Cannabis and hemp, a close cousin to cannabis, have a long history, with hemp being used for textiles and food in such far-flung places as China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The flowers of the plant were used in everything from medicine to religious ceremonies, such as that of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion predating Islam. Ganjha was mentioned in Indian Vedic texts dating back to the second millennium BCE.
As you can see, the use of cannabis is as old as civilization itself, if not older. In fact, until the 1900s, hemp production was encouraged by the US government in the making of ropes, clothing, and other everyday items. Cannabis extracts were sold openly in pharmacies until the early 20th century for the purpose of treating a variety of ailments including headaches and digestive disorders.
So why is it that, in some places, possession of even minuscule amounts can be grounds for an arrest and a possible jail sentence?
For that, we will need to go back to the year 1910 and the Mexican Revolution. The start of the revolution saw a massive wave of immigration from Mexico into the southwestern states of the US. The plant became associated with these newcomers who were far from welcomed by all. Different in appearance and language from most of the U.S. population, the immigrants were a convenient scapegoat for the troubles of the time.
In fact, prior to 1910, cannabis was never referred to as “marijuana”. Branding it by its Spanish name served the dual purpose of demonizing both the drug and the Spanish-speaking migrants flooding into the southwestern portion of the country. These newcomers, some of whom used the herb recreationally, were painted as deviant, immoral, and even violent. It was even said that the plant could give the user superhuman strength!
Regardless of the baselessness of these beliefs, the scare campaign worked: by 1931, cannabis had become outlawed in more than half of the states in the country.
Part of the reason the push for this new prohibition was successful was propaganda. After the successful start of the prohibition regarding alcohol, attention turned to narcotics which were seen as a serious threat. Mary Jane, a mostly unknown entity that had been unfairly stigmatized, was swept into the same category as cocaine and opiates. Of course, there was no evidence that the plant could dramatically alter one’s personality or even kill them, but the power of the press to sensationalize should never be underestimated.
These campaigns would continue well into the 1920s and beyond. Stemming from fear of the demographic changes that were taking place, allegations continued that the drug caused insanity and death. One example of such is a 1927 New York Times article claiming that a mother and her four children had become irreversibly insane after ingesting the marijuana plant.
This prejudice would intensify in the 1930s with the start of the Great Depression. During times of economic hardship, people search for a scapegoat for their suffering which often turns out to be a racial or ethnic minority. In this case, fear and mistrust of Mexicans grew along with unemployment.
This decade would see the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed by Harry J. Anslinger. Although this newly formed department would not commit to federal legislation, it pushed states to criminalize this new boogeyman, now blamed for everything from unemployment to deviant behavior.
Initially averse to the criminalization of cannabis due to the difficulty of enforcement, Harry J. Anslinger was able to encourage the passing of anti-narcotics legislation. Testifying before Congress, he read off a number of cases involving rapes, arsons, assaults, and murders, all supposedly committed under the influence of pot. So it was that in 1937 that the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by a Congress largely uneducated on the issue. Without media interest, the public as a whole was kept in the dark about these proceedings.
Furthermore, Anslinger worked to discredit research that disproved his views that cannabis caused violence and encouraged information that reinforced them. The 1936 film, Reefer Madness, would draw from Anslinger’s ideas, which included, “Reefer makes darkies think they are as good as white men” and “marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes”. However, this distortion of facts would not end with Reefer Madness and would continue into subsequent decades.
Fast-forward to the 1950s. Under the Eisenhower administration, the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses, including marijuana. A first offense now carried a minimum sentence of up to ten years! There was no distinction between cannabis and other drugs such as cocaine or opium; all were dope and were therefore considered dangerous.
Much changed in the 1960s, both politically and culturally. An awakening of sorts swept the country, and the face of cannabis changed from the scheming, murderous gangster to that of the doe-eyed flower child, often a white college student from a middle-class family. Although this so-called epidemic of drug use made front page news, few were interested in jailing college kids for something that seemed relatively harmless. By now, even Anslinger had conceded that the penalties for possession were too harsh.
In 1968, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics would merge with the FDA. President Nixon was sworn in the following year and almost immediately recruited journalists for a propaganda campaign of his own. Nixon also enlisted help from TV executives who would insert anti-drug themes into popular television shows such as Hawaii Five-0. During this administration, powers of law enforcement were extended and anti-drug agencies were placed directly under White House control. In 1970, marijuana was labeled as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it could not be used legally for any purpose, medicinal or otherwise.
In 1973, a report was released by the Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, calling for an end to the new prohibition. Although Nixon himself had appointed the members of this commission, he refused to accept this report in public. He even threatened to fire the director of the Narcotics Treatment Administration if he did not keep the plant criminalized.
Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, would later attest to the real reasoning behind the Nixon administration’s desire to clamp down on facts and keep stringent penalties in place: “The Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman is quoted as saying. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be black or against the war, but we could get the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin. By criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt these communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up meetings. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Nixon’s War on Drugs would gain steam in the years to come. Ronald Reagan had not supported decriminalization as governor of California and would continue to support harsh penalties during his time as POTUS, starting with his signing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which raised federal penalties for dealing, basing penalties on the amount involved. The fear-mongering would continue with anti-drug ads on TV, the establishment of D.A.R.E. in schools, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.
It would not be until 1996 that the chains would start to fall off at a painfully slow pace when Prop 215 in California would allow for medical use for patients with cancer, AIDS, and other terminal diseases. More states made such concessions in subsequent election cycles.
Here we are in 2018. By now, nine states have legalized cannabis for recreational use.
Medical marijuana is allowed in more than half of the states. Yet many conservative representatives continue to oppose legalization, citing family values and morality as their reasons for doing so. Although the idea that cannabis is a gateway to harder drugs has been thoroughly debunked, this argument refuses to die. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stated plainly, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
However, there are also a number of former opponents of legalization, such as former Speaker of the House John Boehner, who profess to having “evolved” on the issue as they cash in on this booming industry. It is my belief that once our traditionalist governors and congressmen see the money being raked in by states that have embraced the green trade, they too will evolve.
With each election cycle, we are watching history in the making as more and more dominoes fall. As you have seen, prohibition is rooted in racism, greed, and fear. I, for one, think that it is high time to do away with those laws forever, don’t you?