Tag Archives: hippies

The enduring impact of Madison’s legendary hippie culture

There’s a popular misconception that all of us in Madison are hippies, that we wear sandals, tie-dye and batik year-round; that we only put down our protest signs to pick up a joint; that we still watch Cheech and Chong, and are permanently stoned unless we’re at a Badger game, when we’re drunk and wearing red.

None of this is true. Well, maybe some of it.

OK, a lot of it. Rush Limbaugh, among others, has called us the “People’s Republic of Madison.” Bill O’Reilly has scoffed, “You expect those people to be communing with Satan up there in the Madison.”

The New York Times called Paul Soglin  the city’s “hippie mayor” in 2011.

Like the Amish, we’re preserving a vanishing way of life — in our case, it’s the 1960s counter-culture.

We’re still plenty groovy and far out, man, but verifiable evidence of hippies is becoming rarer and rarer. After all, much that was radical 50 years ago is now mainstream. But Madison still has pockets of paisley and patchouli that serve as testaments to its more radical past.

First, though, we have to define “hippie.” Soglin, barely 28 when he was first elected mayor in 1973, recalls, “No one in Madison ever referred to me as a hippie. In 1974, AP did a story about me and the headline writer sent a national feed referring to me as the hippie mayor.”

Soglin was very politically active, took part in protests and got caught up in riots. Police beat him with heavy batons. The proof is in the 1979 Oscar-nominated documentary The War at Home.

But calling Soglin a hippie, he says, makes no sense. “Hippies were disengaged from politics, which was the focus of my entire life.”

Others aren’t so quick to separate political activism from hippie-ism. Sharon Kilfoy is a self-described “hippie artist” who arrived at UW-Madison as a freshman in 1968.

“Hippies were counter-culture,” she says. It was only later that it “became more about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But I believe it was political at first, and then really became a cultural revolution.”

Whatever hippie culture was or is, we know it when we see it, and there are still examples all over Madison, including:

The Mifflin Street Block Party: The first block party was in 1969. It was an anti-war street protest/celebration that became a riot, with fires and tear gas. Soglin, then an alderman on the city council, was arrested — twice. Held the first weekend in May ever since, the party’s politics waned as its drunkenness increased. The city has been actively discouraging it since 2012.

“Mifflin should see some celebrants on Saturday, May 4, but if last year is any barometer, it will continue to be a much smaller gathering, consisting primarily of several house parties,” says Joel DeSpain, Madison Police Department spokesperson. “We had no problems last year and don’t anticipate any this May. That said, we will have additional officers on hand and be ready for any contingencies.”

Mifflin Street Co-op: The grocery, founded in 1969, served as an activist and counter-culture center. Facing competition and declining sales, its directors voted to close the store in late 2006. But its lavish, two-story mural remains. Norman Stockwell is operations coordinator for WORT-FM community radio — a hippie institution itself at 89.9 on the dial.

Back when he was a co-op employee, Stockwell and more than 60 others spent nearly a year planning and painting the mural, which features images of lush fertility and capitalist death. “The reason why this mural has lasted so well, and has no graffiti, is that it really is a coming together of the community in which it lives,” he says.

Efforts to restore its chipped surface occasionally arise. The 1987 mural was preceded by several others. The first included a dancing bomb, in solidarity with those who tried to destroy Sterling Hall.

Sterling Hall: On the night of Aug. 4, 1970, anti-war activists set off a massive 2,000-pound bomb contained in a stolen van parked next to this campus building. Their goal was to destroy the Army Math Research Center inside. The explosion killed one person and, adjusted for inflation, caused more than $11 million in damage. Faint blast marks on the building’s southern face bear testament to the tragedy.

The Daily Cardinal: Two of the Sterling Hall bombers worked at the more liberal and far older of the university’s two student papers. The Daily Cardinal, founded in 1892, has seen its pages thin over the years, but it still serves as training ground for fledgling journalists. Its alumni have won 20 Pulitzer Prizes. The paper is available free at many downtown and campus locations.

Otis Redding: In 1967, on his way to a concert in Madison, a plane carrying “The King of Soul” crashed into Lake Monona. Only one of the band members survived. On the shoreline near the Capitol there is a memorial to Redding, best known for the song “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” 

Wild Hog in the Woods: There was more to music in the ’60s than rock ‘n’ roll. The decade also saw a blossoming of folk music. Wild Hog has kept the spirit of that time alive since 1978. Performances are held Friday evenings. More of a concert series than a venue, Wild Hog has had several homes over the years. These days it’s at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. It began at the Green Lantern Eating Cooperative. 

Tie-dye, jeans and fringe: Hippies changed fashion. Men no longer wear hats and everyone wears jeans. Madison dresses primarily for comfort, including an awful lot of sandals. But we also dress symbolically, just as the hippies did.

“I haven’t seen as much tie-dye lately, but I’ve seen more batik and ethnic prints,” says Caitlin Wagner, a junior in the fashion design program at UW-Madison. And — bad news — “fringe is totally coming back,” Wagner says.

