The relationship that the United States has had with cannabis has had more turbulence than most other regulated substances. From farmers being mandated to grow cannabis as hemp in the 1600’s to the consumption being heavily criminalized and back again, the cannabis plant has certainly been put through the legal ringer. Today, there are some states who allow recreational consumption of marijuana while other states still regard its use as a crime worthy of a hefty prison sentence.
During the 17th century, the production of hemp was encouraged by the government due to the increase in the demand for rope, clothing and sails. In 1619, the Assembly in Virginia passed laws which compelled every farmer to produce hemp, a material that was later to become a legal tender in Penn.
Eventually, domestic production saw reduction after the Civil War since a lot of imports and synthetic fibers replaced hemp in the domestic markets. Towards the end of the 19th century, people started to use marijuana in quite a number of medicinal products, some of which were sold openly in the pharmacies. This is also the time when hashish became a trend in France and it soon found its way into the United States.
Following the influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States, recreational use of marijuana started to make an increase. It then became associated with the Mexicans and there were a lot of warning about the marijuana menace since a lot of crimes became associated to it and the Mexicans who smoked it in their large numbers. Of course today this notion is rather discriminatory, but back in the early 1900’s everyone was a little more uptight and less open-minded about what else was actually going on.
Before the 1920s, cannabis did not gain much attention from law enforcement. However, after an influx of immigrants in the decade prior, a growing group of anti-cannabis activists insisted that marijuana and immigration were the source of a rise in violent crimes. This paved the way for federal action to criminalize the possession, cultivation, and consumption of cannabis in the following decade.
A distinct increase in fear of marijuana marked the 1930s. After that great depression hit and unemployment grew substantially, resentment for immigrant workers solidified the public’s link between marijuana and immigrant crime. Several research studies were published that claimed to prove a link between violence and marijuana consumption and by 1931, nearly 30 states had criminalized it.
Due to the rising use of marijuana and its association with lots of crimes and other social evils in America, the Uniform State Narcotic Act was passed and this compelled the state governments to be responsible for controlling the marijuana related problems within their jurisdictions.
Reefer Madness was a propaganda film produced by Louis Gasnier in 1936 that has since become an icon for understanding public opinion about marijuana in the 1930s. The film tells the story of promising youth who are turned into terrible criminals after consuming marijuana. Depiction of narcotics in films was banned by the Motion Pictures Association of America in the same year. This was still long before the time that most people understood there were even different strains of marijuana, such as Jack Herer x Skunk or Critical Blue. It was all simply lumped together under the derogatory term of “devils’ lettuce” or “jazz cabbage”
Following concerted campaigns against marijuana, which was now referred to as the “evil weed”, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by Congress and this effectively criminalized marijuana in the United States. The tax restricted its possession to only individuals who paid excise tax for use with particular industrial and medical purposes.
The public’s negative view about cannabis eased in 1940. During World War Two, hemp was a crucial material from which necessary items like rope, parachutes, and other military items were made. Because of this, the United States Department of Agriculture began a pro-hemp campaign called “Hemp for Victory.”
This campaign encouraged farmers across the United States to grow the hemp plant. The USDA further motivated farmers by offering draft deferments and free seeds to those who agreed to grow cannabis. As a result, over 375,000 acres of hemp were harvested in 1943.
Despite the comeback of Cannabis in the 1940s, the 1950s saw cannabis become the subject of new restrictions and harsher punishments. During this decade, the Boggs Act and Narcotics Control act were passed. With these new laws, a first-time marijuana offender could receive anywhere from two to ten years in prison with fines up to $20,000.
Marijuana-smoking hippies are an icon of the 1960s, as this decade saw an amazing surge in cannabis counterculture. The drastically changing cultural and political landscape of the time sparked a more lax attitude surrounding cannabis. Public policies were introduced that sought to consider using it as a medical treatment.
Both President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned reports that found that marijuana consumption did not lead to violence. The reports also state that users were not more likely to use heavier drugs.
Now of course to oppose this new found sense of freedom, The Narcotics Control Act was then passed which stipulated mandatory sentences for drug offenses, with marijuana being one of them. However, the bulk of these laws were later repealed in 1970 and marijuana was effectively differentiated from other drugs. The mandatory sentences for possession of small amounts of marijuana were also removed. So all in all the 60’s were a great step forward for the cannabis movement as a whole.
During the 1970s, cannabis laws became more lenient throughout most of the United States. Congress repealed the 1950s-era mandatory sentencing and penalties for drug-related crimes, which included cannabis offenses. Additionally, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act eliminated federal sentencing for possession of small amounts of marijuana and categorized it into a distinct class than other narcotics.
