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50 Years Ago: The Beatles Argue for Legalization of Marijuana in the U.K.

The Beatles A Day in the Life
John Pratt, Hulton Archive

The debate over marijuana legalization doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon, but if and when it’s ever decriminalized, enthusiasts should toke up in honor of the Beatles, who publicly came out in favor of it 50 years ago.

As noted by the Beatles Bible, the band members and manager Brian Epstein were all among the signatories when 64 of Britain’s best and brightest were rounded up to urge discussion of the issue by taking out a full-page ad in the London Times on July 24, 1967. Prompted by the arrest of acclaimed photographer and International Times founder John Hopkins — and his subsequent nine-month sentencing for possession — the group sought to call attention to what they deemed an unnecessarily harsh public policy.

Arguing that marijuana is “the least harmful of pleasure-giving drugs, and … in particular, far less harmful than alcohol,” the ad added, “Cannabis smoking is widespread in the universities, and the custom has been taken up by writers, teachers, doctors, businessmen, musicians, scientists and priests. Such persons do not fit the stereotype of the unemployed criminal dope fiend.”

Although none of the Beatles were in attendance at the meeting where the plan for the ad was hatched, their signatures weren’t offered without thought; in fact, it was Paul McCartney who ultimately ended up footing the bill after meeting personally with a pair of the group’s leaders. Although he hoped in vain to have his financial support kept a secret, his fears of a public backlash directed at the group proved unfounded.

While the ad proved unsuccessful in terms of legalizing marijuana in the U.K., its publication did spark public discussion, which was eventually followed by some small but meaningful changes in the country’s drug laws. Rather than 10-year maximum for possession of cannabinoids, citizens now face five years — and Hopkins himself, recognized as one of the country’s leading counterculture figures, came to be regarded as much more than the “menace to society” the judge deemed him during his trial.

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