Weed Warriors: How Allen Ginsberg Used Beat Poetry To Fuel The Legalization Movement

The relationship between marijuana and creativity is, for most, an easy association to make – even non-users have usually heard of the brain-rush that comes with getting high. It’s no secret, for instance, that some of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century were fueled by pot. (There’s a fantastic Netflix documentary about weed’s role in jazz and hip hop, and we highly recommend checking it out.)

But it’s more than just modern music. Novelists, composers, filmmakers, actors, visual artists – many of the greats have found artistic inspiration in the leafy green forests of the brain’s endocannabinoid system. And one of pot’s greatest champions was also one of poetry’s greatest champions.

Allan Ginsberg was one of the founders of the Beat movement in poetry in the 1950s – he developed the new genre with other fairly famous wordsmiths like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. Inspired by fellow (but long-dead) poet William Blake, guys like Ginsberg revolutionized not only poetry, not only the written word, but how whole generations of people can communicate their struggles. 

Ginsberg developed his poetry style as a method of crying out against a culture that denied everything that he was – gay, Jewish, a sort-of communist. Most importantly for our purposes, Ginsberg was an avid fan of cannabis, and despite the pressures of 1950s and 60s mass culture, wasn’t shy about letting the world know.

In 1958, Cassady was arrested in San Francisco for the crime of having three joints on him. Meanwhile, Burroughs faced bans and threats of bans of his signature novel Naked Lunch, which featured heavy drug use and psychedelic themes. These were the (no pun intended) sparks that lit the fire under Ginsberg’s lifelong advocacy of personal drug use.

Recognizing the importance of being well-informed on every aspect of the subject, Ginsberg compiled a massive library of news stories about pot, including every editorial and think-piece that conflated marijuana and the Beat generation with laziness and criminality. The file is still available at the Butler Library at Columbia University. In its day, it rivaled The Gore Files, the famous collection of anti-weed propaganda collected by Harry Anslinger, then the commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the precursor to today’s Drug Enforcement Agency). Anslinger was famous for his Gore Files, though his goal in maintaining them was in opposition to Ginsberg’s; the drug czar was ardently opposed to marijuana use, using his collected propaganda to marshal the forces of the federal government against it.

For his part, Ginsberg wrote a letter to Anslinger. 

“I called him a disgrace,” the poet would later say, “and presented a long catalog of the duplicity and lies that they had been promoting for so many years.”

The reaction was predictable: Anslinger and the government put together a new file – this time on Ginsberg himself. A Freedom of Information Act request (filed by Ginsberg) revealed that government agents were keeping detailed notes on any mention by the poet of legalization. Every time Ginsberg advocated legal weed in public, a note went into his fire.

“I had quite a big file,” Ginsberg later said. “It was quite amazing.”

Still, he continued to use his fame as a megaphone. He wrote an essay for The Atlantic in 1966, titled “The Great Marijuana Hoax: First Manifesto to End the Bringdown.” At the time, defending marijuana use in the pages of an august Boston-based publication that had held essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe was unheard of. But Ginsberg wasn’t known for restraint.

Here are a few of the very prescient points Ginsberg made in his landmark essay:

Cannabis is fantastic. “I apprehended the structure of certain pieces of jazz & classical music in a new manner under the influence of marijuana, and these apprehensions have remained valid in years of normal consciousness,” he wrote.

Most people who argue against weed use have no experience with it. “The actual experience of the smoked herb has been clouded by a fog of dirty language perpetrated by a crowd of fakers who have not had the experience and yet insist on downgrading it,” Ginsberg wrote, decrying “those who have not smoked marijuana, who don’t know exactly what it is but have been influenced by sloppy, or secondhand, or unscientific, or (as in the case of drug-control bureaucracies) definitely self-interested language used to describe the marijuana high pejoratively.”

There’s no logic behind marijuana prohibition. Ginsberg argued that a good deal of the government infrastructure directed at drug interdiction was simply self-serving. “Following Parkinson’s Law that a bureaucracy will attempt to find work for itself, or following a simpler line of thought, that the agents of this Bureau have a business interest in perpetuating the idea of a marijuana ‘menace’ lest they lose their employment, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a great deal of the violence, hysteria & energy of the anti-marijuana language propaganda emanating from this source has as its motive a rather obnoxious self interest, all the more objectionable for its tone of moralistic evangelism,” he wrote. 

Cannabis isn’t addictive. “Marijuana is a metaphysical herb less habituating than tobacco, whose smoke is no more disruptive than Insight,” the poet wrote. “I say occasionally and mean it quite literally; I have spent about as many hours high as I have spent in movie theaters — sometimes three hours a week, sometimes twelve or twenty or more, as at a film festival — with about the same degree of alteration of my normal awareness.”

Marijuana prohibition is racist at its core. “Use of marijuana has always been widespread among the Negro population in this country, and suppression of its use, with constant friction and bludgeoning of the Law, has been a major unconscious, or unmentionable, method of assault on negro Person,” Ginsberg wrote.

The law creates more problems than the problem it’s meant to solve. “Thousands of intelligent citizens have been put in prison for uncounted years for possession or sale of marijuana, even if they grew it themselves and only smoked in private,” he wrote. “Youths have been entrapped into selling small or large quantities of the grass to police agents and consequently found themselves faced with all the venomous bullshit that an arbitrary law can create, from the terrors of arrest to the horror of years in jail.”

At the essay’s conclusion, Ginsberg proposed not only full legalization, but a “total dismantling of the whole cancerous bureaucracy” behind drug prohibition. But he went even further, arguing that reparations to victims of drug arrests were necessary, given the violence and undue stress they experienced under what Ginsberg (and many since him) believed was an unjust and unnecessary system.

“For the inoffensive charming smokers of marijuana who have undergone disgraceful jailings,” Ginsberg wrote, “money is due as compensation.”

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