Thrift shop clothing, which was popular in the ’60s and ’70s, is still popular in Madison. Ironically, today’s thrift shops recycle vintage treasures from the era that glamorized previously worn garb.

But perhaps the most significant carry-over from hippie fashion is the application of social consciousness to wardrobe selection.

“What I see as hippie fashion that continues is the importance placed here on the context of what you’re consuming, how much you’re consuming and who we support by consuming certain products,” Wagner explains. 

Willy St. Co-op: In addition to thrift shops, the ’60s were a time of collectives, communes and, especially, cooperatives. This grocery co-op on Williamson Street — we locals call it “Willy Street” — was modestly founded in 1974. It’s since grown so much that a second location has opened in nearby Middleton. At one time, its selections were classified as “health food.” Now we just call it food.

“It’s amazing that so many of Willy Street Co-op’s core values and ideas that used to be considered counter-culture — natural food, organic food, bulk food, growing your own food, and sustainability — are now fairly mainstream,” says director of communications Brendon Smith.

Madison Community Co-ops: Madison has at least four independent housing co-ops. Twelve others are gathered into this co-op made up of co-ops, known as “MCC.” More than 200 people of all ages, but mostly students, live and eat in MCC houses with fanciful names such as Ambrosia, Hypatia and Syntropy. The largest, Lothlorien, suffered fire damage and is vacant and under repair. The best, because I lived there, is International Co-op House, where I learned to cook for 27 at a time.

“MCC was formed in 1968 by a group of seven or eight independent co-ops that already existed in Madison,” says Steve Vig, coordinating officer. Most houses welcome dinner guests, particularly prospective members, though there may be a small charge.

Tuschen: His first name was John, but locally he had single-name celebrity. Madison’s first poet laureate resisted the “hippie” title. Says his longtime partner, Suni Taylor, “I was the hippie, he was a throwback. Either Bukowski or Ginsberg — I can’t remember anymore — called him ‘the Baby Beat,’ and that really was the generation he fit into best.”

Beatnik or proto-hippie, Tuschen’s poetry was definitely a sign of counter-culture times. He was born in 1949 and passed in 2005, though his work lives on. He published “State Street Poetry Sheets,” collecting his work and that of others, and sold them in State Street stores. A fundraising effort is underway to reprint them.

Cecil’s Sandals: “In the ’60s, suddenly everyone was having custom sandals made at Cecil’s Sandals,” recalls Peter Berryman, half of the touring Lou and Peter Berryman folk/comedy act. Nicknamed “Jesus Boots,” the footwear was actually carefully crafted by Cecil’s son Ron Burke, just off State Street.

“Those are bygone years,” says Burke. “That was the era of the sandal craze. Everybody was a hippie. That was the start of the long hair and crazy dresses and things like that.”

Burke no longer makes sandals — all the getting up and down is too hard on his knees — but he continues to repair shoes at Cecil’s West, on Madison’s Odana Road.

Willy Street: Still the funkiest of Madison streets, with odd shops, coffee and lots of art, Willy Street is becoming gentrified.

“I am the longest surviving hippie resident-artist of Willy Street and have been producing art with the people for many years,” says muralist Sharon Kilfoy. She recalls when her counter-culture peers packed the mixed business-residential street. “The rent was cheap. There was a lot of real freedom of expression here. And the other people living here were poor, just like we were.”

Kilfoy compares it to Greenwich Village. “The artists come into a poor area and it becomes chi-chi. It’s exactly what happened.”

The Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Fest: Held the first weekend in October each year, this protest and march from the campus Library Mall to the Capitol is “to educate and inform people considering medical marijuana legalization and hemp,” says Dennis Brennan, one of the organizers. This autumn will mark the event’s 45th anniversary.

“We’re a loose cooperative,” says Brennan, who calls himself “just one of the crew.” The last few years attendance has been around 2,500 but, before states started legalizing marijuana, as many as 10,000 showed up from across the Midwest.

“It used to be that we had to go out of our way to get politicians to speak,” Brennan says. “We’re having the opposite problem now. The world’s been changing, and that’s in a lot of things. This city is a great example of that in so many social aspects. Things that were shunned upon and that people fought for 30, 40 years ago, are now part of our society here.”

Sunshine Daydream: Madison’s oldest surviving head shop is surely The Pipefitter on State Street, founded in 1972. But it’s Sunshine Daydream, just down the street, that claims to be “Madison’s favorite hippie store.” It features tie-dyed clothing, Grateful Dead paraphernalia, body oils and incense and a huge selection of glass pipes that could conceivably be used to smoke tobacco. Manager Jamie Strunz says, “We also carry tickets for a lot of the fests and things like that. We try to keep the hippies happy.”

But surely all the real, bonafide hippies are now at least in their 60s?

“This is true,” he says. “But we still have a few hippies left.”

Andre Benjamin finds a new rhythm in Hendrix biopic

Andre Benjamin was uniquely qualified to play Jimi Hendrix in the film “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” and not just because his colorfully cosmic style has long owed something to the ‘60s icon.

