For as long as anyone can remember, cannabis culture and celebrity culture have gone together like peas and carrots, except the government never tried to ban peas and carrots—not yet, anyway. (The trade wars will only get worse in the months ahead, but that is another column for another writer.) The plant has been a staple of American life since before America, as a nation, had any life to speak of, but the 20th century saw its public profile dramatically increase through a PR bonanza driven mostly by high-profile figures who had an affinity for it. That process has continued to this day.
The stuff was first commonly associated with jazz musicians, most notably Louis Armstrong. In the period between world wars, Ol’ Satchmo was the country’s first pot proselytizer and remained vigorous in his advocacy to the end of his days. Armstrong also inspired initial stirrings of pot hysteria as authorities went apesh*t over weed’s affiliation with jazz music and, most alarmingly, miscegenation—which, in fairness to the fuzz, was not entirely a matter of hype.
It reached the point where Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first drug czar, allegedly spent years building a case to stage mass raids on jazz clubs, targeting almost every major star in the business, including especially Armstrong. The plan was to hit them all at once, on New Year’s Eve 1943, but the plan was apparently so crazy that J. Edgar Hoover himself vetoed it, and that is the very definition of “going way too far”. Anslinger settled for a series of trumped-up drug busts on folks like actor Robert Mitchum, singer Anita O’Day and drummer Gene Krupa. It’s hardly possible to overstate what a big deal these early arrests were, in terms of propaganda.
As post-war jazz musicians turned to heroin, devastating their ranks and leading directly to today’s opioid crisis, weed became synonymous with beatniks, hippies and rock and roll, particularly the British Invasion. After Bob Dylan turned The Beatles on by smoking them out at New York’s Delmonico Hotel on August 28, 1964, the Fab Four went on to be a main reason pot is considered a “gateway drug.” A few years later, the torch was passed (literally and figuratively) to Cheech and Chong, who parlayed existing pot-smoker stereotypes into a career as one of the most successful comedy teams of all time. Their influence remains just as strong 30 years after their break-up.
Today, weed is associated mainly with two celebrity names: Snoop Dogg, the rapper whose personal brand is inextricably linked to his love for leafy greens, and Willie Nelson, the country music icon who remains to this day the only person who’s ever admitted to doing drugs at the White House.
But, with marijuana prohibition finally circling the drain, a whole new wave of celebrities are not only advocating its use, but investing their personal and financial capital in it. We’ll take a broader look at some of that action next week.
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