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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Remembering Penn State’s Marijuana Golden Age

On Behalf of | Apr 17, 2013 | Uncategorized

Once upon a time, well, actually in ancient history for Penn State’s current students, you could smoke marijuana on the Penn State campus with little fear of repercussions. I will never forget my History 21 professor during my sophomore year telling our class that back in the 1970s, you could not walk from one end of the Penn State campus to another without getting stoned. She should have played Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women” for added effect, as she went on to describe “Gentle Thursday,” a Penn State stoner holiday long pre-dating April 20.

Starting in 1970, Gentle Thursday took place the third Thursday of April on the Old Main lawn. It was meant to be a rally for peaceful co-existence, while the Viet Nam War and struggles for racial and gender equality divided the nation. Bands played free concerts for students playing Frisbee and hacky sac under the spring sun. And then there was also reefer, mushrooms, LSD and even beer. And the police left everyone alone. As long as you were not harming anyone else, you could pass a spliff and openly drink underage. Eventually, Gentle Thursday lost its original purpose, and just became a huge outdoor party. In 1981, Old Main put the nix on Gentle Thursday, concerned that it had become just an excuse for hedonistic debauchery. 

The closest thing to a Gentle Thursday revival took place on the Saturday of the 1992 home game against Maryland, and was billed as “Marijuana Day.” “Marijuana Day” was the culmination of “Marijuana Week,” at Penn State, which was designed to raise awareness of the anti-prohibition movement. On Marijuana Day, hippy bands influenced by the Grateful Dead, Phish and the Allman Brothers filled the air with psychedelic tunes, as early 1990s neo-hippies got their groove on. Right by the HUB gazebo, the concert organizers handed out pro-marijuana legalization literature, and asked people to sign various petitions, for causes such as animal rights, mandatory recycling laws, and of course, ending the War on Drugs.

Fake joints, made of sage and smelling just like ganja, were freely distributed to the crowd. I suppose it was supposed to make it harder for the police to tell the difference between real joints and fake ones, but the police had no interest in arresting anyone in the peaceful crowd anyway. Most of the police were occupied with the football Game, and the small handful of police at Marijuana Day quietly observed the proceedings, while people openly passed around real joints and bowls. It should be noted that no one was drinking alcohol at this event, unlike the earlier Gentle Thursdays.

The spring of 1992 had seen a major political victory for the marijuana legalization front. Rob Kampia, who had previously done prison time and been expelled from Penn State after being convicted of growing over 90 marijuana plants, was elected Under Graduate Student Government President in a landslide victory. Back then, Penn State students actually cared about the USG and voted in the elections. One of Kampia’s central campaign issues was that Penn State should lessen the penalties for students charged with marijuana possession. Kampia is now the director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington DC, a group, which lobbies for an end to Prohibition.

Anyone going to Penn State now knows that things have changed quite a bit since the era of Gentle Thursday and Marijuana Week, but I think it is important for today’s students to know that Penn State did not always take a draconian approach to cannabis.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA and a Penn State alumnus, with extensive experience in drug defense.

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