The film, written and directed by “12 Years a Slave” screenwriter John Ridley, is a portrait of Hendrix in 1966 — a then somewhat aimless 24-year-old playing backup guitar — finding himself as a frontman and being elevated by the blues-rock scene of Swinging London. As the often reticent half of hip-hop duo Outkast, Benjamin, too, knows something about the psychology of a performer discovering his onstage swagger.

“I had to grow into being an entertainer and Jimi had to grow into being an entertainer, too,” Benjamin said in a recent interview. “I can say from being an entertainer and a star, my very first shows were horrible. The shyness. You’re put on stage in front of all of these people, and you’re kind of in your head a lot. It takes the confidence of knowing, ‘Hey, people dig this.’”

“All Is By My Side,” which opens in theaters Friday, eschews the usual cradle-to-the-grave biopic trajectory, focusing instead on Hendrix’s discovery by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), his formation of The Experience and his breakthrough in a town dominated by the Beatles and Eric Clapton. Made without the cooperation or approval of the Hendrix estate, the independently produced “All Is By My Side” doesn’t include any of Hendrix’s familiar hits.

“I don’t really see the point of just showing people what they already know. I never felt that that was going to impede our ability to tell the story,” says Ridley, who won an Oscar for “12 Years a Slave.” “We’ve all seen films before that have had access to artifacts or intellectual property, and they put their best foot forward, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the story’s going to be there.”

The film is Benjamin’s first since the 2008 Will Ferrell comedy “Semi-Pro.” He turned down Ridley several times before agreeing to tackle the role, for which he studied with a vocal coach and strove to learn to play guitar left-handed. As a naturally right-handed player, he compares the task to walking backward.

For Benjamin, who dabbled in movies in the ‘00s most notably with the Prohibition musical “Idlewild,” it’s easily his most ambitious acting work. “All Is By My Side” is opening during a kind of crossroads for Benjamin, who has been touring with his Outkast partner, Big Boi, for the first time in years, celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album.

It’s been nearly a decade since Benjamin put out an album, solo or with Outkast. He’s limited himself largely to appearances on the records of others (Frank Ocean, Lil Wayne). Now 39, he’s said he’ll give up rap when he turns 40.

“I can’t say I was gearing up to make this huge acting jump, but if that’s the way my life goes, I’m wit it,” says Benjamin. “In music, I still write almost every day. I don’t know how I feel about it at this age. I always write. But I don’t know if I believe in it enough to want to present it. You have to believe in it to work.

“I really don’t know what’s going on,” he adds. “I’m kind of in a limbo place.”

Ridley flew to Atlanta to meet with Benjamin, who had been sought for other Hendrix films.

“Being around him for about five or 10 minutes you realize that he really is the right person to try to attempt something like this,” says Ridley, who’s currently prepping a series for ABC, “American Crime.” “He’s very intellectually curious. He’s very much a true artist. He’s very much a music historian.”

In order to capture Hendrix’s far-out, mellow voice, Ridley had Benjamin stay in character during production: “John basically ordered the set not to talk to me unless I was in Hendrix’s voice so I could always be in it,” says Benjamin. 

The film also shows Hendrix’s less savory side, including a scene in which he strikes girlfriend Kathy Etchingham with a phone _ an incident Etchingham has resolutely denied ever happened. Ridley stands by the depiction as accurate to other viewpoints. Either way, it’s the kind of scene that surely wouldn’t have made it into an authorized biopic. (Another, estate-endorsed project is in development, with Anthony Mackie to star as Hendrix.)

“The minute that you cede editorial control to any one person or any one entity, it goes from being an attempt at an honest story to propaganda,” says Ridley. “Anybody’s life story deserves a little better than that.”

Pranksters’ psychedelic bus gears up for 50th anniversary

When the late author Ken Kesey and his pals, the Merry Pranksters, took their psychedelic bus ride across America to visit the New York World’s Fair, the nation was mourning President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Grateful Dead was not yet a band.

And, perhaps most importantly, LSD was still legal.

For their trip, they rode in a bus painted with brightly colored swirls, outfitted with a sound system and emblazoned with the word “Further” as the destination. Sporting short haircuts and red-white-and-blue sport shirts, they had plenty of marijuana and LSD.

“The whole psychedelic scene came from that bus trip,” said Kesey’s son, Zane, who as a 3-year-old helped paint the bus and waved a tearful goodbye as it drove away.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the journey, Zane Kesey has launched a campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, looking for a few good modern-day Pranksters to contribute $200 each for a chance to do it all again, though on a different bus. And without the LSD.

His father, who wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” had been a guinea pig for government tests of the mind-altering drug and shared the experience at a series of parties at his home in the hills above Stanford University that became known as the Acid Tests.

They featured a local bar band called The Warlocks, which turned into the Grateful Dead. After the trip, the bus became the centerpiece as the Acid Tests went on the road.

