The History Of Cannabis Prohibition In The United States

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People alive today have never experienced a world without cannabis prohibition. Even now, with more states creating legal marijuana markets, federal anti-cannabis laws dramatically limit the potential of cannabis research and accessibility to the plant. 

But things weren’t always this way in the USA. The cannabis plant used to be a major cash crop, and even several of our founding fathers cultivated cannabis. So what changed? How did cannabis go from the backbone of the agricultural economy to illicit black market substance? And, perhaps the more important question, why?

Alcohol Prohibition Vs. Cannabis Prohibition 

The word “prohibition” likely conjures up images of back-alley speakeasies guarded by old-timey gangsters wearing three-piece pinstripe suits and wielding Tommy Guns. That’s because the nationwide 13-year ban on alcohol directly had a tangible effect on crime and culture. But are there parallels we can draw between alcohol and cannabis prohibition?

Alcohol prohibition formally began in 1920, but prohibitionists began campaigning long before. Advocates of the temperance movement viewed the alcohol industry as immoral and damaging to society, and many areas in rural America had already enacted legislation banning the sale of alcohol on the county and state levels. 

Of course, after liquor sales were outlawed, people didn’t stop drinking. Instead, the wealthy were able to keep private cellars well-stocked, while bootleggers and smugglers came out in droves to supply the increasing demand from the working class. As a result, racketeers and criminal organizations took over the distribution of alcohol. Cannabis prohibition created a similar phenomenon, where the illegalization didn’t end the sale of cannabis but instead just funneled the profits into criminals. 

After a single decade, the United States Government recognized the ineffectiveness of alcohol prohibition, cut its losses, and passed the 21st amendment. Cannabis prohibition, on the other hand, has continued for nearly a century. 

When Did Cannabis Prohibition First Begin?

The exact start date of cannabis prohibition is debatable, but the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first piece of federal legislation that effectively criminalized the cultivation and sale of cannabis. While this act didn’t technically make cannabis illegal, the legislation did impose financial and legal penalties on cultivators, distributors, and buyers, who did pay an excise tax.    

As a result, the industrial hemp industry, which prior to 1937 the United States was producing more than 500 tons a year, was utterly destroyed. This has led many scholars and other interested parties to speculate that the crippling of the hemp industry was the real motivation behind the act’s passing. 

Cannabis In The USA Before Prohibition

Before 1937, cannabis played a significant role in American society. Hemp fibers made colonization possible for early settlers. Ropes and sails, as well as basic textiles like clothing, were woven from hemp fibers. The plant was so essential to the economy of the colonies that even George Washington grew it on his Mount Vernon estate.

By the 19th century, cannabis extract was commonly used in medicines, and was mentioned in the United States Pharmacopeia as early as 1950.  

Brief History Of Cannabis Prohibition 

The criminalization of cannabis began in earnest at the start of the 20th century. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required that medicines, including ones that contained cannabis extracts, were required to disclose their ingredients and were subject to regulation. Before this, patent medicines composed of secret ingredients could be sold over the counter. 

In 1926, world leaders got together for the first time to control the distribution of certain drugs on a global scale. It was labeled the International Opium Convention, and it was agreed that the conference would ban the export of “Indian Hemp,” which was often used to prepare hashish. 

Four years later, the United States would establish the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed by the vocal proponent of cannabis prohibition Harry Anslinger. Anslinger would go on to spearhead the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 by racializing cannabis use

Eventually, the Marihuana Tax Act was replaced by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and harsher penalties for cannabis consumers became the norm during Nixon’s War on Drugs.

The Future Of Cannabis Prohibition

Today, we’re finally starting to walk back the anti-cannabis laws of the past century. Currently, voters in 19 states have successfully passed legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, more states than don’t have robust medical marijuana programs. Hemp became federally legal in 2018, and it’s likely only a matter of time before cannabis is as equally accessible as alcohol in this country.  

History

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