Cannabis features a complicated history within us but why was marijuana made illegal? Public interest in cannabis has skilled several cycles of boom and bust since its introduction to the West within the 19th century. Legislation for much of U.S. History has attempted to stifle consumption, though in recent decades the trend has seen some reversal.
Cannabis indica was first introduced to western medicine by William O’Shaughnessy in 1839. O’Shaughnessy had spent a few years in India in pursuit of scientific discoveries. He returned to London in 1841 and spread his discovery to all or any of England. Medicinal cannabis had spread to pharmacies within the U.S. by the 1850s.
Cannabis use was on the increase within the U.S. within the middle to late 19th century. An 1854 NY Times article listed hemp among other “fashionable narcotics” including tobacco and opium. There was widespread use by the 1880s in “hashish parlors” found in every major city on the East Coast. NY alone was estimated to possess over 500 such parlors.
Efforts to manage cannabis and lots of other pharmaceutical drugs began during this era in an effort to control adulterated drugs from the market. Many nations required drugs, when not issued by a pharmacy, to be labeled as poison. By the turn of the 20th century, most states had such poison laws in place, though some states explicitly didn't include cannabis in their poison laws. There have been attempts in California to manage cannabis as early as 1880, made under the guise of controlling poisons.
Why Marijuana Was Made Illegal
The first major piece of legislation that began the 20th century’s march towards cannabis prohibition was the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, which required the labeling of many drugs. Previously, patent medicines were largely unregulated. Many contained “secret” or undisclosed ingredients, or misleading labels. The second wave of legislation unrolled in 1910 to quell continued complaints about the convenience of acquiring narcotics.
State-level regulations limiting sale passed in Massachusetts in 1911 and in NY and Maine in 1914. Cannabis was required to be labeled and will only be distributed by pharmacists. This state-level regulation continued within the west with California’s Poison Act of 1913, followed by many other states over subsequent 15 years: Wyoming in 1915; Texas in 1919; Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Arkansas in 1923; Nebraska and Louisiana in 1927; and Colorado in 1929.
In 1938, the Pure Food and Drug Act was updated to the “Federal Pure Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act,” which remains in effect to the present day. it's one of the oldest operational pieces of legislation and creates the messy tangle of laws. Under the 1938 Act, cannabis is explicitly defined as a “dangerous drug.”
To this point, many of the regulations and controls on cannabis distribution were supported fines and economic penalties. The Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act of 1925 – 1932 was one of the primary pieces of legislation that explicitly gave police the facility to enforce drug laws, also standardizing many aspects of cannabis prohibition.
Policing infrastructure continued to expand. In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed, headed by Henry J. Anslinger. Anslinger believed cannabis caused people to commit violent crimes and act irrationally. The FBN advocated harsh penalties for drug crimes, including for cannabis.
The FBN lobbied extensively for the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which made possession or transfer of cannabis illegal within the entire U.S., excluding industrial or medical uses. Enforcement was largely based around a legal system because the federal lacked the authority under the 10th amendment to manage medicines and had to try to do so with taxes instead.
After the Marihuana Tax Act passed, Anslinger continued his campaigns for prohibition. Anslinger also ran campaigns with William Hearst, whose empire of newspapers used tabloids to make a belief that cannabis caused violent behavior, among other negative effects.
Increased Punishment and Mandatory Sentencing
By the 1950s, cannabis had been successfully demonized. The Boggs Act of 1952 and therefore the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 instituted increased and mandatory sentencing. The new laws required first-time possession offenders to tend a minimum of two to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000.
In 1969, Leary v. us determined the Marihuana Tax Act was a violation of the 5th Amendment. Cannabis prohibition was considerably still within the cards, however. As a response to the nullification of the previous law, lawmakers passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The CSA was a neighborhood of the great substance abuse Prevention and Control Act, which repealed the Marihuana Tax Act. The new law prohibited any use of cannabis, including medical. Cannabis was given a Schedule I classification, putting it on an equivalent tier as drugs like heroin.
DEA & Medical Marijuana
From 1968 to 1973 the drug enforcement agencies of the U.S. government began to reorganize and on July 1st, 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration was formed. With increased police power came increased incarceration. In 1975, the Supreme court ruled it “not cruel or unusual” for the state of Ohio to sentence one to twenty years for having or selling cannabis, effectively ratifying the plant’s Schedule I classification.
Prohibition began to ease in some areas at this point, however. The late 1960s saw a well-liked culture that was more permissive of cannabis use. California, one among the very first regulators of cannabis at the turn of the 20th century, was also one of the primary states to melt the federal laws criminalizing cannabis. California introduced a law repealing certain prohibitions in 1976.
Through the 1980s, the Reagan administration created several new mandatory sentencing laws, including long prison terms for large-scale cannabis distribution. Three-strikes laws for multiple offenders went into effect at this point, which increased mandatory sentences also allowed the execution surely “drug kingpins.” These laws were intended to curb cocaine and heroin trafficking primarily but were eagerly applied to cannabis as well.
By the late 1990s, the battle between state and federal drug laws had begun. California voters approved Proposition 215 allowing medical cannabis use, followed by several other medical marijuana ballot initiatives in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, and Washington D.C. Federal legislators attempted to fight back with new legislation and therefore the battle raged for a few time, including within the Supreme Court.
The battle continued through the Clinton administration and continues today. Many overlapping laws and legal precedents still muddy in the sector. Recreational and medical laws at the state level are vindicated on the federal level, while at other times declared invalid.
One of the most important signs of support was the Obama administration’s “Cole Memorandum” which discouraged federal employees from prosecuting state-level Cannabis enterprises. The Cole Memo was later repealed by the Trump administration’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, continuing the pattern of mixed signals over cannabis legalization.
In 2014, in response to increased raids on medical cannabis providers, Congress adopted the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from prosecuting individuals acting within state law. The Department of Justice attempted to ignore this amendment also but was ordered to comply by the U.S. District Court in October 2015. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment remains in effect today but has been rebranded the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment because the rider’s sponsors have changed.
Despite setbacks that appear to follow every positive decision, the pattern of legal and legislative battles against prohibition seems to be favoring legalization. Cannabis continues to get increased public support as more research reveals an outsized range of medical benefits. A majority of states now have legal medical cannabis and lots of them have recently legalized recreational cannabis.
A movement towards federal legislation for legalization is slowly gaining more Congressional support — slowly, but surely.