A History of Marijuana Laws in the United States

A History of Marijuana Laws in the United States

Marijuana, cannabis, hash, weed, pot, ganja, canapa, grifa… it comes with many names, usually depending on where you are and what exactly you are talking about. Nonetheless, all of it refers to some or most forms of the high-inducing, narcotic drug made from the cannabis plant.

But other than the name, the plant has a fascinating history in the US, filled with laws and practices which changed over time. From the then-disgusting drug that it was to the potential wonder drug it is now, Hollywood would probably make a movie about it if marijuana were a real person — or wait, wouldn’t they?

History of marijuana laws in the US – How it all started

The use of marijuana has predated the US government one century and seven decades. You could trace it back to King James I’s decree over the colony of Jamestown in 1619. At the time, Britain desperately needed extra supplies and sought the colony for help. Thus, they brought cannabis indica plants into the Americas for farming.

Interestingly, the plant was a vital part of the day-to-day technologies used back in the day. Dried hemp could be fashioned into a strong rope that was waterproof. This was the mainstream rope they used in ships, as cotton rope tended to become heavy when wet. It could also be made into waterproof textiles when woven.

Over a hundred years later, the western world began to have an interest in marijuana as a medicinal drug. American pharmacies began stocking their shelves with marijuana-based medicines as early as 1850. They became popular as an over-the-counter cure for many aches and pains as a sedative drug combined with other drugs.

You could say that the golden age for medical marijuana in the US was around this time. In fact, in 1914, the $10 bills had been printed on dried hemp! The back of the bill also depicted a bundle of hemp fibers being harvested on a field.

The problem, however, is not everyone back then liked marijuana.

Poison laws

To protect people from the possible side effects of consuming pure marijuana extract, they have long been part of the poison laws that banned the selling of marijuana, along with opium and other narcotic drugs, in pharmacies. This law started getting more strict come 1906, and punishments had mostly gotten worse as time went by.

Another factor that came into play was rampant racism and a man named Harry J. Anslinger. He was the first commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and he had a significant impact on the future of cannabis. That man also hated everyone who did not happen to be Caucasian, and he was careful to dole out extreme punishments for cannabis users. In simpler terms, he was racist and used his laws to promote racism.

By 1936, Anslinger banned the use of marijuana across the US. His main argument was that the impoverished people of color in the day had mental and neurological impairments due to their use of marijuana. This, apparently, was believed to worsen their condition, ignoring other factors that would have contributed to their impoverished state. He also thought that the drug caused black Americans and Mexicans to force themselves upon white women, referring to them as “degenerate rapists.”

Following his lead, laws had been made to curb the use of marijuana by further criminalizing its use and possession outside of medical and industrial purposes. Meanwhile, doctors and manufacturers were dealt with large excise taxes upon the sale of medical and industrial marijuana. The tax also included research purposes, hampering the further advancement of marijuana-based medicine.

In modern times

In the years following, Anslinger was met with strong opposition to the large excise tax and bans over the drug’s use. With criminal punishments getting lowered over time, the pro-marijuana side has won many small battles over the anti-marijuana side. Fast forward to 2012, Washington and Colorado had become the first two states to legalize the use of marijuana for all, including recreational purposes.

This, of course, was a big deal for many. Before this, everyone — including those who practice research and medical use lawfully — had been given harsh punishment in over 50 states. Two years later, and the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment had been signed into action. This is to protect the researchers and medical users in all states, including those in which marijuana use was still illegal.

As of today, 14 states in total have legalized marijuana use, and many more have either planned or expected to legalize in the coming months. With these changes, medical marijuana research has been growing and expanding our knowledge of what it can really do for society.


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