Timothy Leary’s Arrest For Marijuana Possession Still Matters 50 Years Later

By challenging the constitutionality of the original Marijuana Tax Act, Leary started the drug conversation we're still having today.

Timothy Leary was stopped by customs officers at the Laredo, Texas border 50 years ago. He was returning from Mexico, or a place very close to it; he and his two teenage kids had just been denied entry. Peering into Leary’s car, the American agents found seeds scattered on the floor and five ounces of marijuana. At the time, it was enough to arrest Leary for illegal possession under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. It was a routine arrest, but it was also an opportunity for Leary, who wanted a national drug debate.

Several appeals later, he got one. When Leary v. United States reached the Supreme Court in 1969, Americans were forced to — for the first time — reckon with the prejudices and assumptions behind drug legislation. Leary won, but little legal precedent was set. The only genuine precedent was the way in which he won: with logic that had been absent from the process of writing law.

Leary argued that the Marijuana Tax Act violated the Fifth Amendment, since it forced him to self-incriminate — he had to own up to the drugs. That was a minor victory for the Bill of Rights, but by 1970, the law had been replaced by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. Today, we’re still working under that same framework, specifically the portion now known as the Controlled Substances Act. The CSA listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning Congress believes it has “no currently accepted medical use” and a high potential for addiction and abuse.

It’s a ridiculous stance refuted by dozens of scientific studies which prove its medical benefits, and the legislators of 23 states who have made it legal for varying degrees of recreational and medicinal use.

The problem is: the issue isn’t legal in nature. Leary won by citing the Bill of Rights, not medical studies. The law Leary helped to overturn was unconstitutional. The current law is just as ill-informed — and we don’t have a supreme science court. Still, smaller, recent cases have forced federal justices to at least entertain the thought that our current drug laws might be unconstitutional.

In 2015, nine men charged with growing marijuana illegally in northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest took their case to federal court. They argued that the U.S. law — that old Controlled Substances Act — classifying weed as a Schedule 1 drug was unconstitutional because its medical applications are obvious. Judge Kimberly J. Mueller said she was seriously considering the growers’ defense, asking prosecutors, “If I were persuaded by the defense’s argument, if I bought their argument, what would you lose here?”

Even the international community is keen to keep the debate going. In an open letter published last week, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued that it was time to legalize all drugs everywhere because our current prohibition laws are not preventing sales or drug abuse.

Today, it’s not uncommon for mainstream politicians to support or even vote for legalization. The president doesn’t pretend he didn’t inhale. Even the libertarian wing of the Republican Party offers intermittent support for looser legislation. The medical community is concerned about psychosis but, nevertheless, pretty supportive of greening America. And Timothy Leary is dead. Still, his case matters.

Again, the issue isn’t precedent, it’s timing. Leary made it to the Supreme Court and tried to start a national discussion about drugs 50 years ago. He succeeded, but it was pretty one-sided. Leary and some of his more politically engaged hippie followers were on one side, and the vast majority of Americans were on the other. It’s easy now to say that Leary was ahead of his time. This may be the case, but he was so ahead of his time that he accidentally estranged the middle class.

Leary told kids to, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Today, that sentiment lingers in the air around discussions of drug policy. It is impossible to have a conversation about marijuana in America without having a between-the-lines conversation about values. By forcing the issue and winning a case before America was primed for a discussion on drugs, Leary and his followers became synecdochic for the issue. To be for drugs was to be against the system. That has been the tenor of the debate for a half century.

The debate will change and the implications of drug use will change as well. But the next change won’t happen before the Supreme Court, because our laws are no longer self-contradictory. They are simply inadequate. The system fails because it’s a faulty system and, 50 years after the first man pointed that out, we’re still waiting for someone to fix it from the inside.

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