Harry Anslinger. The name that should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who enjoys using marijuana. It was his propaganda war in the 1930s that resulted in the demonization, and illegalization, of weed. However, as much as we would love to blame the misinformed government official, there was negativity surrounding cannabis before his crusade; he merely seized shifting public opinion.
Speaking of which, there has been a sizeable shift in favor of marijuana in recent years. 45% of Americans have admitted trying cannabis at least once, and a 2017 Gallup Poll showed that 64% of Americans believe it should be legalized all over the country. This is quite a change from the record low of 12% support for marijuana legalization in 1969. As recently as 2002, only 34% approved!
Unless you’re a history buff or a weed aficionado, you’re probably unaware of the lengthy history of cannabis legalization. From widely used medicine in the 19th century, to demon narcotic in the 20th century, to the relaxant with medicinal values attached in the 21st century, marijuana has had a hell of a ride!
The Long Road to Regulation & Demonization: 1500 BC – 1906 AD
There is a suggestion that a Chinese Emperor named Fu Hsi was the first to write about weed as a medicine. However, most historians believe he didn’t exist. While marijuana has been used for at least 12,000 years, the first confirmed mention of weed as medicine occurred in the Ebers Papyrus in Egypt in approximately 1,500 BC. A Chinese medical collection from 1 AD mentions cannabis as a cure for over 100 medical issues, and it was used in dozens of countries during the Dark Ages and Middle Ages.
One of the first known instances of cannabis regulation occurred in the 14th century. The Emir of the Joneima in Arabia outlawed the substance. In 1787, the newly crowned king of Madagascar, Andrianampoinimerina, banned weed so that anyone caught using it was sentenced to death. There were weed bans in several locations during the 19th century; Mauritius, a British Colony, banned it in 1840, while the Sri Lankan Opium and Bhang Ordinance of 1867 ensured that only licensed dealers were allowed to sell the substance.
Cannabis was banned in Natal Colony and Singapore in 1870 and in 1890; Greece banned the use, importation, and cultivation of the plant. There were no such issues in the United States during the 19th century, as marijuana was a widely used addition to medical products. However, things soon changed. A massive increase of Mexican immigrants to America in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 gave closed-minded individuals a golden opportunity to spread their message of intolerance across the country.
Marihuana, The Drug of the ‘Other’: 1906 – 1937
In literature, the concept of the ‘other’ relates to groups or individuals who do not belong. This was the general feeling when a huge wave of Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States during the early part of the 20th century. They brought with them a culture of using weed as a recreational drug.
By this time, there were calls to look into the safety of medicine, which included cannabis. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drugs Act required the labeling of medicine and, in the same year, cannabis sale was restricted to licensed pharmacists. It was the beginning of restrictions, as in 1911, with prohibitionist sentiment rising, Massachusetts became the first state to outlaw marijuana and several states quickly followed suit.
In December 1914, the Harrison Act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson. It prohibited the importation of opiates and physicians were forbidden from prescribing narcotics. Although the goal of the Act was to prevent the use of heroin, opium, and morphine, it had a major impact on the weed industry.
In 1925, the U.S. supported regulation on hashish in the International Opium Convention and, in the same year, work began on the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act. It underwent several changes and was finally released in 1932. It was designed to ensure that the traffic in narcotics should have uniform regulation and safeguards across the United States.
In 1930, a man named Harry J. Anslinger was appointed as the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was fanatically anti-marijuana, believing it caused insanity and that users were driven to criminal activity. With the aid of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger spent the rest of the 1930s engaged in a war on weed which involved a liberal dose of propaganda.
In 1936, Anslinger and his Bureau of Narcotics urged federal action to control cannabis but in the same year, Reefer Madness was released. Widely derided as one of the worst movies in history, it depicts a group of teenagers driven to madness, mayhem, and murder after using marijuana. Anslinger also used anti-immigrant sentiment to depict weed as the drug of choice for Mexican immigrants and other non-Americans. It may have been an appalling film, but Reefer Madness had the desired effect.
Marijuana as an Outlaw: 1937 – 1996
The Marijuana Tax Act was signed on August 2, 1937. Now, it was illegal to possess or transfer weed anywhere throughout the United States under federal law. While it was still legal to use it for industrial or medical purposes, a severe excise tax was applied. Samuel R. Caldwell was the first American to be convicted of possessing cannabis under the new law.
The 1951 Boggs Act established minimum prison sentences for marijuana possession and, in 1956, the substance was included in the Narcotics Control Act. As a result, you would receive even heavier jail sentences for weed-related offenses. A first-time conviction for possession carried a minimum of two years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.
In what was a dark day for marijuana lovers, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970. It placed drugs into different categories, with cannabis classified as a Schedule I drug because it had no ‘accepted medical value’ and was apparently addictive. In 1971, President Nixon declared his War on Drugs, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was formed in 1973.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 reinstated mandatory prison sentences for drug crimes and an amendment later introduced the three-strikes law. In 1990, the Solomon-Lautenberg amendment was enacted. Several states punished people caught in possession of weed with a driving license revocation, even if the crime was unrelated to driving.
The Fight for Legality: 1996 to Present
There was a brief drive to decriminalize marijuana, as 11 states did so for possession of small amounts between 1973 and 1978. However, the 1980s was an era of tight restrictions and heavy penalties for marijuana possession and sale. The first real breakthrough occurred on November 5, 1996 when California passed Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act. It allowed patients and their primary caregivers to possess and cultivate weed for the treatment of specific medical conditions.
Within two years, Alaska, Washington and Oregon followed suit. Marijuana was either decriminalized or legalized for medicinal use in multiple states within the next decade. However, the best news was yet to come. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. As of 2018, eight states and D.C have all legalized cannabis for recreational use. Vermont was the first state to do so via state legislature.
Marijuana Legalization: What’s Next?
Canada has just become the second country in the world to legalize recreational cannabis; Uruguay was the first in 2014. The chances of the United States following suit any time soon is practically zero. The Trump Administration installed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, but he is the 21st-century version of Harry Anslinger. Therefore, marijuana will remain illegal on a federal level for the foreseeable future.
It is a different story at state level. At present, there are 20 states where marijuana is illegal recreationally and medicinally. It appears as if several of these states will make a significant change in the next few years. For example, there is set to be a ballot on whether marijuana should be legal recreationally in Michigan on November 6, 2018.
While a similar proposal failed in 2016, the latest effort is well-funded and is supported by influential groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project. The road to full legalization is long and paved with obstacles but we believe that times have changed and ultimately, the United States Government will have no option but to fully legalize marijuana on a federal level.