How Weed Really Became Illegal in America

How a 100 year old campaign of racism shaped modern-day views of cannabis.

Learn about how Anslinger made cannabis illegal

As the 2020 elections approach, the future of legal cannabis in the United States is a crucial talking point. There’s no doubt the nation’s stance on cannabis has become more accepting in recent years and we could list numerous reasons why cannabis should be legal from medical purposes to clearing space in our prisons for more violent offenders.

Which begs the question: why is cannabis illegal in the first place?

Cannabis Use In The 1600s

Jamestown settlers (during the early 1600s) were all about harvesting hemp because it’s great for making ropes, clothing, and other fibrous material. Cannabis provided a lot of money for the United States and several plantations flourished across the land for a couple of hundred years.

Between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s, marijuana use was common for medical purposes and tinctures and medicines were available in pharmacies and general stores. So yes, over a century before the first state legalized medical marijuana, Americans were legally using medical marijuana.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required any over-the-counter products containing cannabis to be clearly labeled. Fair enough, people should know what’s in their medicine.

This all sounds pretty…rational. Americans growing and using hemp industrially, and Americans using cannabis medicinally to treat different medical afflictions while no one is getting incarcerated sounds like something from the current day. What happened in between then?

One word can sum up what happened: racism. Err…let’s throw xenophobia in there too.

The Demonization Of Mexican Immigrants And The Fall Of Cannabis

Rio Grande City, Texas, USA - February 9, 2016: A Border Patrol agent takes a Mexican man into custody for illegally entering the U.S. by crossing the Rio Grande River in the Rio Grande Valley in far south Texas. A continuous game of cat and mouse plays out along the river twenty four hours a day.

iStock / vichinterlang

Ah, now we’re sounding more like current-day America.

In the early 1900s, America began to experience a rush of immigration from the South following the Mexican Revolution. When people immigrate, they tend to bring some of their culture and customs with them, adding to the beautiful melting pot that our country would have never made it this far without.

Mexican immigrants introduced recreational smoking to Americans who had previously only used the plant medicinally under the name “cannabis.” They called it “marihuana” and to the advantage of the sensationalist media, Americans were unaware of it being the same plant.

Lots of Americans had built resentment towards the immigrants, mostly because they subscribed to sensationalist media and believed everything they heard. Sound familiar?

Marijuana, a new term brought over from Mexican immigrants, became demonized as an extension of the demonization of the immigrants themselves. Pot use was associated with violence and criminals, offering a perfect justification for searching, detaining, or deporting Mexican immigrants. DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?

Nobody batted an eye when dozens of states began to prohibit the drug between 1914 and 1925. People were so unfamiliar with the effects of this recreational drug that they blindly accepted its violent and murderous connotations.

Harry Anslinger’s Campaign Of Racism

Closer U.S.-Canada Marihuana (Marijuana) control discussed. In the photograph, left to right: Col. C.H.L. Sharman, Chief of Canadian Narcotic Control; Harry Anslinger, U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics; and Assistant Secretary of Treasury Stephen B. Gibbons, 3/24/37 (Source: Wikicommons)

The biggest contributor to our still muddled marijuana laws is Harry Anslinger, a government official who served the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. With the end of alcohol prohibition, this poor guy was at risk of not having a job. That is until he figured out he could target other substances that did not serve his agenda.

Anslinger worked on the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act trying to ban cannabis among other drugs like cocaine and opiates. The American Medical Association wanted to leave cannabis alone so they could prescribe it as needed, and the end result at the time was to keep it open for each state to regulate cannabis on their own.

Anslinger’s whole platform was built on racism. He had a problem with cannabis and its potential for promoting “interracial mixing” and relationships. He also hated jazz music and claimed jazz musicians were making “satanic” music because of their marijuana consumption. Basically, he was the worst.

Reefer Madness and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

While it may be a right of passage for some stoners to watch Reefer Madness and get a good laugh, the 1936 film was extremely damaging for the future of pot. It painted marijuana to be just as if not more dangerous than other drugs, with images of violence and hysteria to scare the public from this dangerous plant that could be growing in their backyard.

It was nothing but propaganda, and it surely wasn’t a coincidence that just a year later marijuana was criminalized under the Marijuana Tax Act. Individuals could not possess or sell marijuana, and though medical marijuana was not made illegal, it was difficult to implement because of extensive rules and taxes which were clearly intended to limit access.

In 1944, the first in-depth look at marijuana was conducted by the La Guardia Committee. They found, in contradiction with the lies Anslinger was dishing out, that “use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use.”

Anslinger shot this study down by commissioning a counter-piece and tried to shut down further publishings that contradicted his agenda.

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

Macro shot of cannabis on a black background

The Marijuana Tax Act was finally ruled unconstitutional years later, but the story doesn’t end there. It was replaced by none other than the Controlled Substances Act which ranked it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

The Schedule 1 status classifies marijuana as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted use as a medical treatment in the United States. We all know that’s accurate and has our best interests in mind.

The Future Legality Of Cannabis

Eventually, the Schedule 1 status of cannabis was overtur– just kidding. It’s 2019, and cannabis is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

We have legal medical and recreational weed in different states, but the laws vary and the bottom line is that cannabis is still illegal on a federal level. Hopefully, this will change soon, but the timeline has not been promising.

In the meantime, we can blame Anslinger for a lot of the negative rhetoric we hear today about cannabis.

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