With so much attention being paid toward the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use in the past few years, it’s worth taking a look back to see how we got here in the first place. The cannabis plant has a long history in America, but has only been an illegal substance in the country for less than a century. Let’s take a quick walk through the history of marijuana in the U.S.
During the fledgling years of the nation – in fact, in our colonial childhood, before we were even a country – hemp was not only a widely versatile product in demand, but growth was highly encouraged. PBS’ “Frontline” notes that the plant was cultivated to meet a number of pressing demands in the colonies, including rope, sails and clothing, most notably. Growth of the hemp plant was also highly encouraged, and was even mandated under a 1619 law in Virginia that required all farmers to grow the plant. It was even an acceptable form of currency for a time in that state, as well as the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The marijuana plant enjoyed this status well into the late 19th century when new advances in materials and production limited the need for the hemp plant. Around this time, cannabis began to find a new use, as it was incorporated into a variety of medical products and tinctures, leading to legislation in 1906 – the Pure Food and Drug Act – that required labeling of any product sold over the counter that contained marijuana.
Following the Mexican Revolution in the early part of the 20th century, immigrants began to bring with them the recreational use of marijuana in a much more visible and noticeable way. Despite the plant’s earlier recreational use in France and to a lesser degree in parts of the U.S., the influx of Mexican immigrants became tied with the drug, noted “Frontline,” leading to fearmongering and anti-drug campaigns that tied with the rising popular opinion that some of the most severe crimes were associated with marijuana use. Following a series of drug control laws with limited effect that weren’t specifically targeting marijuana, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by Congress in 1937, highly restricting legal access to the plant and requiring those who wished to use it for authorized industrial or medical purposes pay an excise tax on the product.
Ironically, just a few years later during World War II, the government turned course back again with the “Hemp for Victory” program launched by the Department of Agriculture. With military supplies scarce during war time, the department encouraged farmers to plant hemp seeds for military use, leading to more than 375,000 acres of hemp being grown through the program.
As the children of the ‘40s matured into the ‘60s, marijuana again pinged on the national radar during the era of hippies and counterculture. While attitudes through the decade were more lax than in previous years, the drug was still illegal, and first-time offenders could face a minimum of two years in jail for possession under federal laws. By the start of the next decade, the federal government was pressured into action by anti-drug advocates, leading to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
Under the CSA, marijuana became the Schedule I drug that is still is classified is today, though “Frontline” notes that other laws that year eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.
The ‘70s was an age of opposition, with a strong parents’ movement forming, as well as the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency. While the Shafer Commission during the Nixon administration advised that marijuana should be decriminalized, as the Drug Policy Alliance notes, Nixon overruled that recommendation. While federal restrictions continued, 11 states reduced penalties and/or decriminalized marijuana during the decade.
The “War on Drugs” began in full force in the 1980s, however, with Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act that levied mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes, raised sentences for possession and dealing and – through a later amendment – established a “three strikes” policy that could lead to life sentences and even death penalties in certain situations. President George H.W. Bush capped off the decade with his 1989 speech officially using “War on Drugs” as a slogan, but just seven years later, the first waves of acceptance crashed on West Coast shores with California’s Proposition 215, allowing marijuana for medical use.
Today, nearly half the nation has joined California, with 23 states in total allowing cannabis to be used for medical applications in one form or another, according to information provided by Governing magazine. Additionally, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Alaska permit recreational use, as well as Washington, D.C. As progress continues to be made, with more and more states taking up ballot initiatives or legislation in their statehouses, it seems clear that once again the nation’s stance on marijuana is becoming more relaxed and that the campaign against marijuana may be a battle won by advocates in the War on Drugs.