After a road trip to New York with his parents and wife, Faye, to see the stage production of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Kesey thought it would be fun to get his friends to do another cross-country ride that would serve as the basis for a movie, with LSD at the center, friend Ken Babbs said.

It soon became clear that the family station wagon would not be big enough, so Kesey sent a friend up to San Francisco to check out an ad for an old school bus converted into a camper, with bunks and a kitchen, Babbs said.

“I think it was $1,500,” he said.

During the journey, the bus was pulled over by a policeman in California, got bogged down in an Arizona River and lost one of its crew to a bad trip in Texas.

In Louisiana, the Pranksters jammed with a piano player in a New Orleans bar. In New York, they rolled through the streets playing their homemade music and met poet Alan Ginsberg, who took them to a Connecticut estate to meet LSD guru Timothy Leary.

The movie never materialized as the new art form Kesey had envisioned, a victim of the film and audio tapes reproducing at different speeds that couldn’t be synchronized until 30 years later with the help of digital technology. Kesey died in 2001.

Texas A&M historian Terry Anderson, author of the book, “The Sixties,” said the bus trip was too early to kick off the counterculture, adding that it was overshadowed by the Beatles and the signing of the Civil Rights Act the same year.

But the tapes and film gave author Tom Wolfe the material he needed for his 1968 book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” which made the trip a touchstone of the psychedelic era.

Babbs said Kesey himself never claimed to have started the psychedelic era, but he was happy to ride the wave. “We were too young to be beats, and too old to be hippies,” he said. “We were really our own thing.”

Embarking at the end of July, the anniversary trip is making no attempt to recreate the old one, and follows a more northerly route, visiting a series of arts and music festivals.

People who want a chance to get on the bus must invest $200, and pass a series of tests, answering questions such as whether they like movies about gladiators. The chosen will get a token to board the bus for a leg, and join in making a new movie.

Though not even born when the original bus embarked on June 17, 1964, Joshua Priest, 26, and Andrea Castillo, 21, of Menisee, California, are determined to get onboard.

Grateful Dead fans who learned about the bus trip by reading Wolfe’s book, they learned about the anniversary expedition on Facebook and raised $400 with a garage sale. Castillo, a graphic arts student, created a series of drawings answering the questions.

“That’s what life is about: taking chances and having fun,” she said.

‘Hair’ is just as groovy and socially relevant as it was in ‘67

In 1967, the Broadway musical world was rocked like never before by Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Nothing like it had been tried before, and it spawned an entirely new direction in musical theater.

Wrapping sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in social, political and environmental themes, the show captured a unique time in American history. Nearly 47 years later, Hair still speaks with vibrancy about issues remaining at the forefront of American social concerns, according to Ray Jivoff, the director helming Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming production of the classic.

“The show is about raising people’s awareness,” says Jivoff, a native of Syracuse, New York, and life partner of C. Michael Wright, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s producing artistic director. “The idea of men with long hair as a revolutionary statement has evolved, but there is still controversy in terms of language, sexual references, racial issues, the war and the government.”

“This is more of an event than a show,” he adds. “It’s a ritual that asks more questions than it answers.”

The play’s street theater conventions and cultural references, which would date a lesser work, simply serve as a starting point in Hair, says Jivoff, who’s directed the work twice before.

Written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair’s loose storyline chronicles a “tribe” of characters on New York’s Lower East Side at a time when the Vietnam War raged, racial unrest burned in America’s cities, and young people questioned every aspect of traditional society. 

Claude (Doug Clemons in the Skylight production) receives a draft notice telling him to report for military service. Friends Berger (Alex Mace), Sheila (Alison Mary Forbes), Woof (Ryan Cappleman), Hud (Sherrick Robinson) and the rest of the tribe attempt to talk him out of going, but with little luck. 

Between the opening notes of “Aquarius” and the closing anthem “Let the Sunshine In” come a host of former pop hits, including  “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine.” The play also includes a “be-in,” an anti-war protest, a hallucinogenic drug trip and an obligatory nude scene.

Make that a nude “episode,” Jivoff says.

“The nude scene seems to be what everyone remembers, but it’s really only 20 seconds at the end of Act I,” he explains. 

More unsettling to contemporary audiences might be the racist stereotyping in the song “I’m Black/Colored Spade” sung by Hud, an African-American character. The song “Sodomy,” sung by Woof, a closeted gay character, broke new ground in 1967 and might continue to set some audience members on edge.

Act I is full of high energy as it establishes themes and explores the characters’ joyous, hedonistic lifestyles. Act II turns darker as it follows Claude to Vietnam and explores the narrative’s anti-war roots.

“Claude is often compared to Hamlet and Jesus Christ and quotes from both of them,” Jivoff says. “He feels he is a character in a myth and turns out to be a character destined to be sacrificed to inspire the tribe to continue with its anti-war mission.”

Hair has seen notable actors and other performers in productions throughout its history. Authors Rado and Ragni appeared in several early iterations, and a young Diane Keaton was part of the original Broadway cast. So was singer Melba Moore and dancer Ben Vereen. 

