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Why is Marijuana Illegal? (Part 2/3) In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how cannabis was transformed from a valuable crop in the 1700s into a tool to incite racist hysteria in the 1930s. Unfortunately, cannabis’ turbulent trajectory in the United States doesn’t end there.

Hemp for Victory

Title screen for the film Hemp for Victory (Source)

You may remember from Part 1 that cannabis was removed from the US Pharmacopeia in 1942, largely thanks to the tenacious efforts of Harry J. Anslinger – America’s first drug czar. Anslinger passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which didn’t criminalize cannabis, but taxed it so heavily that it became unviable as a commercial crop.

Shortly thereafter, in 1941, the US entered World War 2. In 1942, the US Department of Agriculture released a short informational film, Hemp for Victory. As other commercial fibers from overseas were in short supply, the film encouraged farmers to produce industrial hemp that could be used to make rope, textiles, and other products. The campaign was short-lived but very successful: the government aimed to produce 50 000 acres of hemp, but by 1943 farmers had grown an estimated 375 000 acres. Yet, despite its success and the fact that hemp and cannabis are not the same, industrial hemp farming fell out of favor after the war.

Hippies, Poets, and Pot

Hippies sharing a joint at Woodstock in 1969 (Source)

It was during the 1950s that draconian drug laws began to take shape in the US. As Larry Sloman remarks on the era, “another casualty of McCarthyism and the rabid anti-Communism of the day were the unfortunate drug addicts, who […] further alarmed a citizenry that saw the Red Menace behind every lamppost and under every bed.”[i] Under Anslinger’s command of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration), Congress passed the Boggs Act of 1952. The act increased penalties for drug offenders, set mandatory minimums for first-time and repeat offenders, and grouped cannabis with narcotics by creating uniform penalties. Over the next few years, states began passing local legislation that mimicked – and in some cases surpassed – the severe mandatory sentences, further reinforcing cannabis’ status as a ‘hard drug’.

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at a cannabis rally in 1965 (Source)

The number of cannabis-related arrests continued to climb despite heavy sentencing, because, well, Americans enjoyed smoking marijuana. While cannabis had long been associated with Mexican immigrants and the African American jazz scene, the ‘Beat Generation’ of the 1950s had appropriated weed-smoking as part of their own disillusioned post-war counterculture. Famous Beat poet Allen Ginsberg spearheaded the movement to oppose the government’s cannabis propaganda, leading a march in 1965, and publishing an essay – “The Great Marijuana Hoax” – in The Atlantic in 1966. By the end of the 1960s, cannabis had officially ‘entered’ white, middle-class America, and assumed an “overtly political stance”[ii] as part of the hippie generation’s anti-war, antiauthority cultural movement. Many political activists were arrested during this decade on drug charges, as part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation – a “counterintelligence program designed to disrupt the New Left.”[iii]

The cultural and political transition from the 60s to the 70s was a contrary time. On the one hand, attitudes towards cannabis relaxed under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Journalists challenged the traditionally fear-mongering media coverage of cannabis, advocating a more moderate approach. On the other hand, Nixon came to power in 1969, marking a resurgence of conservativism in the US. In 1970, he would pass the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act, which includes the Controlled Substances Act (under which we still categorize substances in ‘schedules’). However, while he took a punitive approach to addiction, he also established the first methadone maintenance programs in the country to treat heroin addiction, and his administration was one of the last “to spend more on prevention and treatment than law enforcement.”[iv] It’s interesting to think that Nixon, who was certainly a conservative in his time, is actually fairly moderate from a modern perspective – especially when compared to some of the current Republican candidates.

Addiction as Criminality

An officer surrounded by boxes of seized cannabis in a storage vault in San Diego circa 1969 (Source)

Nonetheless, Nixon’s legislature perpetuated a tough stance on drugs that would have far-reaching ramifications.

In 1969, newly-appointed President Nixon tasked the White House Conference on Children and Youth to gather information about issues that concerned American youth. After two years of work, representatives from across the country met in Colorado in 1971. The youth delegates identified drugs as a key issue – but advocated for treatment instead of incarceration, and urged the presidency to address the societal “root causes”[v] of drug abuse.

Nixon, however, chose to ignore both the youth delegates and the mounting evidence that cannabis was not harmful. In fact, he provisionally designated cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, but refused to change its status when the independent commission he requested recommended that marijuana should be decriminalized – essentially ignoring “the very advice he sought.”[vi]

In 1971, Nixon officially declared the “War on Drugs” – marking the beginning of the decades-long quagmire in which we still find ourselves. Continuing Anslinger’s prohibitionist approach to drugs, Nixon created the DEA in 1973, which was used to target the production and transport of opium and cannabis – particularly along the southern border. Identifying cannabis as a “gateway drug”, the War on Drugs became a militarized ‘push back’ operation against Latin American countries that were smuggling cannabis and other drugs into the US. It also framed the problem of addiction in terms of criminality: drug users were seen as “law-breaking hedonists who deserved only discipline and punishment.”[vii] By ignoring the socioeconomic basis for addiction and shifting the focus to addicts’ criminality, the Nixon administration justified the mass incarceration of drug users, and “exonerated the white middle class from responsibility for the drug-related violence ravaging the inner cities.[viii] Sadly, it was not altogether surprising when one of Nixon’s chief advisors admitted in 1994 that the war was fueled by racism and anti-leftist rhetoric.

But with the economic downturn, inflation, and high unemployment of the early 1970s contributing to significant drug use, the Nixon administration was already fighting a losing battle against addiction. Moreover, with many Vietnam veterans returning home having smoked cannabis while deployed overseas, “marijuana broke all the age, class, or racial barriers” and became associated with “blue-collar, working class youth.”[ix] Between 1973 and 1977, eleven states opted to decriminalize cannabis possession; Jimmy Carter was inaugurated in 1977 after running on a cannabis-friendly platform – the “first (and only) president to seriously consider the decriminalization of cannabis possession.”[x]

But, much like the revival of conservativism with Nixon after the Swinging Sixties, the reactionary right would soon be campaigning against the evils of cannabis again. In 1980, Reagan was elected as president, and his administration – along with First Lady Nancy Reagan – would further the harsh, bigoted policies of Nixon’s era, and escalate violence in Latin America.

I’ll be looking at how the War on Drugs (and cannabis’ role in this war) continued into the 80s and 90s in Part 3 of this series.

why is marijuana illegal in america infographic part 2


[i]Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1979), 187.

[ii] Ibid, 230.

[iii] Ibid, 230.

[iv] Ibid, np.

[v] Emily Dufton, “The War on Drugs: How President Nixon Tied Addiction to Crime,” The Atlantic, March 26, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/the-war-on-drugs-how-president-nixon-tied-addiction-to-crime/254319/

[vi] Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian, A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition (New York: The New Press, 2014), 347.

[vii] Dufton, np.

[viii] Ibid, np.

[ix] Sloman, 244.

[x] Martin and Rashidian, 49.

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