The fact that smoking marijuana was associated with immigrants and lower-class
people also played a role in its prohibition. The 1930s onward capitalized
on the public’s fears, and anti-narcotics leaders worked to pass
standardized anti-drug laws in all states, along with strict penalties
for using marijuana. As Prohibition ended in the early ‘30s, marijuana
came under scrutiny by Congress and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN).
Up until 1937, growing and using marijuana was legal under federal law.
However, Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the FBN, promoted
federal legislation to control marijuana and echoed the newspapers’
position that marijuana was the instigator of widespread evil behaviors
across the country.
The federal government then unofficially banned marijuana via the Marihuana
Tax Act of 1937 by imposing an expensive transfer tax stamp for all sales
of marijuana. Shortly thereafter, every state made the possession of marijuana
illegal. Enforcement of drug laws was primarily the responsibility of
local police at that time, though the FBN occasionally assisted with such
efforts. Into the 1950s, legislators and journalists seemed to have little
agenda for presenting informed distinctions among illegal drugs. Marijuana
- alongside cocaine, opiates, and heroin - were all cast as perilous,
addicting, and evil just the same.
By the mid-1960s the view on marijuana began to shift, when college students--the
children of the country’s middle class--became the new face of the
drug. Smoking pot became associated with harmless fun, which seemed to
highlight the nonsensical laws that so harshly regulated against it. In
1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), a statutory
framework through which the government regulates the lawful production,
possession, and distribution of controlled substances. The CSA grouped
marijuana in the strictest category of drugs (Schedule I), which designated
the drug as having no permissible medical use. In 1973, President Nixon
authorized the creation of a specialized federal agency within the Department
of Justice to enforce the Controlled Substances Act: the Drug Enforcement
Agency (DEA). The DEA was to draw on the FBI’s expertise in combating
organized crime’s role in drug trafficking as well as provide a
single focal point for coordinating federal drug enforcement efforts with
state, local, and foreign enforcement efforts.
At its onset, the DEA started with a total of 1,470 special agents and
annual budget of $74.9 million. By 1975, those numbers had increased to
2,135 special agents and a $140.9 million annual budget. In 2014, the
DEA reported having over 9,000 full-time employees and a budget of approximately
Despite the passage of the CSA and establishment of the DEA, medical and
legal authorities of the 1970s began disputing the logic of the stringent
anti-marijuana laws and pushed for decriminalization. By 1977, the use
of marijuana was commonplace enough and the phobia so archaic that President
Carter also called for the drug’s decriminalization. He argued that
the anti-marijuana laws caused more harm than the drug itself. Yet President
Reagan showed no pity for the drug throughout the 1980s, preaching the
“Just Say No” campaign as Congress passed increasingly-punitive
Following the anti-drug movements of recent decades, it is impressive that
today’s liberalization efforts have been so successful, namely via
voter initiatives. The state approaches decriminalization initiatives,
legal exceptions for medical use, and legalization of specified amounts
for personal recreational use. The focus, however, has not been on reforming
people’s attitudes toward drugs in general. Instead, it’s
been on redefining marijuana as medicinal and non-violent, along with
emphasizing the economic and societal costs of the high incarceration
rates resulting from marijuana’s prohibition in the U.S.
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