How Did Cannabis Ever Become Illegal?

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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Is It Time to Retire the Term ‘Marijuana'?

Way back in the 1990s, around the time of that first, groundbreaking legalization of medical cannabis—thanks, California!—it was common to hear the warning “This isn’t your parents’ marijuana!” This was a bit of caution aimed at smokers returning to the fold: Newer, more carefully cultivated cannabis flower were exponentially more potent than the “street weed” many children of the ‘60s had grown up with, and imbibing an entire joint—as many remembered doing with ease—could have unintended consequences.

Now, some 20 years into this grand experiment, cannabis advocates are wondering whether the word “marijuana” still has any relevance. Maybe it’s time once and for all to discard the old labels—and old concepts—and rediscover the role this fascinating plant has to play in our lives today. Let’s start by looking at the definition of marijuana and what marijuana used to be.  

“Marihuana:” An Unwelcome Guest from the South

Although cannabis and hemp (essentially a very low-potency commercial crop) have a long history in this country, its medicinal (and, one assumes, recreational) role was limited. Cannabis tinctures and hashish were available over the counter—as were more powerful “remedies” as cocaine and opium—where they were recommended for anxiety, muscular pain, and upset stomach. Sound familiar?

But beginning in the early 20th century, migrant laborers from Mexico brought cannabis flower—“marihuana”—and the practice of purely recreational smoking with them. Race and class-based unease about immigrants tainted cannabis, as did the rising tide of the temperance movement, culminating in Prohibition in 1919 and the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Cannabis was officially flora non grata in the United States, and for most Americans, the word “marijuana” would take on a dark and sinister cast.   

Marijuana vs. Cannabis: New Terms for a New Era

While marijuana has shed many of its negative associations—recent polls suggest a clear majority of Americans now support both medical and recreational cannabis—this is as good a time as any to reconsider what we call the plant.

For one thing, “marijuana,” as noted above, is not a botanical term; it’s a culturally specific one. We don’t call cheese “spoiled milk,” as do many Chinese, who grow up in a largely dairyless culture.

Additionally, cannabis has a different role to play in today’s society than it did a century ago. Research is uncovering deep and potentially game-changing synergies between the cannabis plant and our bodies—largely through its interaction with the Endocannabinoid System—but many physicians remain skeptical of the plant’s usefulness as medicine (thanks, Jeff Sessions).

The words we choose to describe our world send powerful messages; a rebranding of the old “marijuana” may not change everyone’s minds, but switching to the term “cannabis” can have a subtle effect, signalling that old assumption may no longer be valid, or that it’s time for a reassessment of outdated—and often negative—perceptions of this controversial plant-based medicine.

Of course, at the end of the day, we’re fine with whatever you want to call cannabis, so long as you’re deriving value—recreational, medical, spiritual—from it. But consider the potential of a subtle rebranding, the power of turning over a new leaf and seeing something you thought you knew from a different perspective. Now that’s powerful medicine.   

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