The legal history of marijuana in the United States relates to the regulation of marijuana use for medical or recreational purposes. Regulations and restrictions on the sale of marijuana as a drug began as early as 1860. Increased restrictions and labeling of cannabis as a poison began in many states from 1906 onward, and outright prohibitions began in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s Cannabis was regulated as a drug in every state, including 35 states that adopted the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act.
History of Marijuana in the US
Marijuana has been used many years before any of the regulations were in place. Christopher Columbus brought over Cannabis with him on his journey where he discovered America. In 1619 Jamestown colony law declared that all settlers were required to grow hemp. Even George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon as one of his three primary crops. Thomas Jefferson grew hemp as a secondary crop at Monticello. The use of hemp for rope and fabric was universal throughout the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States. As early as 1853, recreational cannabis was listed as a “fashionable narcotic”
Prior to 1910, the plant was referred to as cannabis and it was widely consumed medicinally. The American Medical Association commonly used cannabis in tinctures, syrups and extracts to treat and cure a huge variety of ailments, always referring to the plant as cannabis or hemp. Around 1910, the U.S. saw a large influx of legal Mexican immigrants fleeing a country torn by civil war. These immigrants brought with them the word “marihuana.” This word was largely responsible for the eventual criminalization and demonization of a plant that had been used for centuries by multiple cultures to heal.
It was an innocent word in the beginning, until two men hijacked it and used it to turn a nation of people against a plant responsible for the pain relief and curing of so many. William Hearst and Harry Anslinger — two incredibly influential men — decided cannabis was a threat to their plans for power and wealth.
Hearst was a newspaper tycoon at the time; he owned several newspapers and also the timber companies that produced the paper on which his publications were printed. Anslinger was newly appointed as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and he had decided that cannabis was a threat to society. The US history of marijuana was about to change. The two men (along with a few other famous cohorts) proceeded to launch a massive campaign, using Hearst’s newspapers, to convince the public that despite all the evidence to the contrary cannabis was “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” to quote Anslinger.
The first order of business in the public demonization of cannabis was to re-brand the plant as “marihuana,” and then proceed to falsely connect its consumption to widespread violence and crime. Many people reading the newspapers had no idea that marijuana and cannabis were one and the same; they thought marijuana was a new, terrible drug on the street that needed to be stopped at all costs.
The campaign proved to be effective, and in 1937 Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which essentially criminalized cannabis. It wasn’t only the general public that was misled by this propaganda, however; the AMA also was misled. It was not until the last minute that they realized that marijuana and cannabis were the same and what the implications of this Act would be for the medical community: cannabis would no longer be a viable medicine.
On October 2, 1937, without any open debate, scientific enquiry, or political objection, President Roosevelt signed the Marijuana Tax Law. The law made it illegal to possess marijuana in the U.S. without a special tax stamp issued by the U.S. Treasury Department. On the very day the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act was passed, the FBI and Denver police raided the Lexington Hotel and arrested two people: Samuel R. Caldwell and Moses Baca. Three days later, Caldwell, a 58 year old unemployed laborer, became first person in the U.S. to be convicted of selling of marijuana without a tax stamp. He was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Leavenworth Penitentiary.
By 1941, the last vestiges of cannabis were removed from the U.S. pharmacopoeia and the medicinal qualities of this plant were no longer recognized in the U.S. The downfall of a miracle plant, and all possible because of a simple name change.
In 1956, The Narcotic Control Act put marijuana in the same drug class as heroin and added more severe penalties.
A first conviction of possession of marijuana was punishable by a mandatory two to 10 years in prison.
In the 1960s, anti-drug movement was widely distributed with the message that smoking marijuana would not only make you lazy and irresponsible. In 1968 the United States Department of the Treasury subsidiary the Bureau of Narcotics and the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare subsidiary the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control merged to create the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs as a United States Department of Justice. In 1969, congress passed Controlled Substances Act which eliminated mandatory minimums and reduced penalties for possession of marijuana.
In the 1970s, many places in the United States started to abolish state laws and other local regulations that banned possession or sale of marijuana. In the 1970s, smoking marijuana became popular among middle-class adults, and activists revamped the movement for decriminalization. By 1972, approximately 24 million Americans had tried marijuana. Nixon won the election on a campaign-platform for restoring law and order in the country. He launched Operation Intercept. Two thousand customs agents were deployed along the Mexican border in a military-style search and seizure mission to stop the flow of marijuana. Virtually no marijuana was found among the 5 million people who were searched and after three weeks the operation was abandoned. Nixon then decided to concentrate on police training to fight the war against marijuana. Almost immediately, marijuana related arrests and convictions increased dramatically. In 1972, all of the government’s existing drug agencies were combined into one super-powerful agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, thus the DEA was born.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration launched its own war on drugs.
An average of one person every 38 seconds was arrested for violating marijuana laws. Thanks a lot Reagan! During the Reagan Administration, the Sentencing Reform Act provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 created the Sentencing Commission, which established mandatory sentencing guidelines. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 reinstated mandatory prison sentences, including large scale cannabis distribution. Later an amendment created a three strike law, which created mandatory 25-years imprisonment for repeated serious crimes – serious drug offenses is in on that list – and allowed the death penalty to be used against “drug kingpins.” Judge Francis Law, a DEA administrative law judge, held hearings on the medical benefits of marijuana. He found that marijuana has a clearly established medical use and recommended that it be reclassified as a prescription drug. However, no action was taken to reclassify marijuana based on Law’s findings.
In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana.
The Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative was created to “provide seriously ill patients with a safe and reliable source of medical cannabis, information and patient support” in accordance with Proposition 215. In January 1998 the U.S. Government sued Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative for violating federal laws created as a result of Controlled Substances Act of 1970. On May 14, 2001, the United States Supreme Court ruled in United States vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Coop that federal anti-drug laws do not permit an exception for medical cannabis and rejected the common-law medical necessity defense to crimes enacted under the Controlled Substances Act because Congress concluded cannabis has “no currently accepted medical use” when the act was passed in 1970.
Although Canada became the first country in the world to legalize medical marijuana in 2003, the U.S. Federal Government has been resistant to changing marijuana laws. Currently marijuana activists are working for marijuana reform and fighting for medical marijuana laws. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has patented medical marijuana. US Patent 6630507 was assigned to the United States of America, as represented by the Department of Health and Human services on October 7, 2003 and protects “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuro-protectants” Today Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have passed medical marijuana laws. Several other states are also considering legalizing medical marijuana.