How Did Cannabis Ever Become Illegal?

October 24, 2017

Nearly everyone now alive in the United States was born in an era of cannabis prohibition, and for some, the shift to legalization has been both exciting and a bit bewildering. But as cannabis enters the mainstream and—as we hope and expect—enjoys full legality soon, that calculus is going to change. More and more Americans will grow up in an environment in which cannabis is understood to be a safe drug (and powerful medicine) for responsible adult use.

So if our perspective on cannabis is largely dependent upon the year of our birth, this begs a question: Why was cannabis prohibited in the first place? Given the many thousands of years—yes, you read that correctly—of interaction with humans, how did it ever become illegal in the United States?

The United States of…Hemp?

Hemp—essentially a very low-THC cannabis plant—was a critical crop in the early days of the American colonies, so much so that the English King James I made the cultivation of hemp for ships’ sails mandatory for farmers. Growers found plenty of uses for high-THC cannabis plants, and cannabis—mostly sold in tincture and hashish form—was an important part of the American pharmacopeia, being used to treat muscle pains, anxiety, incontinence, menstrual cramps, and a host of other maladies.

The United States’ troubled relationship with our neighbor to the south may have sparked a change in perception, as Mexican immigrants in the early 20th century brought with them the practice of smoking cannabis flower, as well as their term for it: “Marihuana.” By 1925 some 26 states (out of 48 at the time) had outlawed cannabis.

Cannabis: Caught in the Tide of Prohibition

To some degree, cannabis prohibition got a boost from Prohibition, the high-water mark—or is that high-alcohol mark?—of the long-simmering temperance movement, an attempt to eradicate alcohol from the American diet.

Though alcohol has historically been associated with sustained and large-scale violence, cannabis’ unfamiliarity allowed crusaders such as future drug czar Harry Anslinger to suggest its causality in heinous violence and depravity; it’s noteworthy that these links weren’t demonstrated by any actual studies or research.

Given cannabis’ guilt by association with “undesirable” immigrants, Anslinger, publisher William Randolph Hearst, and many others were only too happy to make it a scapegoat for any number of social ills. When the Marijuana Tax Act made it to the floor of the House in 1937, it passed after less than 30 minutes of debate.

What’s Next for Marijuana: The Medical and Social Frontiers

In some ways, the current wave of legalization represents a moment of deja vu in which cannabis will once again be a commonly available medication and recreational drug for consenting adults. This time around, however, the flood of research unleashed by decriminalization offers us the opportunity to make scientifically validated statements about what cannabis can—and cannot—do. It’s a truly exciting moment as we look back to learn from the past while simultaneously looking forward to the future of cannabis in America.

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