The government fought cannabis — and cannabis won.
This Wednesday is the eightieth anniversary of the first major action the federal government took against cannabis in the United States, and eight decades later, that same federal government has still failed to reduce Americans’ consumption of the plant. In fact, it’s on the rise.
Long before the era of prohibition, druggists used cannabis as a medicine. According to Origins, a joint publication by the Ohio State University and Miami University history departments:
“Cannabis, like opiates and cocaine, was freely available at drug stores in liquid form and as a refined product, hashish. Cannabis was also a common ingredient in turn-of-the-century patent medicines, over-the-counter concoctions brewed to proprietary formulas.”
Then, like today, it helped people relax:
“The hashish candy advertised in an 1862 issue of Vanity Fair as a treatment for nervousness and melancholy, for example, was also ‘a pleasurable and harmless stimulant.’ ‘Under its influence all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy,’ the advertisement explained.”
Though in 1906 the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act required patent medicine companies to list cannabis as an ingredient in products where it was present – and between 1914 and 1925 26 states passed laws prohibiting it — it wasn’t until 1937 federal authorities took substantial action.
On August 2, 1937, Congress passed the “Marihuana Tax Act,” which was largely the result of anti-narcotic crusader Henry Anslinger’s mission to ban the plant. As Time has explained, creating a “tax” on the substance effectively outlawed it:
“As with the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, Congress deemed an act taxing and regulating drugs, rather than prohibiting them, less susceptible to legal challenge. As a result, the 1937 legislation was ostensibly a revenue measure. Just as the Harrison Act used taxation and regulation to, in effect, prohibit morphine, heroin and other drugs, the Marijuana Tax Act essentially outlawed the possession or sale of marijuana.”
There are a variety of documented reasons for this ban. For one, Henry Anslinger was hysterically opposed to drugs. According to Origins, Anslinger, a “former assistant commissioner of the Prohibition Bureau who headed the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Bureau from 1930 to 1962,” had previously advocated against a ban on cannabis because he believed it would be difficult to enforce (you don’t say!).
“However, Anslinger began to capitalize on fears about marijuana while pressing a public relations campaign to encourage the passage of uniform anti-narcotics legislation in all 48 states. He later lobbied in favor of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.”
Many of these fears were the result of calculated campaigns in the 1920s by prohibition activists, who were inspired by their “success” in banning alcohol. Further, William Randolph Hearst, the infamous publishing magnate, launched a campaign to associate cannabis with violence and the degradation of society.
“The association of murder, torture, and mindless violence with marijuana was not borne out by evidence or actual events but blossomed thanks to the vivid imaginations of the journalists charged with sensationalizing the tired story of drug use and addiction,” Origins noted.
Similarly, Anslinger sounded the alarm on the alleged murders and rapes people committed while under the influence of the devil’s lettuce. In 1936, the film Reefer Madness, which now plays like a comedy, warned of the psychosis, violence, and dangers cannabis could bring about. The film warned of “marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.” Much of the testimony advocating the 1937 tax act focused on these unfounded fears, and Anslinger led the way.
“How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year can only be conjectured,” he wrote in a 1937 article titled “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth.” (Today, some research suggests cannabis is not linked to increases in violent crime).
The only witness who testified against the proposed ban was a representative from the American Medical Association, who congressmen dismissed (Anslinger also made an effort throughout his career to discredit research suggesting cannabis was not dangerous). The bill easily passed, undermining legal cannabis and also outlawed the production of hemp. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law.
Another related driver behind the ban stemmed from racism within American society. Though cannabis had been used in medicines and hemp was used in industry to produce materials like rope (in the 1600s, colonists were actually required to grow it), Mexican immigrants introduced the practice of smoking the plant, which, “in turn, generated a reaction in the U.S., tinged perhaps with anti-Mexican xenophobia.” This fear spurred the 1906 regulation in the Pure Food and Drug Act and persisted into the 1930s.
As Rolling Stone noted, there had been conversations in the United States not just about cannabis use, but other drugs, since the late 19th century.
“But in the next 50 years, concerns about inebriation only translated into law if the substance wasn’t already controlled by a powerful industry, and if there was a perception, accurate or not, that a given drug was being used by poor people, immigrants, and people of color.”
As fears surrounding substance use grew, Rolling Stone observed, they dovetailed with racist stereotypes about the poor and minorities that assumed these groups were more likely to commit crimes, be lazy, and lack self-control when it came to “sex, violence, and intoxication.”
By 1952, Congress had passed the Boggs Act, which imposed strict mandatory sentences for various drugs, including cannabis. In the 1970s, the Controlled Substances Act was passed, placing drugs into “schedules” as we know them today.
Though Nixon touted the war on drugs as an effort to save society, one of his advisers, John Ehrlichman, reportedly claimed in the 1990s that they pursued cannabis as an effort to criminalize black and anti-war activist. Other former advisers then claimed Ehrlichman was either joking or mistaken, but a cursory examination of arrests for cannabis shows the war on weed has disproportionately affected African-Americans though they use the substance at roughly the same rate as white Americans.
Overall, according to the ACLU, cannabis arrests accounted for over half of all drug arrests between 2000 and 2010, and 88% of those were for possession.
Though states across the country have begun to legalize cannabis both for medicinal and recreational use, the federal government continues to dig its heels in. The DEA recently insisted that even cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, falls into the ominous Schedule I category, which also includes MDMA, LSD, and mushrooms but fails to cover highly dangerous and toxic legal drugs like alcohol and opioids.
Many industries also continue to oppose cannabis legalization. The alcohol industry, the private prison industry, and prison guard and police unions all lobby against legalization. Most notably, pharmaceutical companies fight to keep cannabis illegal, all while at least one opioid producer concocts its own synthetic cannabis with the approval of the same FDA and DEA that opted to keep cannabis a Schedule I drug.
But against all these odds, cannabis continues to beat the government and establishment’s decades-long fight against it.
Many Americans have outgrown the fears instilled in them through films like Reefer Madness and are beginning to accept a live-and-let-live mentality. Though more research on the plant is undoubtedly needed (and limited due to federal restrictions), preliminary scientific studies and anecdotal evidence suggest the plant has the potential to treat a variety of ailments, from epilepsy to nausea to Parkinson’s disease. Veterans are increasingly using it to treat PTSD.
The United States’ relationship with cannabis is coming full circle, returning to times when it was a common ingredient in everyday medications. Many Americans are opting to substitute opioids with cannabis for pain, and opioid overdose deaths are lower in states with legal medical cannabis. Cannabis also poses a threat to profits from other pharmaceuticals.
Meanwhile, cannabis industry is expected to generate $20 billion annually by 2020, and police are frequently trolled for attempting to enforce cannabis laws that Americans increasingly perceive as petty and unproductive.
All the while, federal bureaucracies continue to lag behind, clinging to outdated myths and prohibitions that — over the course of the better half of a century — have been debunked and proven ineffective, which is unsurprising considering humans have been consuming the plant for well over 2,000 years.