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He Changed His Mind About Marijuana Laws. Why?

Art Linkletter, host of “People Are Funny,” was one of the most popular entertainers on daytime television in its early days. Aired each weekday from 1954 to 1961, one of the show’s most popular segments was his interviews with children. “Kids say the darndest things” became Linkletter’s iconic signature.

Tragically his 20 year-old daughter, Diane, committed suicide in 1969. Linkletter believed she was experiencing an LSD flashback when she jumped from a window. In a 1970 Reader’s Digest article (“We Must Fight the Epidemic of Drug Abuse”), Linkletter wrote a call to action to his fellow Americans, a cause he championed for a number of years. Any loosening of the criminal penalties for drug offenses would be anathema.

Then, in the mid-1970s, he changed his mind.

At the time I was lobbying for the passage of a marijuana decriminalization bill making its way through the legislative process. I had read that he had endorsed similar legislation in California and Ohio, and invited him to take a similar stand in my state. To my surprise, he not only accepted, but also agreed to say so at a press conference.

I greeted Art Linkletter at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport on March 28, 1977. The scene is described in my memoir, Marijuana Nation: One Man’s Chronicle of America Getting High – From Vietnam to Legalization:

Along with a small entourage of airport security and public relations personnel, I awaited his arrival at a Western Airlines gate. He was the first passenger off the plane, and as we shook hands, he was as warm and enthusiastic as his TV persona.-Roger Roffman, Marijuana Nation

Inside the airport’s press room, reporters quickly raised the key question: why had he changed his mind? Again, the scene as described in my book:

I was introduced, as you know, to the drug scene in a very violent and agonizing way when my daughter took her life some seven or eight years ago while experimenting with LSD. I was just an average middle-American as far as drug abuse was concerned, knew nothing more about it than most people, and launched out into a series of lectures in which I made a lot of statements that I later regretted…. I spent a lot of time with kids who were smoking pot. I didn’t read about it from some clinical viewpoint, or some statistical angle. I went out and was with the kids. . . . They thought that the tremendous criminal sanction of a felony against pot was a most unfair thing and helped to promote the so-called generation gap. . . . And to send a kid to jail and cause him to be a felon, it didn’t make sense, and so the kids didn’t buy it. So in spite of the fact that they all knew what the laws were and the arrests were mounting up into the hundreds, and hundreds of thousands across the country, and doubling almost every year, they went right ahead and tried pot because they didn’t believe what they were hearing. So, I thought, if that was happening, which brought about a disregard for law, they didn’t believe anything we said. If we said these things about pot, then they didn’t believe what we said about heroin. And I changed.-Art Linkletter, Marijuana Nation

To be clear, Linkletter was NOT giving up on protecting young people from drug dangers. Indeed, that objective was still a top priority. What he was doing, however, was acknowledging the unintended adverse consequences of overly severe criminal penalties, i.e., eroding in the minds of young people the credibility of public health messages about drug dangers.

But, there was more to his change of mind.

In a 1975 article in Good Housekeeping magazine, he wrote that prevention first and foremost requires open and honest communication between parents and children. In a conversation following the press conference, Linkletter further explained his shift of opinion:

It took me a long time to recognize how wrong I was. You know, some parents get so frightened by drugs that they banish the topic, refusing to talk with their kids, just laying down the law and assuming that’s all that’s needed. Some pay a horrible price when a child experiences a crisis, sees no way out, and commits suicide.-Art Linkletter

Art Linkletter died in May of 2010 at the age of 97, so we’ll never know what his thoughts might have been about what Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon have done in approving a regulated and taxed marijuana market for adults. But, it’s a pretty good bet that he’d quickly cut through all of the hyperbole and ask two key questions:

  • (1) Are the decisions made by kids who live in these states more likely to be influenced by accurate information about marijuana and its risks?
  • (2) Are the parents who live in these states more likely to be effective in communicating with their children about marijuana’s harms?

We’re in the midst of a sea change in public attitudes about pot. I wish Art Linkletter were here to join in the conversation.