Cannabis has a long, and convoluted history in the United States. Prior to even the foundation of it, King James I of England passed a law requiring every farmer in the colony of Virginia to grow and produce cannabis- it was integral to their way of life. They utilized hemp (cannabis plant) for the crafting of sails because it proved to be quite durable and mold-resistant; it’s also useful as material to make rope and clothing. Cannabis was also utilized medicinally to treat pain and other ailments. As one of the primary cash-crops in that era, hemp was often valued over money.
Cannabis’ origins run rampant through Central Asia, India, East Africa, and the Middle East. As humans continued to migrate, it’s theorized that Arabic traders cultivated it from North Africa to Spain; Spain then planted cannabis’ roots firmly into present-day Mexico where it grew into a successful business.
After the Mexican Revolution of 1920, cannabis grew in popularity as it was reintroduced into American culture by Mexican immigrants – shortly thereafter is where the “war on marijuana” propaganda officially began; this was a catalyst for several acts of legislation that eventually outlawed marijuana by 1970.
In 1930, Harry J. Aslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – he was also its founder. Over the next 30 years, Aslinger would work to both demonize and criminalize cannabis; applying such tactics as he had during alcohol prohibition. Unfortunately, his tactics worked – mainstream media began to vilify the plant by use of indignant racial bias; Mexican immigrants, Black Americans, and people of “lower” class were all aspiring criminals and cannabis users. Even still today, people of color are disproportionately targeted; black people are found to be 3.6% more likely to be arrested on mariuana charges. The punitive measures are also incredibly disproportionate to the crime.
In 1936, the anti-marijuana campaign bled into the cinematic realm with the release of the now cult-classic, Reefer Madness; the film spun a narrative of deplorable consequences burdened by a group of teens that took up smoking cannabis. While the film is regarded as mostly silly and overly exaggerated today, it instilled legitimate fear throughout the populus. By the end of 1930, cannabis became illegal in 29 states; this only fueled congressional fire and they began enacting legislation that would cripple the cannabis industry, almost fanning it out entirely, until the latter part of the 1970’s.
From Levy Tax to the Controlled Substance Act
Remember our *friend* Aslinger? Well, in 1937, he drafted what would become known as The Marijuana Tax Act. Federally, cannabis was still legal, but the passing of this act paved the way for cannabis to become criminalized and later outlawed by the mid 1970’s. The Marijuana Tax Act placed a hefty fine of $2,000 ($15,000 today) on any person caught utilizing the plant. If you couldn’t pay the fine, then you were looking at a 5-year jail sentence.
This lifespan of this particular piece of legislation was short-lived; in 1969, the Marijuana Tax Act was abolished by the United States Supreme Court during a civilian case; it just so happened that the act violated their Fifth Amendment rights.
Despite this forward momentum, an alternate piece of legislation was introduced by then president Richard Nixon in 1970, that pursued government regulation and the criminalization of most drugs/illegal substances; it’s known as the Controlled Substances Act. Nixon held a press conference labeling America’s “war on drugs” to be top-priority. He increased both the penalties and incarceration periods for drug offenders and boosted police presence throughout the country. By ‘73, he had also created the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) whose purpose was to enforce all of the drug (controlled substance) laws and regulations outlined by these various policies.
Cannabis Prohibition and The Shafer Administration
During the 1970’s, president Nixon appointed the republican governor of Pennsylvania, Raymond Shafer, as the lead of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. Shafer’s purpose was to review and classify cannabis research that would provide supporting elements outlined in the Controlled Substances Act. Unfortunately, his finalized work never saw the light of day – most of Shafer’s conclusions debunked the suspicion of marijuana use and its effects. Even though Nixon neglected to alter his stance and policies surrounding marijuana despite conflicting evidence to the contrary, states began to revise their cannabis laws in the latter part of the 1970’s.
From Reefer Madness to Modern Day
Cannabis’ transition throughout history in the United States is a remarkable one. We began this journey as an essential cash crop grown by pre-colonials to a barring tool dividing our country and our people on the basis of slander, followed by an outcry of politically driven media, to what it’s slowly becoming today. Marijuana is finally being recognized and given better respect for what it actually is: a wonderful, wellful plant.
As of the publishing of this blog, 37 states and four territories have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. 18 states and two territories have legalized it both recreationally and medically! Even though it is still classified as an illegal substance by the Controlled Substance Act, there are more states and over 50% of the population showing support of legalizing it at the federal level.
In the next part of this 3 part micro-blog series, Cannabis Prohibition and Legislation: We’re Making Headway breaks down current marijuana legislation at both the state and federal level! This will also help you to navigate cannabis law in your area!