Why Is Cannabis Illegal? A Brief History of Marijuana Prohibition

Marijuana has been proven to be less addictive and harmful than both alcohol and tobacco – and its medicinal properties have been long documented.

Besides this, the hemp crop can be refined into a multitude of useful products, including food, oils, paper, cloth and even fuel.

So why is marijuana still illegal, while more dangerous substances are freely available?

Some might believe that government policies outlawing certain types of drugs are based on rational, fact-based research.

But take a look in the history books and you’ll see that these laws are often politically motivated – and largely devoid of logical reasoning.

The Good Old Days

The United States is well-known for its ‘War on Drugs,’ with over 7 million Americans arrested between 2001 and 2010 simply for having marijuana in their possession.

So it might surprise you to learn that marijuana has a special spot in the country’s history.

Back in 1619, each person in the new American colony was ordered to grow at least 100 hemp plants each – with the intention that they be used for export. For a long time, hemp was used to produce textiles throughout the United States.

Even America’s Founding Fathers dabbled in marijuana. George Washington grew marijuana crops at Mount Vernon – writing in his diaries in 1765, he describes how he “sowed hemp at muddy hole by swamp.”

A little way down the line, Thomas Jefferson tried his hand at growing marijuana, even going so far as to write detailed instructions on how to sow hemp seeds. Both Presidents hoped that hemp cultivation would be a profitable enterprise for the new country – but there is also some evidence to suggest that they grew THC-laden female crops for medicinal and recreational purposes.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Marijuana had a promising future in the United States, and its medicinal properties were soon realised.

Pharmacies began to stock tinctures and other cannabis-derived products in the 1850’s, and pharmaceutical regulations came into effect soon after. By the early 20th century, many states required cannabis-derived products to be appropriately labelled with poisons warnings, and some required a prescription.

It was around this time that Mexican immigrants began flooding into the United States, bringing with them cannabis which they smoked to get high. In a bid to spread xenophobia, campaigns were launched associating marijuana with crimes allegedly perpetrated by Mexicans.

The public’s apprehension towards immigrants increased during the Great Depression, giving the government a platform from which to launch racially motivated anti-drug campaigns.

The government took a stand against drugs by forming the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, which was headed by Harry J. Anslinger.

Anslinger vehemently opposed marijuana; labelling it a dangerous drug that caused aggression, violence and ‘socially deviant behaviours.’ Under Anslinger’s direction, the Bureau produced propaganda films and other media highlighting the perceived ‘dangerous’ effects of the drug.

As a result, state governments began to criminalise marijuana, with 29 states outlawing it by 1931.

Marijuana Outlawed

Finally, in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by Congress. This made the possession and supply of marijuana illegal across the United States – unless an individual required it for a medical or industrial purpose.

While marijuana had received a bad rap in the media throughout the 1930’s, the main reason for criminalisation was not that it was supposedly linked to violence and ‘anti-social behaviours,’ but rather a political motivation. The powerful media organisations which were responsible for spreading fear amongst the general public were said to have an ulterior motive: to destroy the hemp industry.

At the time, newspapers were the main news source, and papers were made from wood pulp. Hemp was an attractive alternative to wood pulp – it was cheaper, and could be easily and quickly grown. Media and industrial figureheads are said to have collaborated to stamp out the hemp industry and to promote the growth of the timber industry.

Politicians also had an interest in destroying the hemp industry. Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the nation’s wealthiest man, had invested in nylon; a new synthetic fibre. At the time, hemp was a much cheaper alternative – so naturally it had to be eliminated.

Ironically, in 1939, the La Guardia Committee released the findings of the first study into the effects of marijuana. Contrary to how marijuana was represented in the media and by politicians, the Committee found that “the practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.”

The fear-mongering continued throughout the 1950’s, during which the US government passed harsh mandatory sentencing laws for cannabis possession.

The War on Drugs Begins

In 1971, President Nixon declared a ‘war on drugs,’ stating that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.”

This was perhaps the beginning of the government’s spending spree on attempting to eliminate drug use. Under Nixon’s reign, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was established, to regulate drug use and supply within the United States.

From its inception until 2014, the DEA has cost taxpayers an estimated $50.6 billion dollars – with some estimating an efficiency rate of less than 1% in tackling drug crime.

But a public push to decriminalise marijuana began in the 1970’s, and states slowly changed their views.

Oregon was the first state to decriminalise marijuana in 1973, followed by Colorado, Alaska, Ohio and California. Since then, there has been a global initiative to legalise marijuana – for both medicinal and recreational purposes.

So there you have it – efforts to criminalise marijuana and impose heavy penalties for drug crime are not necessarily based on fact or scientific evidence.

As with many government policies to criminalise certain behaviours, there is often a political or financial motivation behind the fearmongering.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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