capital of empire, crucible of Europe

Judith Herrin's masterwork of scholarship provides insights into how imperialism deals with times of upheaval, writes Neal Ascherson

Fighting for Irish language rights

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin details the long campaign to overcome colonial suppression of the Irish language in Northern Ireland

Just Irish

Emigration may be at the core of Irish national memory but this has not translated to into a welcoming embrace for its immigrant population, writes Ola Majekodunmi

Vaccine nationalism

As various Covid-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out in the Global North, Remi Joseph-Salisbury explores how nationalist vaccine programmes exacerbate global inequalities

Unionists of the left

Sophie Long uncovers the progressive unionism overshadowed by Northern Ireland's right-wing mainstream

The Bastard State

A hundred years on from partition, Pádraig Ó Meiscill diagnoses the many ills of past and present Northern Ireland

Can you help us shape the future of Red Pepper? We're running a readers' survey and want to hear your views on the magazine and the future of independent left-wing media

Take our Readers' Survey