Performers Andre DeShields, Donna Summer, Meat Loaf, Dobie Gray and Jennifer Warnes appeared in various productions. The London staging introduced Tim Curry to Richard O’Brien, who went on to develop The Rocky Horror Show.

Jivoff is proud of his all-Wisconsin cast, including 19 performers from the Milwaukee area. He also is thrilled with Jeremy McQueen’s choreography, which he says takes the show to a new level.

Audience members should be prepared to interact with the cast. The actors have been instructed to break the fourth wall and address audience members, asking for spare change, handing out leaflets and encouraging them to come on stage for the finale. They also dance in the aisles during the song “Hair,” he says.

Although not designed to make the audience uncomfortable, interaction with the cast could be a little more extensive than similar shows, Jivoff adds.

“The character of Berger is extroverted and fairly sexual,” he says. “I think that’s all I will say about that.”

Marijuana’s march to mainstream confounds feds

It took 50 years for American attitudes about marijuana to zigzag from the paranoia of “Reefer Madness” to the excesses of Woodstock back to the hard line of “Just Say No.”

The next 25 years took the nation from Bill Clinton, who famously “didn’t inhale,” to Barack Obama, who most emphatically did.

And now, in just a few short years, public opinion has moved so dramatically toward general acceptance that even those who champion legalization are surprised at how quickly attitudes are changing and states are moving to approve the drug – for medical use and just for fun.

It is a moment in America that is rife with contradictions:

-People are looking more kindly on marijuana even as science reveals more about the drug’s potential dangers, particularly for young people.

-States are giving the green light to the drug in direct defiance of a federal prohibition on its use.

-Exploration of the potential medical benefit is limited by high federal hurdles to research.

Washington policymakers seem reluctant to deal with any of it.

Richard Bonnie, a University of Virginia law professor who worked for a national commission that recommended decriminalizing marijuana in 1972, sees the public taking a big leap from prohibition to a more laissez-faire approach without full deliberation.

“It’s a remarkable story historically,” he says. “But as a matter of public policy, it’s a little worrisome. It’s intriguing, it’s interesting, it’s good that liberalization is occurring, but it is a little worrisome.”

More than a little worrisome to those in the anti-drug movement.

“We’re on this hundred-mile-an-hour freight train to legalizing a third addictive substance,” says Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Obama administration, lumping marijuana with tobacco and alcohol.

Legalization strategist Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, likes the direction the marijuana smoke is wafting. But he knows his side has considerable work yet to do.

“I’m constantly reminding my allies that marijuana is not going to legalize itself,” he says.

By the numbers:

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes since California voters made the first move in 1996. Voters in Colorado and Washington state took the next step last year and approved pot for recreational use. Alaska is likely to vote on the same question in 2014, and a few other states are expected to put recreational use on the ballot in 2016.

Nearly half of adults have tried marijuana, 12 percent of them in the past year, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. More teenagers now say they smoke marijuana than ordinary cigarettes.

Fifty-two percent of adults favor legalizing marijuana, up 11 percentage points just since 2010, according to Pew. Sixty percent think Washington shouldn’t enforce federal laws against marijuana in states that have approved its use. Seventy-two percent think government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they’re worth.

“By Election Day 2016, we expect to see at least seven states where marijuana is legal and being regulated like alcohol,” says Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national legalization group.

Where California led the charge on medical marijuana, the next chapter in this story is being written in Colorado and Washington state.

Policymakers there are struggling with all sorts of sticky issues revolving around one central question: How do you legally regulate the production, distribution, sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes when federal law bans all of the above?

How do you tax it? What quality control standards do you set? How do you protect children while giving grown-ups the go-ahead to light up? What about driving under the influence? Can growers take business tax deductions? Who can grow pot, and how much? Where can you use it? Can cities opt out? Can workers be fired for smoking marijuana when they’re off duty? What about taking pot out of state? The list goes on.

The overarching question has big national implications. How do you do all of this without inviting the wrath of the federal government, which has been largely silent so far on how it will respond to a gaping conflict between U.S. and state law?

The Justice Department began reviewing the matter after last November’s election and repeatedly has promised to respond soon. But seven months later, states still are on their own, left to parse every passing comment from the department and President Obama.

In December, Obama said in an interview that “it does not make sense, from a prioritization point of view, for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law that’s legal.”

In April, Attorney General Eric Holder said to Congress, “We are certainly going to enforce federal law. … When it comes to these marijuana initiatives, I think among the kinds of things we will have to consider is the impact on children.” He also mentioned violence related to drug trafficking and organized crime.

In May, Obama told reporters: “I honestly do not believe that legalizing drugs is the answer. But I do believe that a comprehensive approach – not just law enforcement, but prevention and education and treatment – that’s what we have to do.”

Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat who favors legalization, predicts Washington will take a hands-off approach, based on Obama’s comments about setting law enforcement priorities.

“We would like to see that in writing,” Polis says. “But we believe, given the verbal assurances of the president, that we are moving forward in Colorado and Washington in implementing the will of the voters.”

