How is it that cannabis has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, but has been classified by the United States government as a Schedule I narcotic with no potential medical use and a high potential for abuse? What factors, events, and people played a role in making marijuana illegal?
If we go back to the mid 19th century, opium, cannabis, and cocaine could be purchased at pharmacies throughout the United States and Europe. The first modern drug law was the Pharmacy Act of 1868 in the United Kingdom.
This law classified substances as “poisons” or “drugs” and regulated their sale. As a direct result of the law, the death rate caused by opium overdoses dramatically fell.
In general, drug prohibition emerged from the idea that drug use is detrimental to society. But in the United States, many of the early drug laws were passed with racist motivations. The first drug law in the United States was passed in San Francisco in 1875, banning opium smoking in opium dens. This law was followed by a federal law banning Chinese immigrants from trafficking in opium. Lawmakers did not target the production of laudanum, a tincture of alcohol and opium that was widely consumed by white Americans in this era. As a result, the law was a form of racial discrimination. However, at the time opiates, cannabis, and cocaine could still be purchased at pharmacies to treat a variety of ailments.
At the turn of the century, medicines such as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Children were killing large numbers of children each year. The primary ingredient in Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Children was morphine, but morphine was not listed on the label.
In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in the U.S., which required drugs, including cannabis, to be accurately labeled with their contents. In 1912, the United States signed the Hague Opium Convention Treaty pledging to limit the spread and use of narcotics. In 1914, the Harrison Act was passed in the U.S., requiring sellers of cocaine and opiates to get a license.
Additionally, around the same time various states passed “poison laws,” some of which regulated cannabis. New York State passed legislation aimed at all “habit forming drugs.” Soon after the law was passed, cannabis was added to the list of habit-forming drugs.
During WWI, cultural attitudes began to shift such that drug use was “beginning to be associated with prostitution, vice and immorality.” Unprecedented laws banning the possession and dispensation of all narcotics were passed in Europe and in the United States. Shortly after WWI, the Volstead Act was passed, which banned the sale of alcohol in the U.S. So, there was certainly a large-scale cultural shift against drug use in this era, but what role did racist prejudice play in making marijuana illegal?
The cultural shift away from drug use was part of the reason why weed was made illegal, but anti-Mexican prejudice was an equally important aspect of why marijuana was banned. Following the 1910 Mexican Revolution, there was a significant influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States.
According to Eric Schlosser in his 1994 Atlantic article “Reefer Madness,” “the prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana.”
According to an NPR article titled “The Mysterious History of Marijuana,” “most of the pre-1900 press references to cannabis relate to its medical usage or its role as an industrial textile.” But then, in the early 1900s, you start to see accounts in major newspapers that associate cannabis with violent crimes and refer to cannabis as “marihuana.”
According to Isaac Campos in his book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, this pattern of relating cannabis to violent crime appeared in Mexico before it appeared in the United States. Campos cites “story after story—most pre-1900—containing similar details: a soldier ‘driven mad by mariguana’ and attacking his fellow soldiers (El Monitor Republicano, 1878), a pot-crazed soldier murdering two colleagues and injuring two others (La Voz de México, 1888), a prisoner stabbing two fellow inmates to death after smoking up (El Pais, 1899).”
Campos spends much of his book attempting to determine how early reports of cannabis use are so starkly different from our current understanding of the drug. He concludes that the differences don’t appear to be related to classism or fearmongering.
Rather, “Campos argues that a variety of conditions could have caused users in the late 19th-century context to behave very differently from the way we might expect stoners to behave today.” His research led him to conclude that the “effects of psychoactive drugs are actually dictated by a complex tangle of pharmacology, psychology, and culture—or ‘drug, set, and setting.’” Regardless of the contemporary reality regarding cannabis and criminality, after the Mexican Revolution, cannabis was increasingly called “marihuana” and associated with violent crimes. William Randolph Hearst, the driving force behind the fear mongering and sensationalist journalism deemed “yellow journalism,” played a significant role in shifting public opinion against cannabis. A 1933 headline for the Los Angeles Examiner, one of Hearts’ many media outlets, read “Murder Weed Found Up and Down Coast—Deadly Marihuana Dope Plant Ready for Harvest That Means Enslavement of California Children.”
To summarize, before cannabis was made federally illegal, there was a growing movement to prohibit drugs, combined with sensationalist media creating a racist narrative that linked cannabis to anti-Mexican prejudice, and a widespread idea that cannabis makes one violent. How did these factors combine to make weed illegal?
In the 1930s, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—a precursor of the DEA—was created as part of the government’s push to outlaw all recreational drugs. Henry J. Anslinger led the FBN and played an outsized role in creating the modern-day stigma against cannabis.
Throughout the 1930s, Anslinger alleged that the FBN detected a rise in cannabis consumption. As a result, the FBN drafted a legislative plan for Congress aimed at creating a new law against cannabis, while Anslinger ran an outrageous smear campaign. For example, a 1937 article by Anslinger about cannabis began, “How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, hold ups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can only be conjectured.”
A 1937 Washington Post article had this comical assertion by Anslinger: “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face-to-face with the hideous monster Marihuana, he would drop dead of fright.” That year the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was passed. The federal law effectively made the possession and distribution of cannabis illegal, excluding medical and industrial uses, by passing a significant excise tax on the sale of all hemp. The American Medical Association opposed the act because the tax was imposed on physicians, pharmacists, and medical cannabis cultivators. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Leary V. United States that the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. In response, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.
The CSA classified cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic, with no acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse. While it is baffling that cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, there has been a renewed interest in reforming these outdated federal laws. The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is leading efforts to reform cannabis laws. At Jointly, we hope these misguided laws will be reformed so that everyone can discover purposeful cannabis consumption.
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