Today we’re going to talk about cannabis prohibition. We know it’s not a happy subject, but it’s necessary to talk about where cannabis has been and how far along it’s come.
To understand cannabis prohibition, we need to take a deep dive into cannabis history.
History of Cannabis Prohibition
Humans and cannabis have had a relationship spanning thousands of years. Historically, cannabis has been used for so many different things like nutrition, medicine, clothing, recreation, and as a shamanistic tool.
It was only around the 1800s that cannabis became popular in the Western world for medicine and recreation. After Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns in North Africa, hashish (or hash) started to flow into France.
In 1841, a man named William O’Shaughnessy introduced the healing properties of cannabis in England after studying the plant in India. After O’Shaughnessy’s work, interest in cannabis’ medical properties exploded.
Over the rest of the 19th century, cannabis preparations began to fill the shelves of pharmacists in Europe and North America. Cannabis would remain a staple in pharmacies and be used to treat a variety of illnesses.
Then, something happened around the turn of the 20th century (the 1900s). Public opinion about cannabis began to plummet in the 1910s, and many people became fearful of it in the following decades.
The thing is, people weren’t scared about cannabis, but about marijuana.
In the 1910s, the Mexican revolution began, and many Mexicans started to flee to the Southwestern United States to escape the violence.
Prejudice and xenophobia gripped the American people about these new migrants. It was only after the migrants started arriving that the term marijuana found its way into the English lexicon for the first time.
It was no coincidence either because the press specifically used the term marijuana to make cannabis sound more foreign and associate it with the new Mexican migrants. Basically, the press was blaming Mexican migrants for bringing “marijuana” into the United States.
Then, the press began to spread false rumors about how marijuana was causing violent and “deviant” behavior in order to make the American people fearful of the migrants.
Now let’s consider something for a moment—there’s all of this crazy propaganda being printed about marijuana. At the exact same time, you could walk into a pharmacy and buy a cannabis tincture or have one prescribed to you.
So there’s this extreme divide between the real cannabis plant and this fantasy drug called marijuana that only existed in the press.
To get an idea of what was being printed, here’s an excerpt of a New York Times story in 1927:
“A widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana plant, according to doctors, who say that there is no hope of saving the children’s lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life.”
We know—it sounds pretty ridiculous, but the crazy thing was, it was highly effective back then. Things really took a turn for the worse in the 1930s, though.
During the great depression of the 1930s, cannabis propaganda got turned up a few notches. With the rise of jazz music and an influx of immigrants, Americans in high places began to demonize cannabis.
However, at this point, cannabis wasn’t prohibited—yet. Now, I want to introduce someone who played a huge role in cannabis prohibition—a really awful guy called Harry Anslinger.
To put it gently, Anslinger was extremely racist and was highly motivated to vilify cannabis and connect it with minorities. He targeted cannabis through speeches, movies (like Reefer Madness), and he even testified to Congress.
In his congressional hearing, he said:
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”
Anslinger’s dream of cannabis prohibition became a reality when the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 became law. The law made it illegal to possess or transfer cannabis and imposed a hefty tax on all hemp products in all states.
From this point on, cannabis would be completely illegal. Sadly, things would only worsen over the following decades as cannabis laws would only become more strict.
In 1971, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was passed under Nixon’s administration. This infamous law made a complete restructuring of America’s drug laws.
The CSA was a response to the counterculture of the 1960s rather than being based on science or reason. Sadly, cannabis was placed as a Schedule I drug, which put it in the same category as meth and heroin.
It also didn’t help that Nixon was in charge because he wasn’t fond of cannabis, to put it lightly. He’s on record saying:
“I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana, I mean one that just tears the ass out of them.”
Nixon would start the war on drugs as we know it, and things would get worse in the 1980s. Ronald Reagen expanded the war on drugs and created mandatory minimum sentencing that sent countless people to prison just for cannabis use and possession.
Finally, the turning point came in 1996 when California became the first state to allow medical cannabis. Since then, cannabis reform has been accelerating, especially in the last few decades.
Fast forward to today, and cannabis prohibition looks like a distant nightmare. Right now, public perception about cannabis is at an all-time high as many states are passing medical and recreational cannabis laws.
As it stands, 36 states have approved cannabis programs either medically or recreationally, and even more, are looking to pass cannabis reform laws in the coming years.
And thanks to President Joe Biden, the future of cannabis laws seems brighter than ever. During his presidential campaign, he stated that he would be open to legalizing medical cannabis nationwide.
As recently as February 2021, President Biden stated that he would pursue complete cannabis decriminalization and expunge prior cannabis convictions. Let’s hope that he makes good on his statements and sets the United States down a path that ends cannabis prohibition once and for all.