The global legal marijuana industry is worth around $7.7 billion and it’s estimated that the United States is responsible for up to 90% of the market. Forbes estimates that by 2021, the market will be worth over $31 billion, although America’s share will fall below 60%. Legalization of weed in Canada is one of the reasons for the likely fall.
Today, cannabis is legal for recreational use in nine states plus D.C, and for medicinal use in 20 other states. The movement has grown exponentially in recent years and while the outlook is bright, it has been a major struggle for decades since marijuana was demonized back in the 1930s. There are countless men and women we have to thank for the current state of affairs — without them, the “Harry Anslingers” of this world would have gotten their way with a permanent ban on weed. Here are 10 of the most influential people in the history of weed, both past and present.
1 – Dr. Raphael Mechoulam
It is only fair to start with the Israeli scientist known as the ‘Godfather of THC’. Mechoulam isolated and identified the compound in 1964, and broke the law in the process. He hiked around 15 miles into the city of Tel Aviv and collected five kilos of smuggled Lebanese hash from a police station. While one report suggests he sampled the product on only one occasion, Mechoulam himself claims he has never used marijuana.
Even so, he has dedicated his life to studying the herb and has been involved in many of its most important discoveries. He tried to gain a grant to study weed in the United States in the 1960s, but was denied. Mechoulam also identified CBD, and in 1992, discovered the ‘bliss molecule’ we call anandamide.
His work has helped uncover the endocannabinoid system (ECS) which has an enormous effect on the human body. It seems that the cannabinoids in weed work with the ECS, which is why marijuana is so useful for medicinal purposes. Our bodies produce cannabinoids naturally and a deficiency could be responsible for a host of ailments. Maybe marijuana is responsible for ‘filling in’ these gaps, and making us feel better in a variety of different ways?
2 – Jack Herer
In most people’s eyes, Jack Herer is one of the greatest ‘heroes’ in marijuana history. He is considered by many to be the father of the legal weed movement, and without his tireless work, who knows whether the herb would be as readily available as it currently is in some states. Nicknamed ‘the Emperor of Hemp’, Herer opened his first head shop in 1973 and throughout his life, argued that cannabis should be decriminalized because of its myriad of uses.
It was his book ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’, published in 1985, that arguably kick-started the legalization movement. The publication outlined the rich history of the plant and its many uses including as fuel, textile, paper, and medicine. And of course, the marijuana strain ‘Jack Herer’ is named after this great activist, who died back in 2010. By then, multiple states had legalized marijuana for medicinal use.
Interestingly enough, though, Herer didn’t smoke his first joint until he was 30 years of age! While trying to collect signatures for a California ballot initiative on legalizing weed, he trespassed on private property and received a 14-day prison sentence. Herer even ran for President of the United States on two occasions. He suffered a stroke while at a hemp festival in Oregon in 2000, and while he bravely fought on for a few years, his health slowly declined until his death in 2010.
3 – Willie Nelson
Although he is a legendary singer-songwriter, Willie Nelson is almost as famous for his love of marijuana as he is for his prodigious musical talent. He has been an activist for a host of issues, but it is our beloved herb which is closest to his heart. At present, he is a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and has been fighting for cannabis legalization for decades.
In his autobiography, titled ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I’m Gone,’ he admitted that pot legalization for recreational use in states such as California was great news, as it meant he “didn’t have to fly to Amsterdam anymore.” Nelson has even hosted golf tournaments and his inaugural Willie Nelson & NORML Benefit Golf Tournament earned him a spot on the cover of High Times magazine back in January 2008.
In 2015, he released his own line of cannabis products called ‘Willie’s Reserve,’ and also opened stores in Colorado, Washington, Las Vegas, and Oregon in 2016. California is next up for the company, which currently sells edibles, vapes, and a host of accessories. Nelson’s fame has helped spread the weed word and marijuana lovers everywhere are grateful for his input and activism.
4 – Tommy Chong
Described as a ‘Marijuana VIP’, Tommy Chong was born in Canada and is best known for being one half of the legendary Cheech & Chong double act. The infamous 1978 production, Up in Smoke, featured Chong and Cheech Marin and is about an unemployed weed smoking drummer named Anthony Stoner who is forced to get a job by his parents. With fellow smoker Pedro de Pacas, Stoner embarks on a weed-fueled adventure. Although the movie received negative reviews, it fared well at the box office and is credited with beginning the stoner comedy genre.
Chong was the subject of a huge criminal investigation which tried to trace drug traffic through paraphernalia suppliers. Chong’s son had started such a business and the movie star was caught up in the mess and actually received a nine-month prison sentence in 2003. None of these problems dampened his love for weed though – quite the opposite in fact! To this day, Chong continues to lobby for legalization, and is one of the first people to make cannabis seem ‘cool’.
5 – Keith Stroup
As well as being an attorney, Stroup is the founder of NORML which has fought for marijuana rights since 1970. Interestingly enough, he started the organization with the aid of $5,000 in seed money from the Playboy Foundation. Stroup served as the group’s executive director until 1979. By that time, 11 states had implemented decriminalization laws so clearly, NORML was having a major impact.
