It can replace fossil fuels and save trees. It can feed the hungry and ease the suffering of the gravely ill. It can bring peace to an expensive and ultimately futile war.
Oh, and by the way, it also can make you high.
It's marijuana, and it's back. After years of languishing in the background as cocaine, crack and the subsequent just-say-no movement dominated the 1980s consciousness, the humble weed is generating renewed calls for legalization and sprouting up on the hats, shirts and, of course, lips of a new generation of high-minded inhalers.
"The first time I bought pot was from my school bus driver [in California]," recalls Kif Davis, 22, a marijuana activist whose mother, Pamela Snowhite Davis, recently was jailed for possession of the drug. "I started smoking on an everyday basis starting around eighth grade. Before, it was just on weekends."
While most studies show that marijuana use has declined over the years among adults, indications are that youngsters might be bucking that trend. In a1992 survey in Maryland, for example, more than 17 percent of 12th-graders said they had used marijuana in the past month, compared with about 14 percentin 1990.
"I view that as an early warning signal," says Lloyd Johnston, a University of Michigan researcher whose study found that 11 percent of eighth graders in 1992 had used marijuana at least once in their lifetimes, up from 10 percent. "There's a new generation growing up ... that is getting fewer messages telling them that drugs are bad."
University of Michigan researcher who headed a national study that found increased marijuana use among eighth-graders. "There's a new generation growing up . . . that is getting fewer messages telling them that drugs are bad."
"It's part of this whole resurgence of the '60s with the kids today -- the marijuana, the LSD, the clothes," says Mike Gimbel, a former drug abuser who heads the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse.
But just as fashions of the '60s and '70s -- bell-bottoms, platform shoes -- have come back in the '90s in slightly different guise, so too has marijuana: Joints are now called blunts, for example, after the Phillies Blunt cigar that some users hollow out and refill with pot.
Beyond mere slang, however, today's marijuana advocates are taking a different tack from their predecessors. While certainly not ignoring pot's traditional recreational value, they instead are emphasizing what they consider the political, social and, yes, even environmental value of legalizing it.
"We've had 12 years of the war on drugs being waged on us,
and there's a growing recognition that it's been a total disaster," says Dick Cowan, head of the newly revitalized National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, which, at 23 years, is the country's oldest pot-advocacy group.
Mr. Cowan, a former Texas oilman who in October took over what he calls an "organization in a state of disorganization," believes the drug war has been a waste of time and effort, and lauds Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for raising the issue of decriminalizing drugs. Although he notes that Mr. Schmoke is one of the few politicians with "the guts" to speak out on the drug war, he sees hopeful signs in increased activism at the grass-roots level.
Advocacy groups blossom
A group of Baltimore-area advocates, for example, recently organized as a local chapter of NORML. In Washington, a 3-year-old group calling itself the Green Panthers and specializing in "ACT-UP, in-your-face" tactics has been promoting the legalization of the drug, says one organizer, Loey Glover.
"We're the radical fringe," Ms. Glover says of the group, which has painted pro-pot slogans and symbols on overpasses and sidewalks in the Washington area. "NORML is the grandfather of the movement, and they certainly have their part to play. But we thought there was a need for more than, 'Dear Congressman, we think this is wrong . . .' "
Ms. Glover, who says her 28-year-old son turned her on to marijuana, says her group made "green" a part of its name for the color of the leaf and its environmental benefits.
The eco-correctness of hemp -- the plant that bears the flower and leaf that is marijuana -- has been a major part of the new advocacy. Proponents say hemp can be used to make everything from oil (thus saving fossil fuels) to paper (instead of chopping down trees for wood pulp) to clothing (replacing those high-tech and unnatural polyesters) to food (ending world hunger).
Those are among the planet-saving promises of the bible of this neweco-slant on the old legalize-marijuana cause, "The Emperor Wears No Clothes," by Jack Herer, a longtime pot activist who lives in California. The $14.95 book, updated several times since its first edition in 1985, has become an underground classic, although some dispute its claims. Still, it has spawned a new sort of hemp hipness, best typified by the young and loosely organized Cannabis Action Network that promotes its cause with paper and clothing made from hemp fibers.
