The history of cannabis in the United States

By Emily Brennan

Managing Editor

Image via Kindel Media from Pexels

As of July 2021, 18 states legalized the use of recreational marijuana. 37 states have legalized it for medical use, but the federal government still deems cannabis illegal. The future of Marijuana legalization looks promising, but was it always? Let’s take a look into the deep history of marijuana prohibition.

The early 1900’s

In the early 1900’s the Mexican Revolution brought many latino immigrants to the US. They also brought over various traditions and customs – one of them being marijuana. The media then began to demonize the plant to villainize Mexican immigrants. Cities like El Paso, TX outlawed opiums as an excuse to search and deport those searching for freedom.

Harry Aslinger

After the prohibition of alcohol fell through, the FBN, now known as the Drug Enforcement Agency, appointed their first commissioner. Harry Aslinger, appointed in 1930 saw that the department was losing money and was at risk of shutting down. Aslinger then made his goal to eliminate all drugs in the US. Cocaine and heroin, only used by a small percentage of people in the US, just was not enough to keep the FBN afloat.

Aslinger’s influence was a large component of why the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act passed. He spread tons of false information pertaining to the plant, claiming it caused people to lose their minds, become violent and murder. Needing others to back his claim, Aslinger turned to scientific evidence as a result. Only one scientist out of thirty others at the time could confirm the evil effects of the plant, however the media presented and sensationalized just the one negative scientific analysis.

Racial bias, a crucial factor furthering Aslinger’s platform, placed blame on black and latino communities. Aslinger claimed it was un-American to use pot, accusing them as the sole users of the plant. Aslinger went as far to attack the artistry of music, claiming jazz music was similar to devil worshipping due to the influence marijuana had on musicians.

Reefer Madness

A film released in 1936, “Reefer Madness,” directed by Louis J Gasnier, heavily influenced the social outlook of marijuana. The film explains the youth of America are in danger if using cannabis, thus beginning the culture of the plant as the gateway drug. The stereotype lives on for some today. The film was successful in portraying cannabis as a narcotic, using cocaine and heroin as the comparison.

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

The spread of anti-marjuana propaganda and conspiracy grew; anti-drug advocates like Aslinger caused a ban of use and sales of cannabis. Claims were made during hearings accusing men , particulary of color, used cannabis to seduce and coerce white women into having sex. The claims made caused a series of strict anti-cannabis laws thereafter, socially instilling fear in Americans. In 1951, the Boggs Act created even stricter penalties around marijuana use and possession.

The 1970s

Under the Nixon administration, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 passed, causing cannabis to be listed as a federal class I drug. Class I drugs have zero potential for medical use and only high potential for addiction. Marijuana is still listed by the DEA as a class I substance – right next to heroin. In 1972, the Nixon administration ignored a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” The report called for lower penalties for those possessing cannabis and only partial prohibition of the plant. Soon after, propaganda programs such as D.A.R.E. infiltrated the public schools in the early 80s, leaving the message that cannabis is the gateway drug.

How did legalization come about?

During the 90’s California became the first state in the nation to legalize medical marjunana use under the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The 1990s became a turning point for legalization, as medical legalization eventually turned into recreational legalization. Vermont and Washington state were the first states to legalize recreational use in 2012. However, Colorado passed an act calling for the sale of cannabis.

The prohibition of cannabis was primarily a racist effort to lock up those of color. The federal illegalization of marijuana, still standing today, continues to incorporate systematic racism. It’s crucial to call on government legislators to address this issue. With little coverage of the topic in mainstream media, the people have a civic responsibility to call attention to the issue. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are almost 4x more likely to be arrested for possession than caucasians. States waste over 3 billion dollars in taxpayer money every year enforcing existing marijuana laws.

In 2019, the Last Prisoner Project was introduced as a nonprofit organization, built on the belief that any American should have the opportunity to build personal wealth from the legal marijunana industry. The LPP vows to help rebuild lives of those who were affected by cannabis criminalization and mass incarceration.

The mission is to promote a sustainable legal marijuana marketplace for all, by promoting equitable relationships that help those to grow businesses together. All Americans deserve a chance to pursue entrepreneurship in the legal cannabis marketplace.


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