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Cannabis in the United States: Cannabis Activism

Our last post discussed the War on Drugs and the impact that it had on the prison system and people of color. Now that we’ve covered the heavy side of cannabis culture, it’s time to focus on activism throughout the decades. What are the most influential pro-cannabis groups? Who are the most influential cannabis activists that have changed the course of cannabis legalization and cannabis consumption? 

What are some of the most influential pro-cannabis groups?


LeMar or, “Legalize Marijuana” was the first legalization advocacy group in the United States. In 1964, Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders started this group to bridge the gap between the hippie movement and the Beat Generation. In January 1965, the group held the first pro-cannabis march in New York City. During the early years of LeMar, Michael Aldrich served as Ginsberg’s assistant and worked on Aldrich’s dissertation on cannabis in the United States. In 1971, Aldrich and Ginsberg turned LeMar into a coast-to-coast-based legalization group and called it Amorphia. Eventually, Amorphia became the west-coast NORML.


National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded in 1970 by Keith Stroup and is the largest and oldest legalization organization that continues to fight for cannabis. For the past 50 years, NORML has lobbied for state and federal legislation to reform our current cannabis system. During the 1970s, the organization led several successful efforts to decriminalize minor cannabis offenses in 11 states and has helped lower cannabis penalties. They are currently working on reform and sending information resources to the media to help cannabis education.

Last Prisoner

The Last Prisoner Project was founded in 2019 as a nonprofit dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. Their main slogan is “no one should be in prison for weed”. The organization has a lot of big names lending support including Steve DeAngelo, Melissa Ethridge, Stephen and Damian Marley, and many more. They use industry leaders, criminal and social justice advocates, and policy and education experts to help educate and reform policies.

Drug Policy Alliance

Drug Policy Alliance has been around for a few decades. Starting in the 1980s, Kevin Zeese, who was working for NORML at the time, and Arnold Trebach founded the Drug Policy Foundation (DPF) and Ethan Nadelmann founded the Lindesmith Center (TLC), both of which were reform organizations. In 2000, DPF and TLC merged to create the Drug Policy Alliance and became the world’s leading drug policy reform organization. The primary goal of DPA is to get our justice system to the point that it allows regulations to be based on science, compassion, and health, as well as encourage human rights where people are no longer punished for what they put into their bodies.

Marijuana Policy Project

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) was founded in 1995 and is one of the largest United States cannabis organizations that is solely focused on enacting humane cannabis laws. Their primary mission is to change federal law to allow states to determine their cannabis policies without federal interference and to allow medical use of cannabis in all 50 states and U.S. territories while regulating it like alcohol. MPP focuses the majority of its resources on the state level but also works on Capitol Hill and engages at the federal level.

Cannabis protesting accomplishments

In the early days of cannabis protesting, the movements were largely tied to ballot initiatives and the lobbying of policymakers. Amorphia produced its brand of rolling papers, “Acapulco Gold” and sold them at three times the market rate as a fundraising scheme. They released a statement in their newsletter promoting the product and promoting the opportunity to sell the papers around different communities that sold cigarette papers. All profits for the papers would fund “an all-out media assault on Middle Amerika for legalization of marijuana (and perhaps other drug law reform).”

The first success of Amorphia was in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the group’s national chairs, John and Leni Sinclair lived. John had risen to prominence as a founder of the “White Panther Party”, a left-wing group that endorsed the Black Panthers. In 1969, John had been arrested for cannabis possession and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In response, Amorphia launched the “Free John Sinclair” movement and after two years, Sinclair was released.

Two Human Rights Party candidates were elected to Ann Arbor’s City Council in 1972 and a few months later, they had convinced fellow council members to pass an ordinance making Ann Arbor the first municipality in the U.S. to make cannabis possession a civil offense, not a crime. 

Unfortunately, for almost 20 years, the cannabis-rights movement did not secure a single massive win; however, in 1996, California voters made their state the first in the U.S. to legalize medicinal uses of cannabis. 

Who are the most influential cannabis activists?

Jack Herer

Probably the most influential name in cannabis legalization, Jack Herer or “the Hemperor” was an author and activist in the 1970s through his passing in 1985. His activism started when he was 30 years old after coming home from the Korean War. He didn’t start as a cannabis activist. In fact, he started as a very pro-war Republican prohibitionist who threatened to leave his first wife when finding out she smoked weed. He had a change of heart and by 1973, Herer had co-authored the comic ‘zine G.R.A.S.S (Great Revolutionary American Standard System: The Official Guide for Assessing the Quality of Marijuana on the 1 to 10 Scale), started inventing new smoking accessories, and had opened the first hemp store in California. He believed that it was best to work in and out of the system and ran for president twice (neither runs were even remotely successful), but encouraged everyone to vote and was quoted saying, “Get out everybody to vote. You have to vote. If they don’t vote for hemp, vote the fu**ing bastards out of office right now!” 

Keith Stroup

Keith Stroup has been fighting for cannabis for over 50 years. In 1970, the cannabis lawyer founded NORML, which many of our activists have been a part of. He started his law career as a criminal defense attorney, lobbying on Capitol Hill for family farmers and artists. He also served as a member as the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) before switching his focus to cannabis, fighting for cannabis reform.

