In 2020, in a progressive state like California, it is almost inconceivable that marijuana was ever illegal. The drug seems harmless; it provides a relaxing, satisfying high while easing pain, stress and other ills, and it is definitively not addictive or physically dangerous. How could a drug that is even safer than alcohol and nicotine be against the law for so long?
The story of how marijuana became illegal isn’t long or complicated — but it is interesting and extremely important for weed enthusiasts to know, especially as more and more states (and even the federal government) make plans to legalize it.
The Beginnings of Weed in the U.S.
In truth, cannabis was integral to the success of the first colonies in North America. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cannabis was used to make hemp, a lightweight and strong material used to make clothing, rope and other critical textiles. The early colonies, especially in swampy Virginia, struggled to find crops that would flourish in the New World, and because hemp was so valuable, some colonies mandated that all landowners devote some property to producing cannabis. In fact, founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were cannabis growers.
Cannabis — and by extension marijuana — remained legal for 135 years of American history, but after the turn of the 20th century, public perception of the drug started to change. In the 1910s, immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries began flooding into the U.S., bringing with them recreational marijuana use. Unfortunately, bigotry and fear fueled a nationwide reaction to both the Spanish-speaking newcomers and their psychoactive drug.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, as Mexican-Americans competed with white Americans for scarce employment, a rash of research emerged linking marijuana use with deviant behavior, like violence and crime. Reprehensibly, these studies found that “racially inferior” communities were particularly susceptible to these negative reactions to the drug. As a result, more than half of the states outlawed marijuana by 1931, and by 1937, the federal government enacted the Marihuana Tax Act, which criminalized weed and imposed heavy taxes for its use in medical and industrial fields.
Despite increasing evidence that marijuana was not nearly as dangerous as believed, the public continued to rally against the drug thanks to intensive propaganda campaigns, including the film “Reefer Madness.” Through the ‘40s and ‘50s, sentences for marijuana-related offenses increased; a first-time marijuana possession charge could land a person in prison for 10 years with fines up to $20,000. Though some decriminalization attempts were made in the 1970s, Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. led two severe Wars on Drugs which raised federal penalties for possession and sale of marijuana.
It wasn’t until 1996, when California passed medical marijuana legislation, that public perceptions of the drug started to change — and the weed revolution began.
Why Weed Was Illegal for So Long
In the scope of American history, marijuana has been illegal for much less time than it was permitted. Even so, why did weed remain illegal despite its relative harmlessness, which was discovered in the 1940s? There are several reasons why most people long despised the drug, and why people continue to loathe it today. They include:
- Racist associations. At first, recreational marijuana use was tied to Mexican American culture; then, it became linked to African American communities, who participated in its illegal growth and sale. Though white Americans have long enjoyed recreational weed, the association of the drug with minority groups sparked long-lasting fear and outrage.
- Unconvincing advocacy. For decades, there weren’t many people legitimately trying to reverse marijuana legislation — and the people who were trying weren’t doing a good job. Even today, marijuana advocates market weed as a cure-all, a wonder drug that increases productivity, creativity and spirituality while removing all pain and erasing all disease. Most people simply don’t buy this pitch.
- Insufficient research. Marijuana was outlawed before much legitimate research could be done on the drug, so researchers have long struggled to obtain samples for legal, safe and accurate testing. While there are some rigorous studies on cannabinoids, there simply isn’t enough evidence that marijuana isn’t dangerous to convince those who grew up on unfounded propaganda.
These reasons aren’t meant to convince you that marijuana should be illegal. To the contrary — I wholeheartedly believe that marijuana can be beneficial to communities and individuals. These reasons should help many weed advocates and enthusiasts better understand why many people aren’t immediately interested in legalization. Before marijuana becomes legal at the federal level, marijuana advocates need to be serious about funding convincing research into safety and uses; meanwhile, marijuana detractors need to understand the racist legacy of marijuana laws and draft new legislation to protect at-risk communities — as Illinois has done.
Because California (and a handful of other states) have legalized recreational use and possession of weed, I can find a recreational dispensary near me in my California neighborhood. However, there are still many states where even medicinal use of marijuana is outlawed, and federally, weed remains a Schedule I drug, amongst the likes of heroin, MDMA, Quaaludes and bath salts.
Legalizing marijuana is a good step, but it might not do much to change how people feel about the drug or those communities associated with it. States and the federal government should reeducate communities with accurate information about marijuana’s benefits, those medical and economical. Additionally, governments should strive to ensure that communities unfairly punished for marijuana possession (Latin and African groups, specifically) are protected in some way. If we look into the history, we can learn how to move into the future with power and positivity for all.