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In this 3 Part series, we aim to answer the question, “Why is marijuana illegal?”

As more and more states slowly decriminalize or legalize cannabis – whether for recreational, medicinal, or commercial purposes – you may be wondering how it became illegal in the United States in the first place. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of marijuana’s illegality is rife with sensationalist journalism, racism and xenophobia, a famous exploitation film, and an obstinate demagogue.

In Hemp We Trust

Apparently the sails, caulking, and rigging of the Mayflower were made from hemp (Source)

You may have already heard that even George Washington was growing and using hemp. This isn’t just an urban legend: a diary entry from 1765 notes that he was separating male and female hemp plants. However, it was unlikely that he was cultivating them for their psychoactive properties. Rather, Washington was probably discarding the female plants in favour of the fibrous male plants, which could be used for a variety of purposes. [i]

Hemp was introduced to North America by early colonisers, and apparently even the sails, caulking, and rigging of the Mayflower were made from hemp. As a resilient and adaptable plant, it was a vital cash crop in America’s nascent history, and was used to make fabric, paper, and rope. Hemp was so important that in 1762, Virginia “imposed penalties on those who did not produce it.” [ii] It’s incredible to think that, at one stage, it was actually illegal to not grow hemp.

As cotton became the favoured crop for fabrics and clothing, cannabis took on new uses. By the 1800s, it was a popular medicine for numerous ailments – including pain management, lack of sleep or appetite, gout, rheumatism, cholera, convulsions, and (strangely enough) hydrophobia.[iii] Unlike opium, which was also a common medicine at the time, cannabis tinctures were celebrated for not suppressing patients’ appetites or causing constipation.

Medicinal cannabis was so commonplace that it was even used to treat animals – most notably horses, including those in the US Cavalry.

Prohibition, Gore Files, and Reefer Madness

A famous poster from the Temperance Movement, urging men not to drink. (Source)

Cannabis started to decline in its use as a medicine before the turn of the 20th century, as the hypodermic needle and synthetic drugs became mainstream. [iv] However, hemp was still a popular crop in other industries, and was used to make commercial bird-seed, oils and varnishes, and paper.

By and large, however, North Americans were not familiar with cannabis as a drug. It was only after waves of Mexican immigration in the early 1900s – a result of the Mexican Revolution – that ‘marijuana’ as we know it was introduced to the American public. Mexican immigrants had long been using cannabis medicinally as well as recreationally, and brought this tradition with them (in fact, the word ‘marijuana’ is derived from the Mexican-Spanish marihuana). Marijuana became popular along the border states, where migrant labourers were concentrated. From the Gulf, it spread to other parts of the country, and smoking marijuana cigarettes was adopted within jazz circles in the South (which were predominantly African American). So, from its very introduction to the US, recreational cannabis was associated with minority groups.

Promotional poster for Reefer Madness – 1936 (Source)

In 1914, El Paso, Texas, became the first town to pass a local ordinance banning the sale or possession of cannabis. Not only was marijuana associated with Mexican immigrants, but also with “Negroes, prostitutes, pimps and a criminal class of whites.” [v] One by one, other towns and states followed suit, banning recreational marijuana due to racist fears that the “vice would spread to the white schoolchildren.” [vi]

Keep in mind that there was a confluence of factors at this point in American history that made it easy for legislators to group cannabis along with alcohol and other narcotics.

Firstly, this was the period known as the Progressive Era, in which various activist groups sought to eradicate social ills like drinking, drug addiction, gambling, and corruption. Prohibition was just one aspect of these wide-scale social reforms, and “although the aim of the movement was alcohol prohibition, there was no such thing as a good intoxicant.” [vii] Cannabis was an easy addition to the prohibitionist and Temperance movements’ crusade against fun.

