How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place? Complete History

Now that many lawmakers and the general public are taking a more objective look at marijuana, many people are curious about its legal history and how it landed up on the federal government’s list of the most hazardous narcotics (Schedule I).

To understand how we got here, we must first look at what was going on in the United States in the early 1900s, right after the Mexican Revolution. At the time, we saw an inflow of Mexican immigrants into regions like Texas and Louisiana. Not surprisingly, these new Americans took their original language, culture, and habits with them. Cannabis usage as medication and relaxant was one of these customs.

Mexican immigrants called this plant “marijuana.” While the name “cannabis” was highly common to Americans since it was found in practically all tinctures and treatments available at the time, the term “marijuana” was unfamiliar. As a result, when the media began to play on the public’s fears about these new citizens by falsely spreading claims about “disruptive Mexicans” with dangerous native behaviors such as marijuana use, the rest of the country was unaware that this “marijuana” was a plant they already had in their medicine cabinets.

The demonization of the cannabis plant mirrored the demonization of Mexican immigration. El Paso, TX took a move from San Francisco’s playbook in order to regulate and monitor these new residents. San Francisco had prohibited opium decades before in order to restrict Chinese immigration. The plan was to use the incident as a justification to search, imprison, and deport Mexican immigrants.

That justification was marijuana.

This way of managing individuals by regulating their customs was so successful that it became a national policy for keeping certain communities under the government’s observation and control.

During marijuana law hearings in the 1930s, accusations were made regarding marijuana’s tendency to make men of color aggressive and beg sex from white women. This graphic served as the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially prohibited the use and selling of marijuana.

While the Act was eventually declared unconstitutional, it was superseded in the 1970s by the Controlled Narcotics Act, which created Schedules for rating substances based on their risk and propensity for addiction. Cannabis was allegedly placed in the most restricted category, Schedule I, as a placeholder while President Nixon commissioned a report to make a final decision.

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The Schafer Commission, as it was known, stated that marijuana should not be classified as an illegal narcotic and even questioned its inclusion in Schedule I. However, Nixon rejected the commission’s recommendations, and marijuana remains a Schedule I drug.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal uses, putting an end to the drug’s 59-year reign as an illegal narcotic with no medical benefit. Cannabis had a 5000-year history as a curative medicine in various civilizations prior to 1937. In this environment, its brief appearance as an illegal and hazardous substance was overshadowed by its significance as a medication.

Opponents of medical marijuana restrictions argue that there isn’t enough data to justify therapeutic usage, but advocates refer to the 5000-year history of cannabis use as evidence of its medical usefulness.

Now that 23 states and Washington, DC have enacted medical marijuana legislation, the public is questioning the purpose of keeping marijuana illegal, especially given the racial and propagandistic reason for making it illegal in the first place.

Voters in Florida, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC will have the opportunity in just a few weeks to hammer another nail in the coffin of prohibition by voting to legalize medical access in Florida and adult access in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington DC. Changing marijuana laws in these and other states is one of the first steps toward ending the racially driven war on drugs.