A Brief History of Cannabis Legality in the United States – Part 1

April 20, 2021

The United States has always had its hand in the cannabis cookie jar. Our relationship with the stuff literally goes back to our colonial days, before we even had a proper name for ourselves, but it’s a relationship that’s just about as complex and with as many ups and downs as that one relative you can’t figure out whether you really dig or just can’t stand.


Cannabis has been a part of the American cultural identity for just about as long as the Bald Eagle, and it’s been something that we’ve fought with ourselves over for just about as long. But the reality of the situation, of course, goes a lot deeper than just petty arguing.


When it comes to cannabis and its illegality in the United States, believe it or not, we mostly have one man and his fantastically passionate brand of racism and xenophobia to thank.


Cannabis’ legal status in the United States has a fantastically storied past, and as with many things that wind up making us fight amongst ourselves, the history of its relationship with the public opinion is one fueled by greed, hatred, and a few of the other classics. A truly bizarre mixture of social and political factors has, for a long time, held afloat the raft of illegal cannabis, but the water level is now dropping at a rapid rate. The tide of public opinion has all but shifted now, and it took us a good, long time to get there.


Weed and the Early-Days USA

Cannabis mostly came to the North Americas from elsewhere, brought by the Spaniards and embraced by various natives, from Chile up through the North American East Coast. Believe it or not, the European Settlers were actually pretty stoked on it when they got here, and by the time the Colonies were established, they were all about using hemp for anything from rope to clothes.


It was even something that helped the colonists establish their economic independence from England when the time rolled around for them to do so, colonial farmers having been encouraged to produce enough of it so that they wouldn’t need to rely on the King for as many exports (the US even had it on its $10 bill for a good while, the government liked it so much).


For about the first hundred and fifty years of the United States’ existence, it had a pretty good relationship with marijuana, which wasn’t considered to be that big of a deal at all. Its use was relatively scattershot throughout the 1800s, and it wasn’t until right around the 1850s that someone figured out how to use it medicinally.


As the Mexican Revolution raged on in the second decade of the 1900s, immigrants fleeing the violence of wartime brought more and more cannabis across the southern borders with them, and along with them came its use as a handy alternative to the Prohibition that had outlawed booze in 1920. In other, more metropolitan parts of the country (the Midwest and the East Coast), cannabis was favored more specifically by jazz musicians and other members of the artistic community, their rising popularity causing them to become something of a significantly influential cultural force.


Harry Anslinger and the Tax Act of 1937

Along with the end of the 1920s came the end of Prohibition. Unfortunately, while this was pretty good news for most of the country, it was decidedly bad news for the guys who were in charge of enforcing said Prohibition. Specifically, this was bad for a guy named Harry Anslinger, who was effectively in charge of Prohibition, and found himself very suddenly out of a job (and presumably a feeling of purpose) when it was over. In other words, Harry needed something to do, and he needed something to do badly.


Harry Anslinger was one of those guys who fancied himself as having a very specific idea as to how things should be, when it came to the United States. In other words, he was fantastically racist and xenophobic, and he was pretty much willing to do anything in his power, no matter how dirty or underhanded his tactics may have been, to see that his vision for the country was realized. You can probably imagine how a man like this would have reacted upon having his job taken away from him, especially when that job was one that allowed him to enforce his personal vision for the country.


The emerging math is pretty simple: Anslinger needed a job, which meant he needed to find something new to outlaw. Heroine and cocaine weren’t used widely enough to be justifiably vilified, but marijuana was. And bonus: Anslinger hated the people who used it (immigrants, people of color, and artists) with an unbridled passion.


He was going to be goddamned if his strict vision for the United States was to be compromised by a subset of what he considered to be cultural interlopers, so he set about whipping up an artificial national panic around their recreational substance of choice.


In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was newly-born and ready to rumble. It was essentially Anslinger’s personal anti-drug force, writ large and on a national level, and it was the beginnings of what would eventually go on to become the DEA. He would use it to whip up an artificially-created national frenzy focused around marijuana, using everything from supposed crime statistics that selectively ignored inconvenient information to outright falsehoods in his efforts at convincing people that cannabis drove people to murderous rages.


Helping him do it were William Randolph Hearst—who hated Mexicans, blamed Pancho Villa for burning a bunch of his forests, and also needed salacious nonsense with which to sell his newspapers—and the DuPont corporation, who weren’t interested in cannabis’ medicinal applications impacting their presence in the pharmaceutical marketplace.


Together, these three entities marshaled their cultural and legislative influence until they were able to get the Tax Act of 1937 passed. This bill establishes cannabis as effectively illegal in the United States, and thereby begins a process that we’re only just now beginning to undo.


The Drug Abuse & Control Act of 1970

As you can imagine, the Tax Act of 1937 impacted both medicinal and recreational cannabis use across the entire country. Thanks to Anslinger’s cultural smear campaign, marijuana was hammered home in the hearts and minds of the American people as being a dangerous drug that brings out unspeakable rage in all who use it.


The lengths to which Anslinger went to ensure people thought cannabis dangerous would be pretty funny if it weren’t so frightening how effectively and lastingly one man’s personal demons were able to delude the majority of an entire country for so long. Everything from falsified medical reports to selectively-shared police documents were used to convince Americans that marijuana was dangerous and addictive in equal measures.


And it kept on working for a long time. For the next 40 years, marijuana legislation stayed consistent, remaining unchallenged in any kind of significant way until one Dennis Leary showed up on the scene. In 1969, he and some friends were arrested for marijuana possession, only he fought the case in court. In doing so, he managed to get the Tax Act of 1937 ruled unconstitutional.


Before he could so much as spark a celebratory joint, though, the US swiftly turned around and immediately replaced the Tax Act of 1937 with something called The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. And it was worse. Way worse. A sweeping piece of legislation, the bill did things like establish tighter rules for pharmacies handling addictive medications, while also establishing the “schedules” various drugs. And it puts marijuana right at the top of that lest, in Schedule I, next to heroin (where it remains today).


By this this time, though, something else has started to happen in the country. A legalization movement has been seeded, and it was just about getting ready to bloom.

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