The history of April 20 has become something of an urban legend in American culture over the past few decades. April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, and was the day of the infamous Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the equally infamous Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster of 2010, and, as “4:20,” the day of pot smoking.
The first time I ever got high was on 4:20, before school started. I hail from northern California, from the Mother Lode to be specific. Mormon high school students attend seminary every morning before school starts. I usually caught a ride from one of them, on his way to school from seminary. We’ll call him “Cody.” Cody drove a small black Toyota that had two 10-inch subwoofers in the trunk. Cody loved weed, and so, inevitably, I discovered the pot culture thanks to a generous Mormon.
The history of marijuana in the United States was, for the longest time, hazy at best, and at its worst, prone to tall tales and outright fictions. However, Barney Warf, a geographer at the University of Kansas, produced an excellent 2014 article titled “High points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis” that deserves to be the foundational work for the history of marijuana in the United States. According to Warf’s scholarship, smokable marijuana first entered the United States through Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-11, and began proliferating throughout the country’s seaports soon after it appeared. (This seems a bit too sudden and a bit too clean for my tastes. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that smokable marijuana had long been a staple of coastal American cities. It’s more likely that 1910 is when marijuana began appearing in the regional and national press.) In the 1920s, weed was popular not only with Mexican refugees but also African-Americans and hippies (“Bohemians”), so governments and their crackdowns on its use were largely tolerated up until the 1990s.
During the much-loathed Prohibition era (1920-33), marijuana was targeted along with alcohol and other substances deemed by prohibitionists to be dangerous (economist Bruce Yandle has a famous article on this type of regulation that's worth reading). Unlike alcohol, which was re-legalized in 1933, marijuana ended up in a legal limbo that continues to this day. The legal, political, economic, and cultural battles surrounding marijuana use in the United States have helped shape three generations of lawyers, businesspeople, activists, academics, and medical professionals. Thanks to the questions posed by marijuana prohibition, rigorous and creative arguments in favor of the drug’s legalization have contributed to a better understanding of our federal system of government, of Judeo-Christian morality, and non-Western ethical systems (pot-smoking “Buddhists” are practically cliche today), of the human body and especially the brain, of global trading networks throughout history, and of intercultural exchange and communication. Freedom still defines us as a society. Freedom binds Americans together. Freedom drives our conversations and our institutional actors. This may be difficult to remember as the news cycle grows ever more sensational, but this quiet, humble truth still remains.
In 2017, the legal marijuana industry had an estimated worth of $6.5 billion, and President Trump’s recent announcement that marijuana will soon be recognized as legal by the federal government in the states that have already legalized it, has its thorny issues, but for the most part has been greeted warmly by many segments of society.
I don’t smoke anymore, but not because I live in Texas, where weed is still illegal, and not because the fine folks at Real Clear probably frown upon such things, but because pot makes me sleepy and I’ve got too much on my plate to be snacking on Jalapeño Cheetos and snoozing on the couch at two in the afternoon. If you, like me, don’t smoke pot and you happen upon some hippies celebrating their 4:20 holiday this year, do yourself a favor and ponder the awesome system of governance that binds us all together. It may not be perfect, but its imperfections are made better through the freedoms it protects. And that’s worth celebrating.