The story of marijuana hasn’t always been a tale of illicit drug use and the infamous War on Drugs. Marijuana, for most of its known history, was used as a gentle and cherished medicinal herb. Used by cultures around the world, archeologists have discovered it in ancient China and in the hieroglyphs carved on the tombs of pharaohs in Egypt. But now, things are different. Why is marijuana illegal?
Why the change? It’s obvious now that the United States and many other nations around the world have changed their tune. What disrupted an otherwise healthy industry of growing useful hemp and potent medicine?
In the Early Years…
Hemp was first introduced to America’s farmers as far back as the 1600’s. As a fibrous plant, it was vital for the new settlers for the creation of textiles and clothing. Associated with household goods and industry, hemp not necessarily about getting stoned. In fact, in the early years, it wasn’t even used much as medicine.
It was so important to the early colonizers, especially in the Southern States, that farmers were required to grow it. The first known hempseed law was shockingly not prohibiting the plant, but forcing farmers to produce it. The law passed in Virginia in 1619.
Crazily enough, more of these laws passed over the next century or so in the Southern states. Hemp became of a form of legal tender according to some records. Farmers could supposedly pay their taxes with hemp! Imagine trying to pay your income tax today with weed?
Controlling Drugs as a Form of Racism
The trouble with weed started in the early 1900’s, right around the time when there were increasing issues with Mexico. You’ll notice there are many parallel plotlines to news stories in 2017.
In the early 20th century, many large southern farms relied on cheap Mexican labor. Much like today, this caused a significant political backlash. Politicians targeted weed because the Hispanic laborers had a habit of smoking it hemp. If you didn’t like Mexicans, you didn’t like hemp smokers.
As early as 1910 states began passing marijuana prohibition laws. Like the laws passed during the eighties against crack cocaine, the cannabis prohibition laws of the early 20th century were entirely based on racism. They almost always predominantly targeted Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
Soon, the fear spread across the U.S. about minority communities, crime, and smoking cannabis. Eastern and northern states started to associated Latinos, African Americans, and other non-white people with the use of marijuana. Cracking down on weed was an easy way to target these communities.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics
Although some constitutional issues prevented the federal government from banning weed outright, they inevitably found ways around it. In 1930 the government created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was the very early stages of the drug war we know today.
It was lead by an extremely racist individual, Harry Anslinger. He was known to say such tidbits as, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
While we all might roll our eyes at this sentiment today, he held significant power. He was able to sway public opinion against smoking marijuana. It was around this time that Reefer Madness was released. According to the politicians of the time, weed made people kill their family and have sex out of wedlock. In 1937, marijuana became illegal across the U.S.
The Hippy Effect
Between the 1930s and the 1960s, there was a heavy debate among medical professionals and politicians. Politicians, propelled by fear of the ‘other’ were against cannabis and voted for heavy prison sentences. Most doctors, on the other hand, remained steadfast in their beliefs that cannabis was safe to use. But then the 1960’s hit.
In the 1960s, America experienced a massive cultural shift. Young adults broke free of cultural norms and experimented heavily with music, drugs, and sexual liberation. While there was a dramatic increase in cannabis use during this time, hippies weren’t exactly in good standing with the government. In fact, they were often protesting against the government.
As such, hippies were associated with weed, and once again the government targeted a group of people with drug laws. Interestingly, President Kennedy commissioned a medical report during this time that found that cannabis did not trigger violence. But we all know that the report didn’t get very far.
In 1968 the federal regulatory body for narcotics evolved again, this time into the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. A short time later, in 1973, the Drug Enforcement Agency was created.
Unfortunately, President Richard Nixon entered the picture during this timeframe. If it wasn’t for Nixon, we might even be enjoying a legal toke right now. In the 1970s a number of states actually chose to decriminalize weed based on legit medical evidence. But Nixon absolutely refused to budge on his opinion of cannabis.
It was during the 1970s that the Controlled Substances Act was introduced. It’s the infamous act that categorizes drugs based on how dangerous they are. The idea behind the Act may have some merit, except for the fact that cannabis was labeled a Schedule I Drug.
That’s right, cannabis is apparently just as dangerous, addictive and problematic as heroin and meth. why is marijuana illegal like these proven dangerous drugs? Because of Nixon.
Why is Marijuana Illegal in 2017?
Since the 1970s, and the introduction of the Controlled Substances Act, the War on Drugs has only increased. Being tough on drugs is a popular way to get elected. It’s also an easy way to target minority communities.
Thankfully, many communities and states are starting to wake up to the poor statistics. Winning a war against an inanimate substance is impossible. Especially one as benign and beneficial as weed. According to some estimates, the U.S. government has spent $1 trillion dollars on the War on Drugs. So even if you are still asking yourself, “why is marijuana illegal?”…. marijuana is more popular than ever.