Though the tides were turning for cannabis legalization, conservative pushback against it grew. The Drug Enforcement Agency was created in 1973, which created a framework in which the federal government could pursue and prosecute individuals for marijuana-related crimes. Additionally, a nationwide movement began with conservative parents lobbying for more strict laws regarding cannabis.
The 1980s are famous for the start of the war on drugs, which was the culmination of a growing anti-drug sentiment throughout the United States. This decade saw strict no-tolerance policies for many drug related offenses, even those involving cannabis possession. Both president Ronald Reagan and president George H. W. Bush took a special interest in addressing drug use during their terms. It goes wthout saying that many indoor and outdoor grow operations were busted and heavy charges were laid to set an example for the rest of the American people.
In 1983, a program called Drug Abuse Resistance Education was formed through a partnership between Los Angeles public schools and the Los Angeles Police Department. It began with police officers speaking with students in schools and encouraging them to resist the temptation to use drugs.
The program was universally praised and was eventually instituted in over 75% of school districts nationwide. The program’s curriculum often included information about the negative effects of marijuana consumption, which spurred a new level of public resistance to the cannabis plant.
Though the 1980s saw a crackdown on marijuana consumption, the 1990s saw a resurgence of cannabis counterculture. Rather than the “pot-smoking hippie” trope of the 1960s, marijuana consumption became a major force in hip-hop music and comedy films. This helped lessen some stigma that became normal after the staunch anti-marijuana stance of the 1980s.
Medical marijuana gained serious ground in the 1990s, with an increasing number of doctors and oncologists demanding that it be considered more heavily as treatment for a variety of medical conditions. Several research studies were published throughout the 1990s that better documented the effects of marijuana on the brain and better illustrated its potential medicinal properties. As a result, California became the first state to legalize medicinal use of marijuana in 1996. This was following proposition 215 which allowed marijuana to be sold to and used by AIDS and cancer patients as well as people with other serious and painful conditions. Though the law was in contradiction with the federal laws that regulated the use and possession of marijuana, it set the pace to what is currently being witnessed in the US still. In the following decade, several states will now fully legalize the use of medical marijuana seeds for growing yourself or in a licensed facility.
Though the United States congress continued to block attempts to make medical marijuana federally illegal, it had also taken steps towards researching it. In 2003, the United States government was granted a patent for the therapeutic use of cannabinoids in certain medical conditions. The patent lists several discoveries about the benefits of cannabinoids, showing that the United States government acknowledged its usefulness despite the government’s continued attempts to thwart legalization legislation.
By the end of 2009, 13 states had passed legislation to legalize medical marijuana. This continued to happen year after year, despite the federal government sending continuous messages that it would find and prosecute anyone who used it. Some states, such as California, wavered on their own marijuana legislation by placing restrictions on the amount a medical patient could use, but those laws were quickly overturned.
Around 2005, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents targeted medical marijuana dispensaries all over California. While no arrests were made, the DEA seized an extreme quantity of marijuana, which was widely regarded as a power move. However, the pressure on marijuana dispensaries from the DEA did not last long.
In 2007, the DEO administrative law judge issued a statement recommending that a doctor named Lyle E. Craker be allowed to grow and perform research on medical marijuana at the University of Massachusetts. However, the DEA rejected this idea in 2009, stating that there is no need to cultivate more marijuana for research purposes than is already available. In the same year, the United States Attorney General announced that the Department of Justice would not view prosecuting medical marijuana patients as a priority, showing a shift in the United States government’s views on the use of marijuana.
During the last decade, several states have passed legislation allowing the recreational use of marijuana. As of today, all but eight states have some marijuana legislation that either legalizes its consumption recreationally or medically, or decriminalizes the possession of it. The first states to legalize the recreational consumption of marijuana were Colorado and Washington in 2012.
Several states followed Colorado and Washington’s lead in the years to come. Today, states that allow for recreational use include Vermont, California, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, Illinois, Maine, and Michigan. All the states that have allowed for the legal sale of recreational marijuana through dispensaries have seen a staggering increase in tax revenue, further motivating other states to follow suit. There has also been a staggering increase in the number of different sativa strains and indica strains available to the average consumer.
No other drug in the history of the United States has had such turbulence in both legality and public opinion as cannabis. It has served as a major vehicle for profit during an economic depression and has been the center of federal scrutiny. The last decade has seen some of the most significant gains, with it becoming legal for recreational consumption in several states and a major source of state-level tax revenue.
It is clear that cannabis has come a long way since the days of “Reefer Madness.” The plant we know today has been genetically transformed from humble weed to a potent plant capable of treating a wide range of illnesses, from glaucoma to anxiety. A few more wonderful strains to try if you haven’t already are Blueberry OG, Auto Grapefruit and Auto Super Skunk.
If there is one thing that is certain, it is that the United States’ relationship with cannabis is far from over. It should be an exciting thing to watch the next 10 years unfold before our eyes!