Gone to Pot: The Phoenix Global Marijuana March

By Niki D'Andrea

“Mommy, I don’t want to march!”

The girl’s mother was protesting the prohibition of marijuana at Steele Indian School park. It was hot, it was dry, and her grade school-age daughter didn’t seem very happy about spending her Saturday walking around central Phoenix with a bunch of people carrying signs and screaming “Legalize it!” at passing cars.

A “bunch” is an understatement, actually -- several hundred pro-marijuana supporters gathered at Steele Indian School Park on Saturday for the Global Marijuana March. The march, which started at 4:20 p.m. (420 being head code for “time to smoke some marijuana”) was Phoenix’s contribution to a global event that saw several cities around the nation and world marching for marijuana law reform.

The march aims to educate people about the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of cannabis, protests the prohibition of marijuana, and encourages people to sign pro-pot petitions. The blog on the official MySpace page for the march read, in part, “If you believe you should have the right, as a responsible adult American, to choose a safer recreational alternative to alcohol or a safer medication than prescription drugs, please show up.”

The march was approved by local law enforcement as a peaceable assembly -- though not licensed by the city -- and supporters started gathering at the park as early as 3:30 p.m. Many people brought signs with such protests as “Legalize It,” “Save a jail cell for some real criminals,” “One acre of hemp = 20 gallons of oil,” and “The hippies were right.” Lots of people were wearing tie-dye, too, and there was plenty of marijuana smoking going on before the march, despite the fact that several people had their children in tow and at least three plain-clothed officers were present. Even though their badges and guns were clearly visible on their belts, people didn’t seem to care.

“There are too many people here for them to arrest everybody,” said one march participant, who says the global march every year in Santa Barbara sees dozens of people lighting up right on the capitol steps.

The history of marijuana prohibition in this country goes back to the 1930s, when Henry Anslinger, Assistant Prohibition Commissioner in the Bureau of Prohibition (precursor to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) signed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. While the bill didn’t prohibit marijuana, it did call for a tax equaling one dollar (an exorbitant tax at the time) on anyone commercially dealing with hemp, marijuana, and cannabis. Anslinger was married to Martha Denniston, the niece of Andrew W. Mellon, who was then Secretary of the US Treasury. Mellon was also a banker who had a vested interest in the DuPont chemical company and media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s logging business. DuPont and Hearst were working on a paper-making deal together, and at the time, hemp was a legal US crop that offered an alternative way of making paper, rather than using timber. But it wasn’t as profitable for someone like Hearst, who owned a ridiculously large amount of land for logging. In 1938, DuPont patented a process for making paper from wood pulp, and Hearst’s newspapers began running all sorts of sordid stories about “crazy” marijuana users and the dangers of hemp, often using the words “marijuana” and “hemp” interchangeably (although marijuana and hemp both come from the cannabis plant, hemp doesn’t contain enough THC -- the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- to intoxicate anyone).

Still, propaganda films like Reefer Madness (which was financed by a church group and originally titled Tell Your Children) began to circulate in schools, along with lectures about how marijuana caused people to steal, rape, kidnap, kill, become prostitutes, etc. In 1952, possession and consumption of marijuana officially became illegal in the United States with the Boggs Act of 1952, bolstered by the Narcotics Control Act of 1956.

In the 1970s, the medicinal uses of marijuana came to light, when a glaucoma patient named Robert Randall sued the government for arresting him for using marijuana to treat his condition. The judge ruled in Randall’s favor and the FDA set up a program for the cultivation of medical marijuana. With the support of members of the medical community, 13 states have since amended their laws to allow the consumption of marijuana for medical purposes.

Arizona is not one of those 13 states. Protesters at the Phoenix Global Marijuana March carried signs advertising the benefits of marijuana and signed petitions pushing for a medical marijuana bill here in Arizona. More than half of the protesters were in this group -- older, wiser Americans with Bohemian sensibilities who view cannabis as a medicinal herb that just happens to have some recreational merit.

The rest of the protesters ran the gamut, from college kids on cell phones telling their friends “I’m at the pot rally” to neo-hippie chicks in summer skirts to hip-hop heads with their jeans hanging halfway off their butts. Members of the local music scene, including “Scary” Gary from rockabilly band The Toomstoners and AZ Fetish Ball promoter James Bound, were also present to show their support.

The march got off to a scattered start, with a woman carrying a huge American flag announcing, “It’s 4:20! We’re gonna start marching!” and everybody wandering off into several lines. By the time the protesters made it to the corner of Third Street and Indian School, the pack had almost come together, and people in passing cars honked their horns in support. One motorist even stopped his SUV as the march was passing so one of his passengers could high-five a participant, yelling “Right on, man! Smoke that shit!”

Half the protesters crossed Indian School at Seventh Street before the other half could catch up, prompting one marcher on the north sidewalk to point across the street and chuckle. “Oh look, they’re having a march, too!”

The people in the march merged again while making their way down Third Avenue, engaging in two massive jaywalks in the process. “Yeah, let’s stop traffic!” someone yelled. “The more people we get to stop, the more attention for the cause!”

The media were also out en mass, as news trucks from Channel 5 and Channel 12 lined up at the entrance to the park. Several photographers with professional rigs were snapping photos as well. One marcher looked at a photographer and yelled, “If that shit goes to my parole officer, I’m gonna be pissed.”

Twenty minutes in, the march was over, with protesters heading back to the park for some post-march relaxation. While a guy in tie-dye beat on a bongo drum, volunteers handed out free Otter pops, and a local representative from NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) pushed petitions for people to sign that would bring forth a bill to legalize marijuana in Arizona for medicinal purposes. “Arizona is surrounded by Medical states; Nevada, New Mexico, California, & Colorado all border us and have the rights that we do not. It is time for all that to change,” states the Phoenix Global Marijuana March MySpace page.

Overall, the march was peaceful. There were no riots, no fights, no arrests, and supporters stayed until dusk, strumming guitars, banging on bongos, signing petitions, and screaming “Legalize it!”

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea