Trail Blazing: Eight Great Pioneers of Pot
Photo by Timothy Norris Tommy Chong
Tommy Chong is perhaps the biggest celebrity on this list, as a longtime comedian, movie star and half of the still-working duo Cheech & Chong. He is both a hero, as a longtime marijuana advocate, and a martyr, as a veteran of nine months in federal prison for running a bong business.
Chong has been honored for his advocacy in many places, such as his High Times Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Los Angeles Medical Marijuana Cup. But it's also worth remembering his role as cultural warrior.
Some marijuana advocates may object to his comic portrayals of the hapless, confused or vacant stoner in films, TV shows and recordings — such as the classic "Dave's Not Here." But these essentially benign portrayals showed cannabis users as harmless or even lovable, a 180-degree turn from the menacing, sex-crazed marijuana demons in films such as Reefer Madness.
In 2012, Chong announced that he was fighting prostate cancer. Naturally, he told CNN, "I'm treating it with hemp oil, with cannabis." He told the crowd at a Medical Marijuana Cup cannabis "doesn't really cure it, but it gets the cancer cells so stoned that they forget why they're there."
Mary Jane Rathbun, later known as Brownie Mary, didn't have the easiest existence. Born in Chicago in 1922, she was a waitress most of her life. She married after World War II but soon was divorced, with a daughter. In the early 1970s, her teenage daughter was killed by a drunk driver.
Rathbun moved to San Francisco in the 1970s. She was diagnosed with several painful and chronic illnesses, including pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis and colon cancer. Yet her personal problems did not stop her from helping others.
Rathbun, a hospital volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital during the "plague years" of the 1980s and '90s, became known as Brownie Mary for baking marijuana brownies for dozens of local residents with HIV and AIDS. She was arrested three times, but public outcry made it difficult for local authorities to prosecute her for possession.
She helped to win approval of San Francisco's Proposition P in 1991, as well as supporting California's landmark Proposition 215, approved in 1996. Rathbun also was involved in the establishment of the first medical pot dispensary in the United States, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. After her death in 1999, more than 300 people attended a candlelight vigil in her honor.
Lester Grinspoon was senior psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center for 40 years and is an emeritus professor at Harvard Medical School. The distinguished doctor has been a proponent of pot since publication of his book Marihuana Reconsidered in 1971. Later, he published Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine. In addition to his professional research demystifying pot, he says marijuana eased the pain of his son's battle with leukemia.
Today, he says, "I do believe the end of this dastardly prohibition is upon us. We're on the cusp of victory."
Grinspoon was close to superstar astronomer Carl Sagan, also a well-known marijuana advocate. When Attorney General John Mitchell tried to have John Lennon tossed out of the U.S. after a London hashish bust (a move that, according to many critics, was really due to Lennon's peace activism), Grinspoon testified on Lennon's behalf.
At 84, Grinspoon still speaks out on cannabis issues. A board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, he says the rules contained in Washington state's proposed DUI test for weed are "silly. ... If you smoke it over the evening, you can drive perfectly well the next morning."