After a lengthy hiatus during which time he worked as an attorney and lobbied for artists and family farmers, Stroup returned to the NORML fold in 1994 where he joined the board of directors. He resumed his role as executive director in 1995 and acted as a weed spokesperson for the next decade before he stepped down. Today, Stroup continues to work with NORML to fight the good fight for weed lovers everywhere.
It is no exaggeration to say that NORML is one of the most important pro-weed groups in American history. Under Stroup’s leadership, the group became the first to bring a lawsuit against the DEA, demanding the legalization of weed for medicinal use. NORML also helped Robert Randall in 1975 when he was charged with weed possession. He was cleared of these charges and eventually became America’s first legal marijuana patient. The group was also influential in ensuring that the first full legal cannabis bill was presented to Congress.
6 – Steve DeAngelo
DeAngelo is renowned as one of the top marijuana entrepreneurs and activists in the United States. He dropped out of school to become an activist, and joined the Youth International Party which organized ‘smoke-ins’ on July 4 to protest the illegal status of weed. Once he read ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’, he immediately decided to meet Jack Herer and together, they began a national tour to promote hemp and weed.
DeAngelo has been campaigning for around 40 years and has also put his money where his mouth is – he has founded a number of marijuana dispensaries including Harborside Health Center, which is the largest weed dispensary in the world. DeAngelo believes that cannabis is the ideal medicine and should not be used as an intoxicant. DeAngelo received the High Times Lester Grinspoon Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of a lifetime dedicated to weed legalization.
7 – Jane West
West is one of the leading female voices in the pro-marijuana movement, and has created a cannabis lifestyle brand called Jane West. She is best known for founding the national weed networking organization called Women Grow. West was named ‘the most widely recognized female personality in cannabis’ by Inc. in 2016, but has only recently come to prominence.
Until 2013, West had little to do with the weed movement but all that changed when she was impressed by the quality of the packaging in THC products purchased by her friend. West realized that there was a genuine opportunity to help spread the word about Mary Jane, and soon, she raised $42,000 in seed money to form Women Grow. While she was fired from her role as corporate event planner after being spotted smoking vaporized weed on CNBC, West has had the last laugh and is now a multi-millionaire.
8 – Lester Grinspoon
Grinspoon is a legend in the psychiatry world; so much so that he is Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His interest in weed began in the 1960s as it became more popular in the United States. His initial goal was to prove that marijuana was dangerous and prevent harm from coming to the “foolish young people who would not listen to, or could not believe or understand the warnings about its dangers.”
Grinspoon’s research began in 1967 but soon, he realized that the public had been conned about the ‘dangers’ of cannabis. He acknowledged that weed was less dangerous than he initially believed, and published ‘Marihuana Reconsidered’ in 1971. According to Grinspoon, very few people become addicted to the substance and he supports it as an addition to some forms of modern western medical treatment. He has spoken at NORML conferences and in 2010, he endorsed Washington Initiative 1068 which removed criminal penalties for the adult use of weed. Grinspoon’s services to weed were rewarded by High Times magazine, who have named an award after him!
9 – Lori Ajax
You probably don’t have a clue who Ajax is, but she was involved in one of the most significant marijuana-related events in history. In 2016 she was appointed as California’s first ever head of the Bureau of Medicinal Marijuana Regulation, where she had a tough, historical task. Among other things, she was responsible for ensuring that there was an operational market for the regulation, licensing and taxation of medical marijuana, and is now overseeing the recent transition from medicinal to recreational marijuana use in the state.
California is by far the largest location in the world where weed is legal for recreational use, and Ajax must ensure that the transition runs smoothly. While weed is openly available, businesses still need a state license and local permit to sell marijuana, and Ajax must also spread the word about where it is legal to smoke. For instance, you can’t light up anywhere where tobacco is prohibited. The cannabis industry is estimated to be worth at least $7 billion, and Ajax is the person who can show the world that recreational marijuana is necessary everywhere.
10 – Dana Beal
Beal is a renowned social and political activist and has spent time in prison defending our right to use marijuana. He has been a member of the Youth International Party for decades, and founded the Yipster Times in 1972. Perhaps his greatest achievement, though, was founding the Global Million Marijuana March event in 1999. It has since spread around the world and now occurs on the first Saturday of May each year in hundreds of cities.
Often known as ‘The Lenin of the Marijuana Movement’, Beal has been arrested multiple times. In 2009 and 2011, in fact, he was arrested for possession of large amounts of weed in Nebraska and Wisconsin, respectively. Beal received a 30-month prison sentence for the Wisconsin incident and 4-6 years for the Nebraska event. His most recent arrest occurred in California in December 2017, and Beal has claimed that he intended to use the cannabis to help AIDS patients.
The Most Important People in the Marijuana Industry (Final Thoughts)
While we might not always agree with the actions of activists, it is important to remember that sometimes, in order to implement change, conventional rules must be broken. We are indebted to the people on this list because each and every one of them, in their own way, has been involved in activities that led to the existing legal status of cannabis.
From the activism of Willie Nelson, Jack Herer, Dana Beal, Jane West, Tommy Chong, and Steve DeAngelo, to the scientific research of Raphael Mechoulam and Lester Grinspoon, to the legal and political activities of Lori Ajax and Keith Stroup, these men and women are the trailblazers of marijuana legalization.