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Sunday, March 28, 2010

A unique career path determined on campus

By Dick Hirsch

Nearly 40 years ago Mike Aldrich was clearly the most famous student on the campus at the University at Buffalo, better known than the captain of the football team or the president of the student body.

Not only was he famous, he had made up his mind what his life’s ambition would be. He pursued it starting in Buffalo and continues his quest today in San Francisco, where, at the age of 68, he looks back on a life he considers well spent, with more missions to embark upon, more goals to accomplish.

He can still quote the opening line published in the Courier-Express, the morning paper, which introduced him to the reading public of Western New York. It went like this:

“Amidst a sea of beards and long hair, a clean shaven graduate student named Michael Aldrich yesterday became Buffalo’s King of pot.”

Aldrich founded a campus group called LeMar, short for legalize marijuana, and history will show that action made UB the first university in the country to have such a group. That was in 1967 and two years later, in February, 1969, the university hosted the First International Drug Legalization Conference, with Aldrich as the chief organizer. LeMar had been recognized as an accredited student group, but the administration wasn’t exactly thrilled to be associated with that effort.

They were reading the papers down at Police Headquarters, too, so Aldrich became the subject of discussion there. All these years later he claims, with some pride, that he was high on the surveillance list of potential evil-doers compiled by the Narcotics Squad. He says the police searched the apartment on W. Tupper where he lived with other students and also tapped his telephone line. The unit was then headed by Detective Sergeant Michael Amico who achieved a degree of fame in that role, especially for well-publicized drug busts, and was eventually elected sheriff.

Aldrich, who graduated from Princeton in 1964, smoked his first marijuana as a college junior while attending a summer program at Harvard. Following Princeton graduation he was a Fulbright Scholar in India during 1965-1966.

“They were selling and smoking ganja legally on the street corners but you had to sneak around to the back room of certain places to get a glass or wine or liquor,” he recalled. “I was introduced to bhang, like a milkshake with a dollop of marijuana added. It is dynamite.”

Aldrich was at UB from 1966 to 1970, when he earned his Ph.D in English, writing a folklore dissertation on the use of marijuana and similar substances as far back as the twelfth century. So are there many job opportunities for a recent graduate with a doctorate in English and a scrapbook filled with articles about him urging the legalization of marijuana? Not exactly. So how did it work out? He defines his career this way:

“I have spent my life working so people will not be put in jail for smoking marijuana.”

He has worked toward that goal in a number of ways, primarily by researching marijuana’s history and conveying to the public that it is a substance that should be decriminalized. He has taught classes in various locations and for years was the curator of the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Museum, which he describes as the nation’s largest collection of drug literature.

In 1972, he and a handful of others spearheaded an effort to place a proposal legalizing the possession, transportation and harvesting of marijuana on the statewide ballot in California. It was the first such proposal in the country.

“Ronald Reagan was governor and naturally he and most other elected officials were vehemently opposed. We had no money to publicize our arguments in favor, but we we must have struck a chord with the voters. Without any television advertising we got 33 percent of the vote, a figure that was far greater than anyone expected. There is another legalization referendum in 2010 and we should do much better.”

Aldrich is well known among proponents of modification of marijuana laws as well as those who oppose change. He is gratified that marijuana is seen today in a more favorable light and is commonly used for medicinal purposes. But he says much remains to be done. Naturally, he has a few suggestions, such as:

“People on Social Security should all get marijuana. It’s great for creaking bones, combats insomnia and is a better intoxicant than alcohol.” Even as a grad student, Aldrich could always be relied upon for a memorable quote.


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