A Brief History of Marijuana in the United States of America
The history of marijuana in the United States has been tumultuous. The start of this week marked 80 years since cannabis was criminalized by the federal government in 1937. What led up to that moment? How have we progressed (or regressed) since then? We thought we’d take a look at how the role of marijuana has developed within our nation and how attitudes have changed over the course of American history.
Grow, grow, grow!
Attitudes towards hemp were very different in the 17th century. We’re so used to the prohibition of marijuana, that many people don’t realize there was a time where the cultivation of cannabis, or more importantly, hemp, was actually encouraged! Hemp was used for making ropes, sails, and even clothing. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a law making it illegal for farmers not to grow the cannabis plant. Hemp was the most important crop in the United States until it was overtaken by cotton in the 1800s. Illegal not to grow cannabis? How times have changed.
Cannabis started featuring in medicine around this time too, and remedies containing the plant were required to display a label. The majority of the population remained pretty indifferent towards weed until the early 1900s when things began to change.
The Mexican Revolution in 1910 brought with it an influx of immigrants into the United States. This is known as one of the major turning points in the history of marijuana. The use of recreational marijuana was already commonplace in Mexico, and Mexican immigrants brought it with them. As we’ve seen throughout history (and continue to see today), mass immigration isn’t met without hostility. Fear and hostility towards Mexicans became rampant and anything associated with them was demonized. This included marijuana.
If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that economic downturns often make social tensions worse. The Great Depression in the 1930s brought with it increased fear and resentment of the already outcast Mexican immigrants. Cannabis was further demonized and more and more research began into its effects. This ‘research’ found marijuana to be responsible for violent crimes and delinquency. As a result of this, 29 states had outlawed marijuana by 1931. In 1936, the movie ‘Reefer Madness’ was released and in 1937 the last nail was put into the coffin with the Marijuana Tax Act. Cannabis was now illegal on a federal level.
The Swinging Sixties
Attitudes towards marijuana remained mostly negative throughout the 40s and 50s. However, counter research began to emerge to clear marijuana’s tarnished name, even if it was largely ignored. As early as the 1940s, the La Guardia Report found that, contrary to earlier research, cannabis was not responsible for violence, nor did it lead to harder drug use and addiction, meaning that many existing misconceptions about marijuana had been misinformed.
During the 1960s, attitudes towards marijuana relaxed. Both presidents Kennedy and Johnson commissioned reports on cannabis, finding the same results that the La Guardia Report had. Smoking marijuana became fashionable among the middle and upper-class hippies of the era and marijuana was heralded as a substance that promoted, peace and love.
The War on Drugs
One of President Nixon’s most famous legacies (apart from that one little scandal; Watergate, was it?) is his ‘war on drugs’. The 1970s saw the adoption of more hardline approaches to marijuana, classifying it on the same level as heroin as a Schedule I drug.
At the federal level, there was little progress with regards to attitudes towards cannabis, however, there was some progress among individual states. During the 70s, 11 states decriminalized marijuana, with several others significantly reducing their penalties for possession. However, Nixon’s legacy lived on through subsequent presidents Reagan and Bush. Reagan even increased federal penalties for marijuana possession in the 1980s. This period has been viewed as one of the less successful in the history of marijuana.
Where are we now?
We’ve come a long way since the turn of the century. In 1996, legislators in California passed Proposition 215, which allows the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients suffering from cancer and other serious, painful diseases. In 1998, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington all legalized medical marijuana. There are currently 29 medically legal states, as well as the District of Columbia. D.C. is also recreationally legal, as well as 8 other states. It looks like the scale is shifting as more and more states and cities consider passing laws to decriminalize. There are increasing amounts of research being done into the benefits of cannabis as well. However, there is still a lot of work to do. Cities are facing blocks when it comes to recreational implementation which could potentially harm cannabis businesses and the cannabis industry.
Nevertheless, the cannabis industry is the fastest growing industry in the entire country and we’re making more and more jobs every single day. We’ve reached a turning point, and it seems like there’s no going back now. The history of marijuana keeps moving and if anything, we're interested to see what happens next.