Paying for an expensive full-page ad to run in the London Times on July 24, 1967, The Beatles and band manager Brian Epstein joined a few dozen activists to urge lawmakers—insistently—to legalize pot in the U.K. All four band members smoked and liked cannabis—but especially Paul McCartney, who repeatedly describes cannabis as being transformative in their songwriting development.
Given by the wording in the 1967 ad, you’d think the cannabis legalization argument was printed yesterday: “The law against pot is immoral and unworkable in practice,” the ad title reads. Pot is “the least harmful of pleasure-giving drugs, and […] in particular, far less harmful than alcohol.”
It continues, “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.” The ad was signed by The Beatles, their manager, and about a few dozen other activists fighting against marijuana laws in the U.K.
Even in 1967, activists knew full-well that the propaganda spreading about the so-called dangers of pot were based in lies. The sense of urgency to legalize pot was spurred by the arrest of International Times founder John Hopkins on June 1, 1967, who also founded the UFO Club and the 24 Hour Technicolour Dream. Hopkins was arrested and sentenced to nine months in prison for simple possession—setting off a wave of outrage among the U.K.’s flourishing hippie crowd.
The very next day, there was an emergency meeting held at the Indica Gallery, an art gallery in London that served as counterculture headquarters at the time. Steve Abrams of drug-research organization SOMA suggested running a full-page advertisement, demanding for the legalization of pot.
Shortly after, Paul McCartney agreed to finance the full-page ad himself, and recruit the band to join in. Steve Abrams contacted Brian Epstein’s office, and shortly afterwards received a personal check from McCartney’s funds for £1,800 made out to The Times–the equivalent to £37,303.23 today, or $ 51,321.78, modified for inflation. At the time, the parties admitted that it was twice the average annual wage rate at the time, and that it was one of the newspaper’s riskiest moves.
The First “Hit” by The Beatles
By the time the London Times ad ran, the Fab Four had smoked pot for about three years at that point: On Friday, August 28, 1964, in a room in the Delmonico hotel on Park Avenue and 59th in New York City, The Beatles met Bob Dylan for the first time—and he made damn sure they remembered it. This seemingly insignificant get-together grew to become a pivotal moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. Fortunately journalist Al Aronowitz was in the room to record the chain of events—in full detail.
Dylan whipped out a plump joint, like the Pied Piper of drugs, and gave it to Ringo Starr, who smoked the whole thing like a cigarette, not knowing how to smoke it any differently. One by one, the band allegedly smoked weed for the first time in their lives, according to Aronowitz’s account. Everything changed at that point, especially the band’s subject matter in songs.
All four band members became seasoned with the plant. Practically anyone could easily notice the red eyes in 1965’s Help! film, or the countless other references to pot in The Beatles’ music. Paul McCartney smoked weed on and off into his seventies, repeatedly using it as subject matter in many songs, and getting arrested for cannabis over and over again.
“They gave him 10 for two, and what else can the judges do,” John Lennon wailed, in his 1972 protest song about the ridiculous 10-year sentence given to White Panther and anarchist poet John Sinclair for two joints, in retaliation from law enforcement agents.
Remembering the album Rubber Soul, George Harrison said it was a “full-fledged, pothead” record, continuing to sing about “Papa White Smoke” later in life. Last but not least, Ringo Starr is technically the first Beatle to smoke pot, but some rock historians look back and say that’s because he was last in the pecking order, but the only one brave enough to smoke first.
It’s hard to imagine The Beatles music without the influence of cannabis and psychedelic drugs, specifically in the later years of the band’s run.