Marijuana History

Taking a Close Look at Marijuana History

As the U.S. considers legalizing marijuana federally, and the national political conversation on the topic takes great steps forward, it is worth reflecting on the history of marijuana in the country— as the drug went from commonplace to illegal, and it's now heading back toward legalization again.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cannabis - along with opiates and cocaine - could be found in your local drug store, often in liquid hashish form. Despite medicinal trends, pure recreational use was not widely accepted. It was not until further into the twentieth century that marijuana cigarettes were introduced to the U.S. by Mexican immigrants.

In 1906, the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act created the first attempt to federally regulate marijuana. The Act required medicine producers to list cannabis on their labels, so bothered consumers could avoid it. Between 1914 and 1925, half of the states in the U.S. passed laws prohibiting marijuana altogether, coinciding with the successes of alcohol prohibition by temperance campaigners of the day. Politicians and the media chimed in, warning of the grave threat that narcotics posed to the nation. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s empire used “yellow journalism” to tarnish the cannabis plant’s reputation, associating cannabis with violent crime. It has been said that Hearst’s goal was to destroy the hemp industry altogether. In addition, rumor has it that the powerful DuPont petrochemical company – as well as DuPont’s major financial backer and key political ally, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon – shared in this goal: Mellon was the wealthiest man in America, and he had heavily invested in DuPont’s then-new nylon fiber industry. However, both DuPont and Mellon believed nylon’s success depended on its ability to replace a traditional resource – hemp.

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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 $2.0 billion.

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 anti-drug laws.

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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