Even casual cannabis smokers understand that it was the federal government that outlawed this controversial herb so many years ago (1937, to be exact). Any informed person also understands that it is the states that are taking the lead in legalizing both medical and recreational cannabis in the 21st century.
What most people don’t understand, even hard-core cannabis consumers, is that it was actually the states that outlawed marijuana in the first place. As I wrote in my new book Understanding Medical Marijuana:
By 1930, nearly 30 of the 48 states had passed laws outlawing the cultivation, sale, and possession of marijuana—and a variety of narcotics—often under the official justification of food and drug purity (a popular progressive movement after the turn of the century).
As described in the book (excerpted here), there are many reasons why states began outlawing cannabis 100 years ago. The first law banning marijuana actually was a municipal effort in El Paso, Texas in 1914. While the official justification for the law was to “curb violence,” the ban was actually implemented to make it easier to prosecute (and deport) Mexicans and Mexican-Americans — many of whom smoked marijuana. Racists forces in El Paso didn’t have to outlaw Mexicans; they simply outlawed what was in most Mexican pockets.
State Prohibition Began 100 Years Ago
In 1915, Utah was the first state to legislate cannabis prohibition, followed by Wyoming in the same year. This began a domino effect in terms of other states adopting pot prohibition. Only four years later, in 1919, Texas, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington also outlawed the herb. Arkansas and Montana joined the party in 1923 and 1927, respectively.
Ten years later, Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst ensured that there would be no refuge for cannabis users in states that hadn’t gotten the message. The passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in August of 1937 began what has become 78 years of national marijuana prohibition in the United States. Due to its tremendous economic and military influence, the U.S. worked with the United Nations and foreign governments to create virtually global-level prohibition of cannabis during the cold war period of the 1950s and ’60s.
Today, 100 years after that first law prohibiting cannabis in Utah, states are, ironically, the light at the end of the tunnel for millions of medical and recreational cannabis users. What began in 1996 with the Compassionate Use Act in California has blossomed into literally dozens of states with robust medical or recreational cannabis laws in place. In terms of social reform, it is quickly becoming the decade of sustainable energy, cannabis legalization, and LGBT rights.
Investors Smell the Money
The latest trend in state-level cannabis legalization is the funding of ballot issues by well-heeled investment groups (sometimes in exchange for limited monopolies). Many state legislatures are dominated by Republican governors who can easily veto pro-marijuana legislation — costing investors millions. With no Congressionally mandated recreational legalization on the horizon, activists and private investment groups are choosing the path of state ballot initiatives. Given the strength of political opposition, legalization advocates are finding the path of least resistance to be a popular vote — and, of course, bearing the burden of convincing citizens that marijuana legalization is good for society.
Regardless of the source of these state-level initiatives that so eagerly seek voter approval, such efforts are offering cash-strapped states in a struggling economy a way to generate tax revenues for basic infrastructure challenges — like fixing bridges, paving pothole-riddled roads, and supporting schools. Even some Republicans are warming to the idea of generating hundreds of millions of tax dollars via the legal sale of pot.
Colorado is currently the leading example of how legalization can generate much-needed tax revenue and decrease a state’s crime enforcement burden. Politicians and private investment groups in other areas of the country are smelling the money. In even traditionally conservative states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, efforts are currently underway to legalize and tax the crap out of cannabis.
When thinking about California, Colorado, or any state that has embraced medical or recreational cannabis legalization, one must remember that it was actually the states that began nearly a century of federal-level cannabis prohibition. Is the current trend of legalization the states paying for their sins?
This post was originally published on May 5, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.