Marijuana, like most things, has been around forever. Some evidence suggests cannabis use dates back to ancient Greeks, Egyptian pharaohs, and Chinese emperors. Who knows, maybe pot even goes back to prehistoric times; after all, a lot of dinosaurs were herbivores. While history is rich in weed – as it is most things – modern history is where the controversy of marijuana takes place. In fact, once upon a time, there were no laws, no legalities, and no limitations on open minds.
August 10, 1913
For pot users, August 10, 1913 is a day that lives in infamy (even though you probably weren’t born and, if you were, congrats on being a thousand). Weed historian Dale Gieringer points to this date as the moment a new regulation went into effect, enacted by the Board of Pharmacy. This regulation added “locoweed” to the Poison Act. Though locoweed isn’t marijuana that’s gone of its rails (nowadays, it’s the term used to describe a North American plant that produces swainsonine, a toxin harmful when ingested by livestock), back in the early 1900s, it was simply the name given to cannabis. And its regulation opened a proverbial can of worms. Prior to this, marijuana was used medicinally as well as recreationally without government interference.
Many people purchased it from drugstores, using it to find relief in everything from menstrual cramps to migraines
While some tied its prevalence to the Mexican Revolution – associating the drug with immigrants who came to America after 1910 – cannabis had always been stateside. Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp.
The War on Cannabis
As World War I approached, a war of a different kind also emerged: the tide of cannabis turned and California (as well as other states) cracked down on its use in people who didn’t have a doctor’s prescription. Marijuana was soon painted as a menace, and the Mexicans unfairly blamed for its presence were looked upon in similar light. This was compounded by the Great Depression, a dark era in history when the US was more about poverty and hopelessness than opportunity. Some blamed pot, of all things, and, by 1931, many states had passed legislation making it illegal.
Interestingly enough, the war on cannabis was concurrent with the war on cabernet, at least partially
Prohibition took effect in 1920 and lasted until 1933. Certainly, America wasn’t dry during what we now know as “the roaring twenties.” The illegality of alcohol simply meant people used it underground, bought it in back alleys, and relied on criminals for supply (yep, it sounds familiar).
Save the Children!
Propaganda perpetuated the fear of cannabis. People looked upon those who used it as lower class citizens, parents scared their children away from it, even church groups got in on the tactics, producing films so lengthy they were like After School Specials on crack. In 1932, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created and, two years later, the nation saw the passage of the Uniform State Narcotic Act, championed by Harry Anslinger (the first commissioner of the FBN). This act was purely revenue-producing; it provided penalties for drug violations, but it didn’t grant states the rights of seizure or the power of punishment. The 1936 film “Reefer Madness” further muddied the waters. Produced by French director Louis Gasnier, the plot involved dramatic events that occurred when high school students decided to try marijuana: hit and run accidents, manslaughter, suicide, rape, and descents into madness (naturally!).
"Reefer Madness" only perpetuated the public fear of cannabis and people hunkered down on hemp: forget the whales, save the children
Following Reefer Madness, congress brought the anti-weed agenda into the House and Senate and passed the Marijuana Tax Act. Effectively, this criminalized the use of weed, restricting it only to people authorized to use it for certain medical and industrial uses. After they paid an excise tax, of course.
Not everyone bit: The New York Academy of Medicine published a report attesting to marijuana’s benignity, the scientists behind it declaring that the use of cannabis did not induce sexual aggression, violence, or insanity. The report was much more extensively researched than the previous studies painting Mary Jane as Mary Queen of Scots. The 1940s, as America entered another World War, saw a resurgence in the value of hemp. A material vital to things like parachutes and marine cordage, hemp was crucial to the military. In order to encourage its production, the US Department of Agriculture launched “Hemp for Victory,” a campaign encouraging farmers to plant its seeds (and granting draft deferments if they did).
By 1943, as World War II was in full-swing, farmers harvested 375,000 acres, hemp was hip again
Unfortunately for marijuana users, fear trumped reason and stricter laws set in. The Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 each set mandatory sentences for drug related offenses, including those that involved cannabis. The laws were even ridiculous by today’s standards: a first-time offense carried a minimum sentence of 2 years and up to a fine of 20,000 dollars. Presently, that’s around 178,000 bucks.
They say that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. An era marked by Civil Rights, Women’s Lib, and free love, it was a decade of progression and equality, a time where people strived to make America a little less USA and a little more utopian. And there were lots of drugs. Woodstock epitomizes this: nearly half a million people emerged on White Lake, New York to get stoned, have sex, and rock ‘n roll in August 1969. But, while this festival may be what symbolizes the end of this era, cannabis use wasn’t limited to those in attendance: the middle-class smoked up, the cultural and political attitudes changed, and earlier reports by both JFK and LBJ found that marijuana didn’t promote violence or transition into harder, more dangerous drugs. By 1970, congress repealed the majority of its mandatory penalties for drug-related offenses. It also passed a law, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, differentiating cannabis from other drugs. The Shafer Commission, a bi-partisan group appointed by Nixon, moved to decriminalize marijuana altogether, a recommendation rejected by one of the few presidents ever considered for impeachment.
The 1980s witnessed a revival of the anti-pot attitude, spearheaded by the Reagans.
People everywhere were encouraged to just say “no” and to think about their brain on drugs whenever they made an omelet
The laws reverted too: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act re-instituted mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. It also raised federal penalties for marijuana possession and dealing, effectively making someone in possession of 100 marijuana plants susceptible to the same punishment as someone in possession of 100 grams of heroin. Later on, the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” amendment promoted life sentences for repeat offenders.
While the War on Drugs raged on, medicinal marijuana claimed a huge victory when California became the first state to legalize its use in 1996. Many states followed, allowing this decade to serve as a jumping off point, at least in terms of the anti-weed community admitting that – Okay, fine! – cannabis is conducive to healing and health.
The recreational use of marijuana didn’t gain steam until the turn of the century. Even then, it was a slow boil at first: in 2006, Coloradoans rejected the ballot to decriminalize recreational weed.
Six years later, marijuana passed with flying colors
Seven states and the District of Columbia have also passed legislation making recreational marijuana legal for anyone over 21, giving citizens as much right to buy some kush as they do a keg.