The real reason why cannabis is illegal is shocking.
Humans around the globe have cultivated the plant for thousands of years, yet it is only in the last 100 that cannabis prohibition has rocketed around the globe.
But, why the sudden change?
Here’s why cannabis is illegal:
Humans and cannabis have a long history
If you really want to know why cannabis was made illegal, you have to familiarize yourself with the history of cannabis.
Not just when was cannabis made illegal, but its long history leading up to prohibition…
Cannabis is thought the be one of the oldest agricultural crops.
Humans have used cannabis for over 10,000 years, dating our relationship to the plant at the start of the Neolithic era.
The Neolithic era marked the very beginnings of modern agriculture. However, some experts speculate that the cannabis-human connection began earlier than that.
The herb is one of a handful of plants that has been used for millennia in a variety of different ways, including as food, fiber, medicine, and as a spiritual aid.
It’s also thought to be one of the oldest plants traded for economic value.
Yet, Japan isn’t the only prehistoric location to show evidence of cannabis remains and cultivation.
The multitude of uses for the plant meant that it was likely an extremely valuable herb to have handy.
The archeological evidence thus far suggests that cultivated cannabis likely originated in Central Asia, spreading to many different regions and continents with human migration.
Access to cannabis not only gave people the means to make durable housing materials and clothing, but nutrient-rich hemp seed provided a brain-healthy dose of essential omega fatty acids. Oils from the herb were possibly even used as some of the first cooking oils.
In medical applications, some of the earliest records of cannabis as a healing aid come from ancient China.
Emperor Shen-nung was one of the first to write about the uses of cannabis as medicine in the Pen Ts’ao Ching. It’s estimated that he lived sometime between 3494 and 2857 BCE. His manuscripts are dated as early as an estimated 4700 years before present time.
According to these writings, cannabis was used to treat ailments like menstruation, constipation, rheumatism, and absentmindedness.
Throughout ancient history, the herb was also frequently used as a women’s medicine in many different cultures.
Other ancient uses of the plant include pain relief, an anesthetic, an antibiotic, migraine relief, antiparasitic, sedative, and many more.
Doctors used to prescribe cannabis
Fast forward several thousand years.
Cannabis continued to be used in the form of hemp in countries all over the world. The first U.S. President, George Washington, even grew hemp on his plantation, Mount Vernon.
Washington used the hemp for industrial purposes, particularly for fishing nets and perhaps rope and cloth sails for boats.
Several countries around the world, such as India, had fully integrated the cannabis plant into medical practice.
In Western countries, cannabis tinctures and preparations were frequently used and prescribed by doctors.
Sir John Russell Reynolds, doctor to Queen Victoria in the 1890s, famously prescribed the queen cannabis tincture to ease symptoms of menstrual distress.
He even wrote about the importance of the herb, one time explaining,
“When pure and administered carefully, [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”
Why is cannabis illegal
After all of this, it’s obvious that cannabis has played a rich role in human history.
So, why and when was cannabis made illegal? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is complex, racist, and shocking.
Here is a very brief breakdown of how opinions of cannabis, along with its legal status, began to change over time:
The mid-1800s to early 1900s
In the mid-1800s to early 1900s, hashish consumption was a growing trend among elite western consumers.
Hashish is an extract of the cannabis plant made by sieving psychoactive resin from plant materials and pressing the resin into a sticky brick or rolled ball.
While archeological evidence suggests that cannabis has been used for both its medicinal and psychoactive properties for millennia, the plant was more widely used for recreational purposes in Central and South East Asian countries.
Yet, by the mid-1800s, hashish had become a hit among subsets of science and literary circles.
One of the product’s most active campaigners was French writer Pierre Jules Theophile Gautier, who loved it so much he founded a club dedicated to introducing other hot intellectuals of the time to the mind-expanding powers of the herb.
The club was called Le Club des Hashischins and it met every month for a number of years.
Famous artists and writers like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas were in attendance, as well as several other intellectuals of the time.
Dumas’ was inspired by his experiences with hashish, which is why cannabis is referenced in The Count Of Monte Cristo, one of the most famous pieces of literature from the 19th century. The story was greatly captivating to both elite and mainstream audiences in Western countries.
Throughout the 1800s, cannabis saw a small spike in popularity among elite Western consumers.
Yet, things began to change in the early 1900s.
The early to mid-1900s
In 1913, the U.S. State of California passed the first law banning the cannabis plant.
The bill was tacked on as an amendment by the Board of Pharmacy, which was in the middle of launching one of the largest anti-narcotics campaigns in U.S. history.
While cannabis was not frequently used for recreational purposes in the region, cannabis was added onto a bill targeting opium by a man named Henry Finger.
According to a 1999 report published in Contemporary Drug Problems, Finger urged the Board of Pharmacy to take up the cannabis issue, writing in 1911:
"Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast.”
Of course, after this law, cannabis began to gain popularity in the United States.
Around this time the Mexican Revolution had begun, leading to an influx of thousands of refugees.
While cannabis had been used in various parts of the world in a variety of different ways, smoking the herb was not common in the United States. However, this habit was a trend in Mexico.
The Mexican government was actually the first to ban the herb in 1920, almost two decades before the United States.
Into the 1920s, the term “marijuana” began to enter the American lexicon.
