Cannabis vs. Alcohol: How Did Cannabis Ever Become Illegal?

July 12, 2016

Cannabis is safer than alcohol? Ask many people, and they will agree.  For years anti-cannabis drug warriors have demonized cannabis as an “evil weed.” The federal government continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug — the most dangerous of drugs, “highly addictive,” with “no known medical value.” Nonetheless, study after study proves cannabis is far safer than alcohol and other drugs. Although most recreational and therapeutic users of cannabis know this to be true, what are the facts and how did cannabis ever become illegal in the first place?

Alcohol Is More Dangerous Than Cannabis

Let’s start with some facts...

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the excessive use of alcohol “led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year in the United States from 2006 – 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.” How many deaths were attributed to Cannabis? None.

The American Scientist, the Scientific Research Society’s publication, reported that alcohol is one of the most toxic drugs known to man. Using only 10 times more than one would generally use to achieve a desired effect, the dose can be fatal. How much cannabis would it take to fatally overdose? So much, that not a single person has ever ingested a fatally toxic dose of cannabis.

Moreover, according to the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal, the health-related costs associated with alcohol are far greater than what we find with cannabis.. Specifically, the annual health-related cost of alcohol consumption is $165 per user, compared to just $20 per user for marijuana. And, alcohol damages the brain; contrary to popular claims, cannabis does not (and may even have neuroprotective qualities). Alcohol use is linked to cancer, while studies demonstrate cannabis has anti-cancer properties and may even kill cancer cells.

It seems straightforward enough. So, again, why is cannabis federally illegal when it is clearly a safer and more versatile substance than alcohol? One word: racism.

Early 1900s: Reefer Madness

Throughout history, cannabis has been used throughout the world and even in the U.S. medically and recreationally. The Federal Government never considered cannabis a “big deal,” and in fact, for years encouraged farmers to grow it. However, things began to change in the early 1900s.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Mexicans began emigrating to the southwestern part of the United States en masse. With them, they brought cannabis culture, as cannabis became associated with marginalized groups, cannabis became more demonized.

With the onset of The Great Depression, Americans were hit hard economically. During times of economic uncertainty, society often looks for groups to blame. Mexican immigrants became one such target.

Politicians from states in the Southwest, wanted a way to be able to control, and often deport, Mexican immigrants. So they started lobbying Washington D.C. to criminalize marijuana. They turned to Harry Anslinger, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ drug-czar.

Interestingly, Anslinger didn’t see marijuana as a big deal, believing the government should focus on more dangerous narcotics like heroin and cocaine. However, it didn’t take long for him to bow to political pressure, and Anslinger became the most powerful and vocal anti-marijuana figure in the country. A master propagandist he led a racist campaign to create hysteria about the “dangers” of cannabis. Working in tandem with “yellow journalist,” William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger was able to persuade the country that cannabis was a public menace. Everyone is familiar with the biggest anti-pot film of all times, “Reefer Madness!”

Nonetheless, making cannabis illegal still presented challenges. Afterall, how do you criminalize a “weed” that grows wild? Not only that, the medical community, including the American Medical Association were opposed to it, and feared the government’s efforts would impede research. (Boy, were they right!)

Ingeniously, they devised a plan. Instead of making cannabis illegal, they persuaded Congress to pass the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” requiring anyone growing it or possessing it to purchase a Tax Stamp. But, here was the catch: In order to get the Tax Stamp, you had to be in possession of the cannabis. Of course, if you were in possession of cannabis, you were breaking the law. So essentially they created a catch-22 that effectively criminalized the possession of cannabis.

1960s: Cannabis and The Counterculture

For years to come, cannabis continued to be popular among disenfranchised communities, gaining immense popularity among Jazz society. But it wasn’t until the counterculture movement of the 1960s that cannabis became hugely popular among white suburban kids.

Viewing the counterculture movement a threat to “The Establishment,” Richard Nixon ran for president on a platform that promised voters he would restore “law and order.” It wasn’t long before Nixon introduced the “War on Drugs,” calling drugs, “public enemy number one.”

While Nixon knew cannabis wasn’t more dangerous than alcohol, he saw further criminalizing drugs like cannabis as a way to control his adversaries — namely blacks and “hippies.” Notably, many years later, Nixon’s aide, John Ehrlichman admitted to journalist, Dan Baum:

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did... [we] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

1970s to Present Day

In 1970, Congress replaced the Tax Act with the Controlled Substances Act, which we continue to have today. The Act has long been criticized as placing politics above science, particularly when it comes to cannabis. Cannabis is a Schedule I drug, considered along with heroin as one of the most dangerous drugs — highly addictive, with no known medical use. Oddly, as Schedule II drugs, methamphetamine and cocaine are scheduled lower than cannabis.

Despite a reprieve in the 1970s in which many states — starting with Oregon — decriminalized cannabis, during the 1980s, politicians further intensified the drug war and implemented harsh mandatory sentencing laws.

The tide changed in the mid 1990s. In 1996, California became the first state in the country to legalize medical marijuana, inspiring the nation (even the world) to rethink its drug laws. Here we are today; significant majorities support both medical marijuana and outright legalization. However, the question remains: what will it take for the federal government to  come in line with the rest of the country?


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