How Cannabis Became Illegal

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‍Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has been controversial for decades. While many now recognize its potential medicinal benefits and recreational use, it wasn’t always viewed this way. Cannabis was once widely used for medicinal purposes and even cultivated for industrial use.

So how did it become illegal? The answer is a complex and often misunderstood tale that spans decades and involves politics, racial tensions, and moral panic.

Understanding the history of cannabis prohibition is essential to appreciate the current legal landscape and work towards a more equitable and just future. This article will explore the origins of cannabis prohibition and how it has impacted society and individuals worldwide. So, grab a seat, and let’s dive in!

Early uses of cannabis

Cannabis has been used for thousands of years for medicinal and spiritual purposes. The earliest recorded use of cannabis dates back to ancient China in 2737 BC, where it was used for its pain-relieving properties. It was also used for religious ceremonies in India and as a medicinal herb in ancient Greece and Rome. Cannabis was introduced to the Americas in the 16th century by Spanish colonizers and was widely used for its medicinal properties.

In the United States, cannabis was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia as a treatment for various ailments, including nausea, rheumatism, and labor pains, until the early 1900s. Cannabis was also cultivated for industrial use, with the fiber from the plant used to make cloth, paper, and rope. However, as the 20th century progressed, attitudes toward cannabis began to shift.

The rise of anti-cannabis sentiment

In the early 1900s, anti-cannabis sentiment grew in the United States. This was partly due to the influx of Mexican immigrants who brought with them the practice of smoking cannabis for recreational purposes. This led to demonizing cannabis as a drug that caused violent and criminal behavior.

In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed, which regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opium and cocaine. While cannabis was not specifically mentioned in the act, it was included in the definition of “narcotic” drugs. This set the stage for further restrictions on cannabis use.

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In the 1920s, the temperance movement, which aimed to ban alcohol, began to focus on cannabis as well. The movement emphasized the dangers of drug use and associated cannabis with moral decay and “reefer madness.” This led to a moral panic around cannabis use, fueled by sensationalized media reports.

Political influences on cannabis criminalization

Political factors also influenced the criminalization of cannabis. During the Great Depression, the U.S. government sought ways to cut costs and generate revenue. They did this by cracking down on drug use and imposing fines and jail time on those caught using or selling drugs.

In 1936, a propaganda film called “Reefer Madness” was released, which depicted the supposed dangers of cannabis use. The film was produced by a church group and was widely distributed to schools and community organizations. It helped to create a moral panic around cannabis use and was used by politicians to justify criminalizing cannabis.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, effectively criminalizing cannabis use and possession. The act taxed anyone who dealt with cannabis, including growers, sellers, and users. However, obtaining the required tax stamp was nearly impossible, making cannabis use and possession illegal.

The Marihuana Tax Act was passed to protect public health and safety. However, it was largely motivated by political and economic factors. The timber and cotton industries supported the act, which saw hemp as a threat to their profits. Law enforcement agencies also supported it, which saw drug use as a threat to social order.

The impact of Harry Anslinger and Reefer Madness

Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, played a significant role in the criminalization of cannabis. Anslinger was a staunch prohibitionist who believed drug use was a moral failing and a societal threat. He used his position to demonize cannabis and promote harsh penalties.

Anslinger was responsible for spreading the myth of “reefer madness,” which depicted cannabis as a dangerous drug that caused insanity, violence, and sexual deviancy. He also used racist and xenophobic rhetoric to demonize cannabis use, associating it with African Americans and Mexican immigrants.

The impact of Anslinger and “reefer madness” on public opinion and policy was profound. The demonization of cannabis use led to harsh penalties for those caught using or possessing cannabis. It also contributed to the stigmatization of drug use and the criminalization of addiction.

Cannabis in the 1960s counterculture

In the 1960s, cannabis use became associated with the counterculture movement. The use of cannabis was seen as a form of rebellion against mainstream society and the government. The counterculture movement also emphasized the medicinal properties of cannabis and its potential to enhance creativity and spirituality.

The use of cannabis by the counterculture movement led to increased scrutiny and criminalization by law enforcement agencies. The government launched a crackdown on drug use, leading to increased arrests and incarceration rates. The use of cannabis became associated with political radicalism and social deviance.

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The War on Drugs and the Controlled Substances Act

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs,” which aimed to eradicate drug use in the United States. The War on Drugs led to increased funding for law enforcement agencies and harsher penalties for drug offenses. It also led to the Controlled Substances Act, which classified drugs into five different schedules based on their perceived danger and potential for abuse.

Cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug, which means it was considered to have no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. This classification made it nearly impossible to conduct cannabis research and prevented doctors from prescribing it as a treatment for medical conditions.

Contemporary perspectives on cannabis legalization

In recent years, attitudes toward cannabis have started to shift once again. Many states in the United States have legalized cannabis for medicinal and/or recreational use. Other countries, such as Canada and Uruguay, have also legalized cannabis.

Advocates for cannabis legalization argue that criminalizing cannabis use has done more harm than good. They point to the disproportionate impact of drug laws on communities of color and the criminalization of addiction. They also argue that legalizing cannabis could generate revenue for the government and reduce the burden on law enforcement agencies.

Opponents of cannabis legalization argue that it could increase use and addiction rates. They also point to the potential negative impact on public health and safety. They argue that more research is needed to fully understand the effects of cannabis use before it is legalized.


The history of cannabis prohibition is a complex and often misunderstood tale. It involves politics, racial tensions, and moral panic. The criminalization of cannabis has profoundly impacted society and individuals worldwide. It has contributed to the stigmatization of drug use and addiction and has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

Understanding the history of cannabis prohibition is essential to appreciate the current legal landscape and work towards a more equitable and just future. While attitudes towards cannabis use are changing, much work must be done to address the harms caused by prohibition. The legalization of cannabis is not a panacea, but it is a step towards a more sensible and compassionate approach to drug policy.

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