Mary “Brownie” Rathbun

Brownie Mary is one of the most influential cannabis users and edible pioneers. She started to make pot brownies as a side hustle to take care of her and her daughter and primarily took care of people in the Castro District. She got to a point where she was making over 600 brownies a day. She was arrested three times for cannabis distribution and possession, the first time was in 1981 when an undercover cop posing as a customer arrested her with over 18 pounds of cannabis. Her first arrest resulted in her serving over 500 hours of community service where she volunteered at the Shanti Project, a support group for people who live with life-threatening illnesses. During this time her eyes were opened to the problems facing the gay community, specifically those living with AIDS/HIV. She helped the people she met at the center by baking them pot brownies, many of which said that they helped ease their pain and brought back their appetite that they had lost due to their treatments. Until her death in 1999, she worked towards medical cannabis and AIDS/HIV education.

Steve DeAngelo

Steve DeAngelo is known as the “Father of Legal Cannabis” and is one busy man. He started his activism career in 1974 in Washington D.C. and hasn’t slowed down since. He is the founder of Harborside, one of the first licensed dispensaries in the country, one of the founders of Steep Hill which is the first analytic laboratory dedicated to testing cannabis for purity and potency, and a co-founder of the Arcview Group, the first cannabis investment group. In 2019, he switched his focus to work with the Last Prisoner Project. DeAngelo is determined to make cannabis a safe space and continues to fight for legalization. He believes the key to the cannabis industry succeeding is to create an inclusive environment for all.

Raphael Mechoulam

Raphael Mechoulam, “Father of Cannabis Research” has studied cannabis for over 50 years and is the chemist who discovered the cannabinoid, THC, in 1964. After he discovered the cannabinoid, he continued his work and discovered new and important aspects of cannabis. Not only did he discover THC, but other projects of his have led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid anandamide and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA). 

Tommy Chong

Tommy Chong has been a cannabis activist for a long time and has continued to fight for cannabis reform and justice for over 60 years. He started smoking his senior year of high school and eventually joined the stoner comedy duo with Richard Marin to create Cheech and Chong. Tommy Chong was arrested a few times in the early 2000s and even refused a pardon from Barack Obama. In 2012, he announced that he was battling prostate cancer while continuing to preach about the positive effects of medical cannabis. Once he regained his health, he founded “Chong’s Choice”, a cannabis product line that is sold in six states. At 83 years old, he is still one of the most pronounced stoner icons, cannabis lover, and activist, earning an Emerald Cup’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

Lester Grinspoon

Harvard professor Lester Grinspoon is the author of the foundation work of the safety and efficiency of cannabis Marijuana Reconsidered (1971) and continued writing about cannabis for decades after. While he wrote about and fought for cannabis rights for over 50 years, he didn’t smoke or use cannabis until later in his adulthood. He said it was so he didn’t compromise his position, since he was appearing before committees and testifying in court.

Woody Harrelson

Not only is Woody Harrelson a renowned actor on both the small and big screens, but he is also a huge cannabis activist. While he has stopped smoking cannabis, he has supported and fought for cannabis reform for over 20 years, and sits on the Advisory Board for NORML. In 1996, Harrelson was arrested for planting hemp seeds at a symbolic protest in Kentucky where he brought a CNN camera crew and his attorney. Back then, there was no distinction between hemp plants and marijuana plants. He admitted that he had a 30-year party while continuously smoking cannabis, but has stopped in recent years to clear his head and get in tune with his emotions.

Seth Rogan

Seth Rogan has starred in, produced, and written several stoner movies and doesn’t hide his love for the plant. He has said several times that he will do whatever it takes and do whatever he can to shine a light on America’s racist policies regarding weed. He is a huge advocate for the use of cannabis and has said it allows him to be functional, “It is no different to me than wearing shoes or glasses or anything else that I am doing to acknowledge that I am just not fully cut out for the world and need some help. Could I walk around in bare feet all day? Maybe. But why?” In 2007 he was named “Stoner of the Year” by High Times and NORML and Rolling Stone branded Rogan as the “Stoner King of Hollywood” for showing that you can be successful while being a stoner.

How to get involved:

We still have a long way to go to get cannabis legalized in the United States. Here are some ways that you can take steps to help with cannabis legalization:

Stay connected & informed:

Follow your favorite organizations and dispensaries online. Start with the ones listed above! You can sign up for newsletters, emails, and information through their websites.

Register to vote (and do it!):

Voting is an essential way to make a change and every vote counts. If you aren’t registered, it takes 2 minutes and you can do it from the comfort of your own home. Once you’ve taken that step, use your vote to make a change.


Even the noblest causes require funding, and the majority of cannabis reform and equality groups need funding and it’s usually through donations from people who want to see change. You can look at the different organizations we talked about above and see ways you can donate.

Our next post is going to focus on cannabis research. We want to highlight the benefits of medicinal cannabis, the ailments it can help soothe, and what impacts it has on the medical community.