A Brief History of Cannabis and Criminalization in the USA

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who, at some point in their lifetime, have found themselves in front of a judge for the simple crime of possessing marijuana, you may have asked yourself the question, “How did a plant that grows like a weed ever become illegal in the first place?”

After all, humans have been using cannabis in one form or another, for medicine, relaxation or hemp for paper and fibers since 4000 BC, originating in China and spreading across medieval Europe.  The plant came to the New World with settlers and was so important that 17th Century Virginia farmers were required to grow hemp among their harvests.

But it took just a few decades for this plant with so much potential for health and industry to be demonized, debated and then banned. It’s a story of racism and fear-fueled propaganda that continues to impact our society.

Just ask one of the 587,000 Americans arrested or cited for marijuana in 2016 alone.

Racist history

By the early 20th Century, cannabis oil was a common ingredient in many medical products widely available in the U.S., enough that the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act required labels on over-the-counter products to say if they contained cannabis.

But morphine and opium were also widely used, passed off in medical forms like laudanum, and federal officials became concerned we were becoming a nation of addicts. Those drugs were banned for sale to the general public under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, which set the nation’s police against its citizens and declared drug addiction a crime, not an illness.

Thinly veiled racism was also behind the Harrison Act. Here was a way control the massive wave of immigrants from China, who were more likely to be opium users than other nationalities. They could be searched, arrested and deported.

Many historians and cannabis activists believe the same motives were behind marijuana criminalization. The 1910 Mexican Revolution had brought a new wave of immigrants from that nation, especially to southern and western states, and they brought with them the smokeable herb “marihuana.”

Americans might be fine with cannabis oil in their bedtime syrup, but this exotic herb smoked began to be linked in the popular imagination with Spanish-speaking immigrants. Media accounts and scientific researchers began to link its use with crime and violence. Nearly 30 states had outlawed the plant by the time the Great Depression hit and rural Americans began to see these immigrants as competition for employment in a down economy.

In the parlance of a later generation, “They took our jobs!”

And there was a way to harass them.


America’s first drug warrior

This nation has had many marijuana opponents in high office, but none have had such an impact as Harry J. Anslinger.

Anslinger was already a proven drug warrior when in 1930 he was appointed the founding commissioner of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger’s old job had been in alcohol prohibition, and with the end of that, he needed something else to go after. Throughout the 1930s, he spearheaded a mountain campaign to encourage more states (and many foreign countries) to adopt uniform bans on marijuana.


He also played a large role in the effort to demonize marijuana in the public eye, with spurious studies and far-fetched tales of pot-fueled violence and debauchery. Newspapers of the day went along for the ride, especially those owned by William Randolph Hearst, who had a stake in using trees for paper instead of hemp. The campaign culminated in the infamous 1936  film “Reefer Madness,” which remains a cult hit today for its absurd portrayal of crazy behavior and violence among friends smoking a joint.


It worked, however, and in 1937 Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which required anyone possessing, growing or selling cannabis to purchase a $1 stamp.

But the stamps were never for sale.

Tougher penalties

Anslinger served in his post until 1962, a period in which marijuana faded into the background of the national discourse, something used only by immigrants, beatniks and jazz musicians.

The penalties for possessing it, though, only got tougher, and Congress approved penalties of 2-10 years in prison and $20,000 in fines for a first offense.


The old notion of using drug laws to go after enemies of the state never quite went away, either. The 1960s counter-culture and anti-Vietnam War movements embraced marijuana, among other drugs, and President Richard Nixon may have seen drug laws as a way to harass them, according to newly published quotes from his domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman.


“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman allegedly told a writer for Harper’s Magazine decades ago. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”


Nixon oversaw the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, which established Schedules for drugs based on their dangerousness and addictiveness. Cannabis was put on Schedule 1, meaning it has no medical use and a high potential for abuse, where it remains to this day. Later presidents like Ronald and Reagan and Bill Clinton continued to demonize marijuana as a “gateway drug” to harder substances.

But as with the initial criminalization of marijuana, it was the states that led the charge to end cannabis prohibition. Starting with California in 1996, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana. And starting with Colorado in 2012, eight states have legalized recreational marijuana.

Scott R.

cannabis encyclopedia

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