Hemp hats get hip
Of course, no drug movement would be complete without merchandise and music. While some stores sell clothing made from hemp -- with or without marijuana symbols -- the more common symbol- and slogan-spouting T-shirts and hats are more widespread. "Cheers" and "Indecent Proposal" actor Woody +V Harrelson, for example, recently was spotted in what People magazine called "one of those trendy new baseball caps with an embroidered marijuana leaf."
They're so trendy, in fact, that Reach for the Beach in White Marsh recently sold out of its supply of similar hats, says Andy Cohen, owner of the clothing and novelty store, which also has a location in Annapolis. They're expecting to get more hats soon and still have T-shirts with various marijuana symbols and slogans.
"I don't think many of [the buyers] are actual users -- I think it's become more of a fashion statement," Mr. Cohen said of the 15- to 21-year-olds who buy most of his marijuana-logo'ed gear. "They just think it's cool."
Mr. Cohen says he's been selling the $15-$20 shirts and hats for about six months. "[The merchandise is] just exploding. Right now, the demand is higher than the supply," he says. "It emerged out of the ethnic, hip-hop type of lifestyle, more in the inner city, and now it's hit the mainstream."
The music connection
Indeed, the popular rapper, Dr. Dre, titled his most recent album "The Chronic," which is hip-hop slang for marijuana. Another rap group, Cypress Hill, similarly has also been outspoken pro-pot.
Other groups, such as Black Crowes and Sacred Reich -- which mailed out bongs in a recent promotional package -- also have advocated marijuana. Although their musical styles range from rap to heavy metal, all the groups are comprised of twentysomethings, musicians substantially younger than the standard-bearers from the last time marijuana enjoyed a heyday, such as the Grateful Dead.
For black groups, especially those influenced by Jamaican reggae, marijuana is seen as the kinder, gentler drug, some say. "An alternative high," Mr. Cowan says, "the least toxic high. In African-American neighborhoods, there's been growing awareness of the damage done by both crack and the crack trade."
"Just because marijuana is not as dangerous as cocaine or heroin doesn't mean it's a safe and harmless drug," counters Mr. Gimbel of Baltimore County's substance abuse office. He points to the 1987 train crash in Chase, Md., in which one of the trains' crews had been smoking marijuana, as an example of the very real danger of pot -- 16 people were killed.
"This resurgence of marijuana is very scary to me," he says.
While marijuana seems to be moving to the forefront once again, arrests for possession or sale of the drug have actually declined, at least in Maryland. In 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available, 6,918 persons were arrested for sale or possession, compared to 7,669 the year before.
"We've switched our emphasis, and we focus more on the violent drugs, like heroin, cocaine and PCP," says Capt. Mike Andrew, head of the Baltimore City Police Department's narcotics unit.
Marijuana as medicine
Many pro-marijuana activists cite the medicinal uses of the drug -- it's obviously the aspect of their cause with the highest sympathy quotient. Additionally, they take hope in the appointment -- by that noted non-inhaler, President Clinton -- of Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders as surgeon general. The Arkansas pediatrician has been outspoken in her support of physicians prescribing marijuana for cancer and AIDS patients.
"It suppresses the nausea, and it gives you an appetite. It gives you the munchies," says Dave Frieman, 25, a Randallstown area resident who credits marijuana with saving him from the ravages of the chemotherapy he underwent for Hodgkin's disease. "I was shaken by the whole deal. By the second or third treatment, I thought I really couldn't go through with it any more, all the vomiting, the weight loss. I had to get a break from that."
Mr. Frieman, a musician and college student, was diagnosed with the cancer in 1991 and lost 50 pounds during the half-year of chemotherapy. The cancer is now in remission, but the experience convinced him to become politically active in the cause to legalize the medicinal use of pot.
While voters in the San Francisco Bay area in 1991 approved resolutions urging authorities not to arrest people who use pot for medical reasons, efforts in Maryland and elsewhere to legalize the drug remain unsuccessful.
Mr. Frieman has been involved with the newly organized Maryland chapter of NORML, which is led by another college student, Joe Crigger Jr., 23, of Severna Park. Mr. Crigger said that although he and others have been unsuccessful in convincing Maryland officials to reduce penalties for marijuana possession and to approve medicinal use of marijuana, "there at least are a lot more people open about the subject today."