The federal government has taken a similar approach toward users in states that have approved marijuana for medical use. It doesn’t go after pot-smoking cancer patients or grandmas with glaucoma. But it also has warned that people who are in the business of growing, selling and distributing marijuana on a large scale are subject to potential prosecution for violations of the Controlled Substances Act – even in states that have legalized medical use.

Federal agents in recent years have raided storefront dispensaries in California and Washington, seizing cash and pot. In April, the Justice Department targeted 63 dispensaries in Santa Ana, Calif., and filed three asset forfeiture lawsuits against properties housing seven pot shops. Prosecutors also sent letters to property owners and operators of 56 other marijuana dispensaries warning that they could face similar lawsuits.

University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin says if the administration doesn’t act soon to sort out the federal-state conflict, it may be too late to do much.

“At some point, it becomes so prevalent and so many citizens will be engaged in it that it’s hard to recriminalize something that’s become commonplace,” he says.

There’s a political calculus for the president, or any other politician, in all of this.

Younger people, who tend to vote more Democratic, are more supportive of legalizing marijuana, as are people in the West, where the libertarian streak runs strong. In Colorado, for example, last November more people voted for legalized pot (55 percent) than voted for Obama (51 percent), which could help explain why the president was silent on marijuana before the election.

“We’re going to get a cultural divide here pretty quickly,” says Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster based in Boise, Idaho, who predicts Obama will duck the issue as long as possible.

Despite increasing public acceptance of marijuana, and growing interest in its potential therapeutic uses, politicians know there are complications that could come with commercializing an addictive substance, some of them already evident in medical marijuana states. Opponents of pot are particularly worried that legalization will result in increased adolescent use as young people’s estimations of the drug’s dangers decline.

“There’s no real win on this from a political perspective,” says Sabet. “Do you want to be the president that stops a popular cause, especially a cause that’s popular within your own party? Or do you want to be the president that enables youth drug use that will have ramifications down the road?”

Marijuana legalization advocates offer politicians a rosier scenario, in which legitimate pot businesses eager to keep their operating licenses make sure not to sell to minors.

“Having a regulated system is the only way to ensure that we’re not ceding control of this popular substance to the criminal market and to black marketeers,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group for legal pot businesses in the U.S.

See Change Research, which analyzes the marijuana business, has estimated the national market for medical marijuana alone at $1.7 billion for 2011 and has projected it could reach $8.9 billion in five years. Overall, marijuana users spend tens of billions of dollars a year on pot, experts believe.

Ultimately, marijuana advocates say, it’s Congress that needs to budge, aligning federal laws with those of states moving to legalization. But that doesn’t appear likely anytime soon.

The administration appears uncertain how to proceed.

“The executive branch is in a pickle,” Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said at a recent news conference outside the Capitol with pot growers visiting town to lobby for changes. “Twenty-one states have a different view of the use of marijuana than the laws on the books for the federal government.”

While the federal government hunkers down, Colorado and Washington state are moving forward on their own.

Colorado’s governor in May signed a set of bills to regulate legal use of the drug, and the state’s November ballot will ask voters to approve special sales and excise taxes on pot. In Washington state, the Liquor Control Board is drawing up rules covering everything from how plants will be grown to how many stores will be allowed. It expects to issue licenses for growers and processors in December, and impose 25 percent taxes three times over – when pot is grown, processed and sold to consumers.

“What we’re beginning to see is the unraveling of the criminal approach to marijuana policy,” says Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. But, Lynch adds, “the next few years are going to be messy. There are going to be policy battles” as states work to bring a black market industry into the sunshine, and Washington wrestles with how to respond.

Already, a federal judge has struck down a Colorado requirement that pot magazines such as High Times be kept behind store counters, like pornography.

Marijuana advocates in Washington state, where officials have projected the legal pot market could bring the state a half-billion a year in revenue, are complaining that state regulators are still banning sales of hash or hash oil, a marijuana extract.

Pot growers in medical marijuana states are chafing at federal laws that deny them access to the banking system, tax deductions and other opportunities that other businesses take for granted. Many dispensaries are forced to operate on a cash-only basis, which can be an invitation to organized crime.

It’s already legal for adults in Colorado and Washington to light up at will, as long as they do so in private.

That creates all kinds of new challenges for law enforcement.

Pat Slack, a commander with the Snohomish County Regional Drug Taskforce in Washington state, said local police are receiving calls about smokers flouting regulations against lighting up in public. In at least one instance, Slack said, that included a complaint about a smoker whose haze was wafting over a backyard fence and into the middle of a child’s birthday party. But with many other problems confronting local officers, scofflaws are largely being ignored.

“There’s not much we can do to help,” Slack says. “A lot of people have to get accustomed to what the change is.”

In Colorado, Tom Gorman, director of the federal Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Taskforce, takes a tougher stance on his state’s decision to legalize pot.

