Final Public Oral Exam: Eugene A. Hillsman

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
June 8, 2017 - 1:00pm
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Marijuana Policy in Late Twentieth-Century America: The Political Battle for Cultural Legitimacy, 1968-1996


Julian Zelizer, adviser
Keith Wailoo
Paul Frymer (POL)
David Courtwright, University of North Florida


The dissertation examines federal and state marijuana policy in the United States from 1968 to 1996. Advocates of liberal marijuana policy found limited success in the late twentieth century, constantly searching for effective political strategies and attempting to fight punitive drug policy with stories of injustice and examples of harm. For these advocates, though success was limited, the news was not all bad. Marijuana decriminalization and medicalization created space for policy alternatives, though these options were aggressively countered by parents' groups, voters, and politicians of both political parties. The dissertation examines this tension, explaining why federal and state policy was resistant to reform. Ideas about marijuana varied depending on race, class, social circumstance, popular information, and cultural understanding. Political debate about marijuana was rarely about the drug itself, or the harm or benefit it produced, but rather the idea of marijuana, and the challenge it posed to American identity.

In the dissertation, five important moments in marijuana policy history are examined. The first chapter examines the role of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, formed in 1970, which helped legitimate the policy idea of decriminalization. The second chapter examines the passage of marijuana decriminalization in New York State, four years after the development of the punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws in 1973. The third chapter is an examination of federal marijuana decriminalization efforts from 1976 to 1980. It is also a story of the Jimmy Carter Administration and its philosophical approach towards marijuana. The fourth chapter examines marijuana in the Reagan/Bush "War on Drugs" era, from 1980-1992, as concerns about crack cocaine drove the development of punitive legislation. The last chapter examines the growing political support for medical marijuana, and the space it created for alternative legislative approaches.

The dissertation privileges documents, including white papers, speeches, and memoranda while incorporating the social context in which these political documents were created. It is also institutionally focused, recognizing the role of the legislative branch and the courts, as well as bureaucratic agencies.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review one week before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Area of Interest: 
Political History