Blazing through the ages: Cannabis prevalent on campus in ’70s

By Natalia Blewonska & Elaina Zachos / The Pitt News Staff

When you look out over the Cathedral lawn, you see students sprawled out, soaking up the mid-April sun. While today you wouldn’t find anyone conspicuously smoking pot, 40 or 50 years ago pot use was commonplace.  

The radical late ’60s and ’70s were a response  to the conservatism of 1936’s government-backed film “Reefer Madness,” which launched decades’ worth of public concern over marijuana. These conservative sentiments clashed with youthful hippie rebellion. While flower child counterculture seemed ubiquitous, it took some time to flourish on Pitt’s campus.

Older generations were concerned about marijuana use, and the drug’s popularity was concentrated in places where young adults could smoke away from their parents, according to John Stoner, a history professor. So, young people consumed inordinate amounts of weed on college campuses and at music festivals like Woodstock in 1969.

“One account suggests that almost everyone at Woodstock was consuming cannabis,” Stoner wrote in an email.

Harris Miller, a 1971 Pitt graduate, said the campus was politically and socially conservative during his time in college. Many students commuted to campus or returned home on weekends, so they didn’t partake in the campus drug scene.

Since many of these students were the first in their families to receive a college education, they didn’t want to get involved in the drug scene, Miller said. They chose to focus on their studies and work hard rather than try to “discover themselves” or goof off, he added.

While Pitt got a taste of the ’60s and ’70s counterculture, its influence was restricted to students’ fashion choices rather than the entire culture of the campus, Miller said.

“Most students dressed nicely for class. So, when kids started dressing up in blue jeans and tie dye for class, it was seen as rebellious,” Miller said.

A quick dig into The Pitt News’ archives offers another perspective on campus drug use.

In the Oct. 16, 1968 issue, The Pitt News devoted an entire section to discussing students’ personal experiences and opinions on drugs in relation to the law.

“The Pitt News feels that in light of the available evidence, the so-called drug laws are far too strict and should be abolished,” read the section, “Drugs on Campus.”

In another article from the October 1968 issue, students Faye Peters and Jennifer Abernathy openly discussed their experiences with marijuana. They said that it was overplayed, overcondemned by society and overrated by students who used it. While their friends revelled in their positive experiences with the drug, Peters and Abernathy said that pot “detracted from reality” and made them lose touch with themselves. 

An article by Bill Yetto from the same issue discusses the prevalence of drug use on campus. He conducted a survey with students who smoked pot and found that, on average, students who smoked had already been smoking for two years, and that they smoked about once a week. Fifty percent of those interviewed had not tried any drugs besides marijuana or hashish, a cannabis derivative.

Students smoked marijuana in a variety of ways and places, according to Yetto, ranging from Schenley Park to a car parked in front of then-Chancellor Wesley Posvar’s house.

In contrast to the dreadlocked, skateboarding stereotype of stoners today, Yetto wrote that, “it would have to be said that marijuana users would be clean-cut, conservative, ‘All American’ types.” Most of the students that Yetto surveyed came from conservative, middle-class families.

But midway through the 1970s, pot became more widely accepted. More students began to smoke it, and the drug became less taboo.

Cris Hoel, a previous editor-in-chief for The Pitt News, graduated from Pitt in 1975. He said that “perhaps most” of the students on campus smoked pot in dorms, off-campus apartments, on Flagstaff Hill and on the Cathedral lawn. Pot use was similarly lax on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, he added.

In the ’60s and ’70s, most students accepted the widespread drug use, and a few possessed the drug. Hoel said that a small but vocal unorganized number of students opposed the drug’s use on campus.

“Pitt police were slightly more attentive to marijuana than to alcohol,” Hoel said. They “appeared to have a policy that required an aggravative factor [and] customarily would not take action.”

If students were rowdy with pot — if they were high and urinating in the quad, or unreasonably loud — only then would the Pitt police take action.

Although it was still legally criminalized, “[Pot was] generally disregarded so long as it wasn’t annoying others,” Hoel said.