“This is against the law, I don’t care what Colorado says,” Gorman said. “It puts us in a position, where you book a guy or gal and they have marijuana, do you give it back? Do you destroy it? What in effect I am doing by giving it back is I am committing a felony. If the court orders me to return it, the court is giving me an illegal order.”

More than 30 pot growers and distributors, going all-out to present a buttoned-down image in suits and sensible pumps rather than ponytails and weed T-shirts, spent two days on Capitol Hill in June lobbying for equal treatment under tax and banking laws and seeking an end to federal property seizures.

“It’s truly unfortunate that the Justice Department can’t find a way to respect the will of the people,” says Sean Luse of the 13-year-old Berkeley Patients Group in California, a multimillion-dollar pot collective whose landlord is facing the threat of property forfeiture.

As Colorado and Washington state press on, California’s experience with medical marijuana offers a window into potential pitfalls that can come with wider availability of pot.

Dispensaries for medical marijuana have proliferated in the state. Regulation has been lax, leading some overwhelmed communities to complain about too-easy access from illegal storefront pot shops and related problems such as loitering and unsavory characters. That prompted cities around the state to say enough already and ban dispensaries. Pot advocates sued.

In May, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that cities and counties can ban medical marijuana dispensaries. A few weeks later, Los Angeles voters approved a ballot measure that limits the number of pot shops in the city to 135, down from an estimated high of about 1,000. By contrast, whitepages.com lists 112 Starbucks in the city.

This isn’t full-scale buyer’s remorse, but more a course correction before the inevitable next push to full-on legalization in the state.

Baker Montgomery, a member of the Eagle Rock neighborhood council in Los Angeles, where pot shops were prevalent, said May’s vote to limit the number of shops was all about ridding the city of illicit dispensaries.

“They’re just not following what small amounts of rules there are on the books,” Montgomery said.

In 2010, California voters opted against legalizing marijuana for recreational use, drawing the line at medical use.

But Jeffrey Dunn, a Southern California attorney who represented cities in the Supreme Court case, says that in reality the state’s dispensaries have been operating so loosely that already “it’s really all-access.”

At the Venice Beach Care Center, one of the dispensaries that will be allowed to stay open in Los Angeles, founding director Brennan Thicke believes there still is widespread support for medical marijuana in California. But he says the state isn’t ready for more just yet.

“We have to get (medical) right first,” Thicke said.

Dunn doubts that’s possible.

“What we’ve learned is, it is very difficult if not impossible to regulate these facilities,” he said.

Other states, Colorado among them, have had their own bumps in the road with medical marijuana.

A Denver-area hospital, for example, saw children getting sick after eating treats and other foods made with marijuana in the two years after a 2009 federal policy change led to a surge in medical marijuana use, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics in May. In the preceding four years, the hospital had no such cases.

The Colorado Education Department reported a sharp rise in drug-related suspensions and expulsions after medical marijuana took off. An audit of the state’s medical marijuana system found the state had failed to adequately track the growth and distribution of pot or to fully check out the backgrounds of pot dealers.

“What we’re doing is not working,” says Dr. Christian Thurstone, a psychiatrist whose Denver youth substance abuse treatment center has seen referrals for marijuana double since September. In addition, he sees young people becoming increasingly reluctant to be treated, arguing that it can’t be bad for them if it’s legal.

Yet Daniel Rees, a researcher at the University of Colorado Denver, analyzed data from 16 states that have approved medical marijuana and found no evidence that legalization had increased pot use among high school students.

In looking at young people, Rees concludes: “Should we be worried that marijuana use nationally is going up? Yes. Is legalization of medical marijuana the culprit? No.”

Growing support for legalization doesn’t mean everybody wants to light up: Barely one in 10 Americans used pot in the past year.

Those who do want to see marijuana legalized range from libertarians who oppose much government intervention to people who want to see an activist government aggressively regulate marijuana production and sales.

Safer-than-alcohol was “the message that won the day” with voters in Colorado, says Tvert.

For others, money talks: Why let drug cartels rake in untaxed profits when a cut of that money could go into government coffers?

There are other threads in the growing acceptance of pot.

People think it’s not as dangerous as once believed; some reflect back on what they see as their own harmless experience in their youth. They worry about high school kids getting an arrest record that will haunt them for life. They see racial inequity in the way marijuana laws are enforced. They’re weary of the “war on drugs,” and want law enforcement to focus on other areas.

“I don’t plan to use marijuana, but it just seemed we waste a lot of time and energy trying to enforce something when there are other things we should be focused on,” says Sherri Georges, who works at a Colorado Springs, Colo., saddle shop. “I think that alcohol is a way bigger problem than marijuana, especially for kids.”

Opponents have retorts at the ready.

They point to a 2012 study finding that regular use of marijuana during teen years can lead to a long-term drop in IQ, and a different study indicating marijuana use can induce and exacerbate psychotic illness in susceptible people. They question the idea that regulating pot will bring in big money, saying revenue estimates are grossly exaggerated.