Secondly, this was also the era of yellow journalism: sensationalist news that has little or no factual evidence. Media magnate William Randolph Hearst played a significant role in the proliferation of ‘news stories’ depicting marijuana as the “killer drug” [viii] threatening white America. His newspapers, amongst others, reported horror stories of minorities committing perverse acts of rape and murder while under the influence of cannabis. So, while Prohibition was a spectacular failure and ended in 1933, the war against marijuana continued, spurred on by unfounded, melodramatic ‘news’. One headline, for example, read “MURDER WEED FOUND UP AND DOWN COAST – DEADLY MARIHUANA DOPE PLANT READY FOR HARVEST THAT MEANS ENSLAVEMENT OF CALIFORNIA CHILDREN.” [ix]

Similar to yellow journalism was the popularity of exploitation films at the time. The infamous Reefer Madness was released in 1936. Aimed at making quick money by playing on social anxieties surrounding cannabis, it became an influential text in the American imagination. The public was so thoroughly submerged in tales of sex-crazed and murderous marijuana addicts that the legislature which finally outlawed cannabis faced little opposition.

Anti-Cannabis Propaganda: Victor Licata, one of the most famous stories in Anslinger’s Gore Files. Licata reportedly murdered his family with an axe after smoking marijuana. (Source)

Lastly, America has its first drug czar to thank for cannabis’ prevailing status as a dangerous drug. Harry J Anslinger initially worked for the Bureau of Prohibition, until he was appointed as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930. After fighting a losing battle against alcohol, Anslinger turned his attention to cannabis. Despite receiving numerous reports from doctors and pharmacists declaring that marijuana was non-addictive and rarely harmful, Anslinger became a “federal megaphone” [x] that amplified the racist horror stories espoused by newspapers. He collected over 200 such stories – known as the Gore Files – which fanned the flames of anti-marijuana hysteria. In 1937, the FBN passed the Marihuana Tax Act. Although this law technically did not criminalize marijuana – but taxed commercial, industrial, and medical growers – it essentially acted as a full-scale ban that “aimed to tax the plant out of existence.” [xi]

There is also a theory that points to corporate greed and corruption as one of the driving forces behind cannabis’ demonization. Anslinger was married to Andrew Mellon’s niece; as Secretary of the US Treasury, Mellon was actually responsible for appointing Anslinger to his role as Commissioner of the FNB. Mellon is said to have invested in the wealthy Du Pont family’s new business venture into nylon – which would’ve been in competition with hemp fabrics. Similarly, both the Du Ponts and aforementioned newspaper tycoon Hearst had connections to the timber and paper industries. Hemp, it is hypothesised, was a threat to their business interests, and so the unfounded campaign against it – by both Anslinger and Hearst’s newspapers – was incredibly convenient. While there have been some articles debunking these connections as unfounded ‘conspiracy theory’, I think the circumstantial links are certainly interesting and noteworthy.

Goodbye Mary Jane

While hemp was still grown to some extent, it fell out of favour after the expensive taxes made it an unprofitable crop. By 1942, cannabis had been removed from the US Pharmacopeia (a compilation of medicinal information and recipes), and it was eventually grouped with drugs like opiates and heroin under narcotics laws in the 1950s. [xii]

The saddest thing about this history is how misinformation was willingly (and enthusiastically) disseminated by those in power, and how this propaganda was driven by racism and xenophobia. Furthermore, these early strategies had a direct impact on how marijuana came to be perceived both in America and worldwide, and paved the way for the largely ineffectual ‘War on Drugs’.

As cannabis researchers, activists, and enthusiasts continue to campaign for legalization in 2016, they are essentially still battling the propaganda of a bygone era. Fortunately, legitimate research seems to be winning this time.

Stay tuned to learn more when we release Parts 2 & 3 later this month. In the meantime, check out this infographic highlighting a few of the major points from this article!

UPDATE: Part 2 is now live!


[i] Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1979), 21.

[ii] Ibid, 21.

[iii] Ibid, 22.

[iv] Ibid, 26.

[v] Ibid, 30.

[vi] Ibid, 30.

[vii] Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian, A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition (New York: The New Press, 2014), 39.

[viii] Sloman, 48.

[ix] Ibid, 44.

[x] Martin and Rashidian, 40.

[xi] Ibid, 41.

[xii] Ibid, 42.

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