A Brief Look At The History of Marijuana Prohibition


We all know that marijuana is an illegal substance in most (and a few years ago in all) parts of the United States. The thing most of us don’t seem to know is why marijuana is illegal. We hear about all of the benefits it provides users, and about how it isn’t nearly as bad as the recreational drugs we have available that are perfectly legal, and we’re scratching our heads wondering why it was ever banned.

There are a lot of reasons, actually. Some of them make sense, but most of them don’t. Here’s a brief overview of the History of Marijuana Prohibition.

As most of us know, marijuana as a recreational and medical drug has a long history in the U.S. Used by colonists, as well as the circles many of the founding fathers moved in, marijuana wasn’t seen as a huge risk. The drug people were worried about at the time was opium, particularly given its horrifying effects and addictive properties. So while there were some attempts to legislate marijuana use in the late 1800s, they never really went anywhere.

Until about 1911, that is. That’s when abolitionists (the kind who were about banning drugs, not the sort from a two generations earlier who’d been fighting over slavery) started making a ruckus in New England. Their initial fight was over alcohol, and they were making headway that would eventually lead to the disastrous period of U.S. Prohibition. In order to help gain steam the prohibition movement played the race card, tying marijuana use to burgeoning Mexican immigrant populations. These efforts led to a wider spread of lawmakers across the U.S. considering marijuana prohibition.

These struggles continued, but the 1930s is when big business got involved. Hemp (marijuana’s cousin, which has no drug uses) stood as a threat against gasoline additives created by companies like DuPont, and it could have been used to make cheap paper which would have rendered lumber investments a lot less valuable. At the same time the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established, and started throwing its weight around. This is generally referred to as the “Reefer Madness” period of marijuana prohibition, since completely outlandish claims of how dangerous it was were being given wholesale to the public through the media. In the mid-1930s all cannabis was treated as a drug, and its legal use dried up pretty quickly after that.

The campaign against pot continued on into the 1950s, which is where the popular “gateway drug” myth came from. Marijuana was denounced by religion, but in the 1960s it was embraced wholeheartedly by the hippie generation (along with a huge number of other substances). In 1973 the DEA was officially created, and in 1975 the war on drugs began. This led to marijuana being further criminalized, and contributed to the burgeoning population of U.S. prisons that we have today.

Why Stay On That Path?

It seems clear, looking at history, that marijuana was not banned because it was dangerous. It was banned for economic, political, and cultural reasons, none of which can truly hold up under scrutiny. With the popularity of the substance undiminished, and the huge gains places like Washington and Colorado have made through legalization, it might be time to write a new chapter in the history of marijuana’s prohibition in the U.S.

Perhaps it’s time to write the final chapter. . .

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