They counter the claim that prisons are bulging with people convicted of simple possession by citing federal statistics showing only a small percentage of federal and state inmates are behind bars for that alone. Slack said the vast majority of people jailed for marijuana possession were originally charged with dealing drugs and accepted plea bargains for possession. The average possession charge for those in jail is 115 pounds, Slack says, which he calls enough for “personal use for a small city.”

Over and over, marijuana opponents warn that baby boomers who are drawing on their own innocuous experiences with pot are overlooking the much higher potency of the marijuana now in circulation.

In 2009, concentrations of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot, averaged close to 10 percent in marijuana, compared with about 4 percent in the 1980s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. An estimated 9 percent of people who try marijuana eventually become addicted, and the numbers are higher for those who start using pot when they are young. That’s less than the addiction rates for nicotine or alcohol, but still significant.

“If marijuana legalization was about my old buddies at Berkeley smoking in People’s Park once a week I don’t think many of us would care that much,” says Sabet, who helped to found Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization. “But it’s not about that. It’s really about creating a new industry that’s going to target kids and target minorities and our vulnerable populations just like our legal industries do today.”

So how bad, or good, is pot?

There are studies that set off medical alarm bells but also studies that support the safer-than-alcohol crowd and suggest promising therapeutic uses.

J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, set out to sort through more than 100 sometimes conflicting studies after his teenage son became addicted to pot. In a 22-page article for Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2012, he laid out the contradictions in U.S. policy and declared that “little about cannabis is straightforward.”

“Anybody can find data to support almost any position,” Bostwick says now.

For all of the talk that smoking pot is no big deal, Bostwick says, he determined that “it was a very big deal. There were addiction issues. There were psychosis issues. But there was also this very large body of literature suggesting that it could potentially have very valuable pharmaceutical applications but the research was stymied” by federal barriers.

Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under 1970 law, meaning the government deems it to have “no currently accepted medical use” and a “high potential for abuse.” The only federally authorized source of marijuana for research is grown at the University of Mississippi, and the government tightly regulates its use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says plenty of work with cannabis is ongoing, but Bostwick says federal restrictions have caused a “near-cessation of scientific research.”

The American Medical Association opposes legalizing pot, calling it a “dangerous drug” and a public health concern. But it also is urging the government to review marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug in the interest of promoting more research.

“The evidence is pretty clear that in 1970 the decision to make the drug illegal, or put it on Schedule I, was a political decision,” says Bostwick. “And it seems pretty obvious in 2013 that states, making their decisions the way they are, are making political decisions. Science is not present in either situation to the degree that it needs to be.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s director, Dr. Nora Volkow, says that for all the potential dangers of marijuana, “cannabinoids are just amazing compounds, and understanding how to use them properly could be actually very beneficial therapeutically.” But she worries that legalizing pot will result in increased use of marijuana by young people, and impair their brain development.

“You cannot mess around with the cognitive capacity of your young people because you are going to rely on them,” she says. “Think about it: Do you want a nation where your young people are stoned?”

As state after state moves toward a more liberal approach to marijuana, the turnaround is drawing comparisons to shifting attitudes on gay marriage, for which polls find rapidly growing acceptance, especially among younger voters. That could point toward durable majority support as this population ages. Gay marriage is now legal in 12 states and Washington, D.C.

On marijuana, “we’re having a hard time almost believing how fast public opinion is changing in our direction,” says Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance.

But William Galston and E.J. Dionne, who co-wrote a paper on the new politics of marijuana for the Brookings Institution, believe marijuana legalization hasn’t achieved a deep enough level of support to suggest a tipping point, with attitudes toward legalization marked by ambivalence and uncertainty.

“Compared with attitudes toward same-sex marriage, support for marijuana legalization is much less driven by moral conviction and much more by the belief that it is not a moral issue at all,” they wrote.

No one expects Congress to change federal law anytime soon.

Partisans on both sides think people in other states will keep a close eye on the precedent-setting experiment underway in Colorado and Washington as they decide whether to give the green light to marijuana elsewhere.

“It will happen very suddenly,” predicts the Cato Institute’s Lynch. “In 10-15 years, it will be hard to find a politician who will say they were ever against legalization.”

Sabet worries that things will move so fast that the negative effects of legalization won’t yet be fully apparent when other states start giving the go-ahead to pot. He’s hoping for a different outcome.

“I actually think that this is going to wake a lot of people up who might have looked the other way during the medical marijuana debate,” he says. “In many ways, it actually might be the catalyst to turn things around.”

Past predictions on pot have been wildly off-base, in both directions.

The 1972 commission that recommended decriminalizing marijuana speculated pot might be nothing more than a fad.

Then there’s “Reefer Madness,” the 1936 propaganda movie that pot fans rediscovered and turned into a cult classic in the 1970s. It labeled pot “The Real Public Enemy Number One!”

The movie spins a tale of dire consequences “leading finally to acts of shocking violence … ending often in incurable insanity.”

Associated Press writers Kristen Wyatt in Denver, Gene Johnson in Seattle, Lauran Neergaard in Washington and AP researcher Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.