A drag then, legal now
Editor’s note: We’ve transcribed the original archive stories that cover Annette Buchanan’s case as it happened. You can find all of the pertinent articles from the ’60s here.
It’s finally legal to smoke and tell in the state of Oregon.
When the clock struck midnight on July 1, any fear of having to cough up $500 or $1,000 for carrying even an ounce of marijuana was lifted as the legalization clause of Measure 91 kicked in.
Social stigma surrounding the drug has slowly been evaporating since it was decriminalized in 1973. But it wasn’t always this way.
Forty-nine years ago, Annette Buchanan was drawn into a flurry of litigation and appeals after publishing a story where seven of her fellow University of Oregon students admit to toking up.
The 20 year-old Oregon Daily Emerald managing editor faced a subpoena by the Lane County District Attorney, a Grand Jury and finally a circuit court trial. She burned the notebook containing the names of her sources before she could be forced to give it up.
Buchanan’s story, titled “Students Condone Marijuana Use,” was published in The Oregon Daily Emerald in May 1966.
Buchanan, a junior who had just been appointed as the Emerald’s next managing editor, published her article in response to an earlier Emerald story in which Dr. Herman Cohen condemned pot smokers, saying they would soon turn to harder drugs such as heroin and LSD.
After coverage of Cohen’s talk published, seven students wrote in to The Emerald. They said their hobby was mischaracterized as something more dangerous than it actually was.
Buchanan took their case and published their arguments. She knew the names of five of them.
Buchanan interviewed Bill, Joe, Sue, Ed and Bernard — pseudonyms for their protection — and got their perspectives on the drug.
“Pot sensations are different from those of alcohol,” they told Buchanan. “There’s actually no comparison.”
William Frye, the Lane County district attorney at the time, took issue with these opinions.
By June 3, 1966, Frye had ordered a subpoena to force Buchanan into divulging her sources’ names.
Buchanan refused. And by June 13, Buchanan appeared in front of a Grand Jury.
During testimony published by then-editor Phil Semas, the district attorney and Emerald managing editor had a series of tense discussions. During one such hearing, Frye asked Buchanan what she knew about local marijuana laws.
“I don’t think that applies here,” she responded.
The source of tension between Buchanan and Frye was complicated. Rumors circulated that his vehemence stemmed from the Emerald having endorsed his opponent for a congressional seat. Others said it was a knee-jerk response to a newspaper staff that was getting too big for its britches.
Mike Fancher joined the Emerald staff in September 1966, five months after Buchanan’s article published. Fancher said that faculty, administrators and even students were often split on the topics covered by reporters.
Emerald staffers wrote stories about student discontent during the Vietnam War. They penned editorials criticizing the UO’s registration system and tuition increases for graduate students. And they wrote about an evolving attitude toward drugs that made waves across campus.
“We learned quickly what it was like to be on the firing line,” Fancher said.
Fancher was appointed editor in chief the year after Buchanan’s controversial article published.
According to him, Buchanan’s article received mixed reviews from UO faculty. Those differences of opinion were reflected in the courtroom.
As evidenced in news stories about the case and some of the questions Frye pitched during his inquiries, he and Buchanan approached their arguments with two distinct ideologies:
To Frye, it was a matter of hunting down a group of kids who had broken federal drug laws.
Buchanan saw it as a matter of freedom of the press.
The Grand Jury found Buchanan guilty of contempt of court, which could result in a $300 fine and six months in jail.
She didn’t have to serve time, the jury decided, but had to pay the $300, which was covered by a fund set up by professional journalists who took an interest in her case.
According to an article published by the Emerald on Sept. 27, 1966, Buchanan “paled slightly” and “dropped her head to her hand” upon hearing the ruling.
Buchanan and her attorney appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.
Kyu Ho Youm, the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s foremost authority on media law, is reviewing a book on the theory of shield laws — the kind of legislation that would have strengthened Buchanan’s case.
Although Buchanan’s case didn’t spur Oregon legislators into action immediately, Youm said the managing editor’s story is an important case study in the history of reporters’ protections.
“It was a very important case, especially before the Supreme Court of the United States refused to recognize a journalist’s right to protect their source under the First Amendment,” he said. “It’s probably the first case of its kind.”
In 1973, the Oregon House of Representatives passed shield law legislature, which was later signed into law by Governor Tom McCall (Another UO alumnus and former Emerald reporter.) The Oregon law allows reporters to refuse revealing their sources.
“The Oregon shield law is one of the most media-friendly laws in the United States,” Youm said. “It’s very extraordinary.”
Youm said the most important people in solidifying better protection for journalists are advocates for freedom of the press, lawmakers and academics.
The federal case that Youm references is Branzburg v. Hayes, which bears striking similarities to Buchanan’s.
While the letter of the law had much to do with Buchanan’s defeat in the courts, attitudes toward marijuana use did just as much to get her in front of a judge to begin with. When Semas, the editor of the Emerald in 1966-1967, rallied his staff to pen an editorial calling for legalization, the move wasn’t exactly common or popular.
“It was very provocative at the moment to call for the drug to be legalized,” Fancher said. “Faculty questioned the freedom of expression the newspaper had. Everything felt like a lightning rod.”
Things have calmed down since then. Straight-laced kids in the ‘60s would make a beeline for the exit if they heard that a few of their peers were lighting up in the next room.
Buchanan died in February of 2013, one year before Oregon voters approved the use of recreational marijuana and two years before the law’s implementation. But her story — the words she penned and the aftermath — stand as major footnotes in the state’s path to two major pieces of legislation.
Follow Eder Campuzano on Twitter: @edercampuzano
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