Known primarily for his influence and stature inside the Beat movement of the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg was one of the United States most celebrated and recognized writers and poets during the 20th century. His forward-thinking stances and philosophies on complex issues such as imperialism, capitalism, war and with it the War on Drugs – while radical at the time he railed against them – would be seen as a rational part of the progressive agenda today
When you read Ginsberg’s work (or watch him on video) you get a sense of an imbued spirituality underneath all of his endeavors. In fact, Ginsberg was a practicing Buddhist who was able to connect the dots between the needs of his spiritual practice and the need for change in the stifling cultural climate of the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s.
1950 was one of the most conservative periods in American society. Given that conservatism is an ideology rooted in fear (this is not an insult, it’s a proven fact – scientific studies show that people who are conservative in their ideology tend to be more fearful of the world around them) and the fears of the 1950s were rooted in racial, religious, economic and social concerns, ‘drugs’ that altered human consciousness became a hot topic for exploitation and misinformation in the conservative-controlled mainstream media of the time. The War on Drugs had already begun, before it even had a name.
When Ginsberg wrote of his first experiences using Cannabis, he talked extensively about his concerns of becoming a ‘dope fiend’ – but instead, he found something beautiful and transcendent. He became an avid connoisseur of the plant and as a writer, Ginsberg had lot to say about Cannabis.
His famed editorial – “The Great Marijuana Hoax” – appeared in the Atlantic magazine in 1966. It’s a wonderful essay, one that is recommended reading for anyone who enjoys this plant – and is aware of the nearly 100 years of stigma that has been associated with it. As Ginsberg states: “The actual experience of the smoked herb has been clouded by a fog of dirty language perpetrated by a crowd of fakers who have not had the experience, and yet insist on downgrading it.” The article presents an easy-to-read and even easier-to-understand rationale for why Cannabis intolerance was one of the many attributes of a sick society. Yet, it would still be almost 50 years before it was semi-legal in some states of the U.S.
Ginsberg continued, for much of his life, to be an advocate for Cannabis. Whether it was writing the infamous Harry Anslinger (the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) to shame him for his deeds, or to pose in public with a “Pot is Fun” billboard around his neck, he was always trying to get in front of the collective zeitgeist with something for the public to think about.
There is, of course, much, much more to this story than can be contained in this short article, dear reader. But that’s why this column exists: If your attention is captured by the life of Allen Ginsberg – delve a little deeper. I think you’ll be happy and rewarded for what you’ll find.