Though cannabis had been used as medicine throughout the 19th century, the psychoactive side effects of smoking the herb were new and frightening.
As noted by NPR, headlines such as the New York Times’ “KILLS SIX IN A HOSPITAL.; Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife”, began to pop up.
However, Mexicans and Hindus were not the only minorities targeted by slanderous, sensational, and racist propaganda. Legislators and media outlets also harped on African American Jazz musicians and Filipinos for cannabis consumption.
In a mind-boggling and flagrantly racist remark, Henry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, reportedly stated:
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men[…]the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930.
Anslinger led the Bureau in lobbying for harsh penalties for those who violated recently passed laws restricting trade in opium and other narcotic drugs. The institution also enforced taxation on those who produced products like opiates and coca.
Anslinger’s Bureau of Narcotics is the earliest predecessor to what is now the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act
If you're looking for a precise year as to when was cannabis made illegal in the U.S. this is it.
Anslinger’s years of lobbying culminated in the first federal ban on cannabis production, and zero scientific evidence was involved.
In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed (lawmakers didn’t even know what ‘marihuana’ was). The legislation placed a steep $1 tax on anyone who sold the plant, effectively outlawing the herb.
One dollar may not seem like much, however the law was very strict, confusing, and later deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other special interest groups like bootleggers and those advocating for prohibition for religious reasons may also have contributed to creating the right public atmosphere for the Marijuana Tax Act to pass.
Between the sensational headlines, Anslinger’s crusade against cannabis and minority groups, and the new tax, the U.S. masses were exposed to nearly two decades of harsh anti-cannabis propaganda throughout the 20s and 30s.
The country entered into what is often referred to as the Reefer Madness era. Reefer Madness is a propaganda film that came out in 1936, originally funded by a religious group.
The film showcases white youth who are supposedly corrupted by cannabis, triggering youngsters into hysteria, promiscuity, sexual assault, and insanity.
The film began circulating in 1938 and continued to shape the mainstream understanding of cannabis through the 1950s.
The War on Drugs
If cannabis prohibition was not strict enough before, things certainly became a lot tighter in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
In fact, the history of cannabis takes an even darker turn during this era…
During this time, military interventions and weaponized police forces were given permission to enforce drug policies.
In 1961, the United Nations passed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, in which countries around the world agreed to outlaw and prohibit the production and export of cannabis and other drugs of concern.
The term “War on Drugs” was coined in 1971 after a press conference given by President Richard Nixon.
Drugs were deemed “public enemy number one”, including cannabis.
In fact, Nixon outright ignored science-based suggestions that he decriminalize cannabis – instead placing it in the strictest category of his Controlled Substances Act – schedule 1.
So if you're still asking why was cannabis made illegal, the short answer is for political purposes.
How do we know it was for political purposes?
Firstly, because Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s:
"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," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
In the years to come, heavy emphasis was placed on incarceration. U.S. states adopted mandatory minimum sentencing.
Stop and frisk policies as well as three strike policies have greatly increased both the ease of arrest and incarceration, as well as the amount of time nonviolent offenders must spend in prison.
Stop and frisk procedures allow officers to pull over a person for a simple traffic violation and check them for drugs.
If cannabis is found in a non-legal state, an individual can face jail time or a hefty fine.
Some U.S. states, like Missouri, those charged with possession or cultivation more than three times will face a felony and up to a life sentence in prison.
In some countries, cannabis trade can mean a death sentence.
At the dispensary level, federal officers can still raid dispensaries in adult-use cannabis states.
During these raids, federal officials can confiscate dispensary assets. Owners, employees, and patrons on site during the time of the raid may risk arrest and criminal charges.
The real reason cannabis is illegal
In 100 short years, cannabis went from “one of the most valuable medicines we can possess” to “public enemy number one.”
While some experts speculate that cannabis played a role in the birth of modern agriculture and medicine, of the past has been forgotten and ignorance is left in its place.
The biased and discriminatory history of cannabis prohibition is still present in the policies of today.
Arrests for cannabis-related charges disproportionately affect African American and minority groups, through research suggests that both African Americans and Whites consume the herb at similar rates.
According to a 2013 report by the ACLU, an African American person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than a white person.
And that’s just the average. In some states, the likelihood is much higher.
The ultimate reason that cannabis is illegal is difficult to discuss. However, it is clear that cannabis prohibition has a history fueled by fear, prejudice, and decades of misinformed drug policy.
Big industries lobbying against cannabis legalization
Government bureaucracies and administrations have used cannabis prohibition for their own, respective political agendas, meanwhile entire industries have thrived around prohibition.
Specific industries would lose a lot of money and jobs if prohibition were to come to an end. These vested interests in cannabis prohibition include:
- The pharmaceutical industry
- The alcohol industry
- The tobacco industry
- Private prisons
- Police unions
- Drug testing companies
Why else would these industries lobby against cannabis legalization?
Drugs are a public health issue – not a criminal issue
Cannabis and any other drugs should never be treated as a criminal issue – but rather a public health issue.
If you agree, please reach out to your congressional representatives and let them know.
Many lawmakers and people in power recognize the war on drugs is harmful – but very few of them have the courage to act.
Note: This article is intended as a brief overview of why cannabis is illegal in the United States. Every country has their own cannabis story, though it’s arguable that some of the attitudes expressed in this piece are pervasive in international policy.
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