By: David McDonald


The history of marijuana (or cannabis/THC) stems back around 10,000 years and is widely recognized as one of the most useful plants on the planet. Yet, it was made illegal in the United States in the early 20th century due to political and economic factors.


History of The Drug

Let’s get one thing clear, marijuana was not made illegal because it caused “insanity, criminality, and death” – Harry J. Aslinger. It was made illegal in an attempt to control Mexican immigration into the United States, and to help boost the profits of large pharmaceutical companies.
The plant has been used for almost 10,000 years by humans in order to make clothing and pottery, but its first direct reference to a cannabis product as a psychoactive agent dates from 2737 BC, in the writings of the Chinese emperor Shen Nung. The focus was on its healing powers, primarily how it healed diseases such as malaria and even absent-mindlessness. The plant was used recreationally by Indians and Muslims as well.

Marijuana in America

The drug was introduced to America by the Spanish in 1545 where it became a major commercial force where it was grown alongside tobacco. Farmers grew hemp instead of cannabis (a form of the plant that is very low in THC) and by 1890 it had replaced cotton as the major cash crop in southern states.
Hemp continued to flourish in the States until the 1910’s when Mexicans began popularizing the recreational use of cannabis. At the time, cannabis was not primarily used for its psychoactive effects. Many white U.S. citizens did not like the fact that Mexicans were smoking the plant and they soon demonized the drug.
Around 1910, the Mexican Revolution was starting to boil over, and many Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. to escape the conflict. This Mexican population had its own uses for cannabis, and they referred to it as “marihuana.” Not only did they use it for medicinal purposes, but they smoked it recreationally, which was a new concept for white Americans. U.S. politicians quickly jumped to the opportunity to label cannabis, “marihuana” in order to give it a bad rep – and it worked. Southern states became worried about the dangers this drug would bring and newspapers began calling Mexican cannabis use a “marijuana menace”.
During the 1920’s there were many anti-marijuana campaigns conducted to raise awareness about the many harmful effects that the drug caused. These campaigns included radical claims that stated how marijuana turned users into killers and drug addicts, which were all obviously fake and made up in an attempt to get rid of Mexican immigrants.
“A widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana plant, according to doctors, who say that there is no hope of saving the children’s lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life,” read a New York Times story from 1927. It was clear the newspapers and tabloids were building a campaign against the plant, and much of it has been said to be based on racist ideologies against Mexican immigrants.
The ‘war against marijuana’ arguably began in 1930, where a new division in the Treasury Department was established — the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — and Harry J. Anslinger was named director. This, if anything, marked the beginning of the all-out war against marijuana.
Aslinger realized that opiates and cocaine would not be enough to build this agency, so he turned towards marijuana and worked relentlessly to make it illegal on a federal level. Some anti-marijuana quotes from Aslinger’s agency read:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”

“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

“Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing”

“You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
Yes, every single one of these claims are radically outrageous, but they worked.
[Harry Anslinger got some additional help from William Randolf Hearst, owner of a huge chain of newspapers. Hearst had lots of reasons to help. First, he hated Mexicans. Second, he had invested heavily in the timber industry to support his newspaper chain and didn’t want to see the development of hemp paper in competition. Third, he had lost 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa, so he hated Mexicans. Fourth, telling lurid lies about Mexicans (and the devil marijuana weed causing violence) sold newspapers, making him rich. (1)]
The two were then supported by the Dupont chemical company and various pharmaceutical companies in the effort to outlaw cannabis. Pharmaceutical companies were on board with this because they could not standardize cannabis dosages, and not to mention, people could grow it themselves. They knew how versatile the plant was in treating a wide range of medical conditions and that meant a massive loss in profits. So, these U.S. economic and political powerhouses teamed up to form a great little act called: The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
This act testified to the many harmful effects of marijuana, which was obviously opposed by many. But it was ultimately the committee chairman who got this act passed in congress. He decided that, “High school boys and girls buy the destructive weed without knowledge of its capacity of harm, and conscienceless dealers sell it with impunity. This is a national problem, and it must have national attention. The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a deadly drug, and American children must be protected against it.”
And there you have it, 1937 marks the year where marijuana became illegal in the United States. Of America.
Recap: a man by the name of Harry Aslinger became the director of the newly established department in the treasure of the U.S. – the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Aslinger teamed up with William Randolf Hearst (a newspaper company owner) and some big time pharmaceutical companies and together, they launched an anti-marijuana campaign in order to profit off of manufactured medicine, and deport thousands of mexicans. Marijuana was not made illegal because of its negative health impacts. It was these men who manipulated the public into believing the herb was deadly, and their impacts are still felt even today.
The war against marijuana intensified in 1970, where the Controlled Substances Act was passed. During this time, marijuana along with heroin and LSD were listed as schedule 1 drugs (having the highest abuse potential and no accepted medical use). Obviously this goes against thousands of years of human knowledge where it was widely known that cannabis was one of the most beneficial herbs on the face of the planet in terms of fighting disease. Yet, the U.S. congress decided to ignore history in order to benefit the big pharmaceutical companies who make billions annually off of selling cheaply manufactured medicine that gives people diseases such as cancer ( which can be cured by marijuana).
The “zero tolerance” climate of the Reagan and Bush administrations resulted in passage of strict laws and mandatory sentences for possession of marijuana and in heightened vigilance against smuggling at the southern borders. The “war on drugs” thus brought with it a shift from reliance on imported supplies to domestic cultivation.
It wasn’t until 1996 when California legalized marijuana for medical use, where Alaska, Oregon, and Washington soon followed. However, it has taken well over a decade for marijuana to reach recreational legalization in these states. Today, only 25 U.S. states have legalized marijuana to some extent, with only Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington having legal recreational marijuana.
With all this being said, the future for marijuana is looking very bright. Marijuana advocates believe there is a chance for at least eleven more states to legalize recreational marijuana in the near term, which would be a huge leap forward in the grand scheme of things.
It has taken far too long to break the stigma attached to marijuana. Yes, like any drug, it can be abused. But to ignore it’s obvious health benefits in order to maintain large scale pharmaceutical operations and a monopoly on the health industry is ludicrous.
The American public has spoken. They want this drug legalized recreationally in every state, not because they want to get high, but because they want to support something natural, something that can be grown in the ground and used to benefit many areas of society ranging from manufacturing, to healthcare, to recreational uses.
The history of marijuana is truly a long and interesting one, but it’s future (especially in the U.S.) is one that will bring a completely new dynamic to how Western culture functions, how kids grow up, and how pharmaceutical companies try to maintain their monopoly over the medical world.
All I can hope for as a marijuana supporter is to see as many people enjoying the health benefits it brings, and to see as many joints sparked at the next Wiz Khalifa/Snoop Dogg concert I hope to attend as soon as possible.
Smoke up people!
Sources: (1) (2)
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David McDonald

David McDonald

David is a 19-year-old Canadian student currently attending the University of Guelph. He currently studies Public Management and economics with hopes of one day becoming an accomplished journalist. David enjoys reporting on global events and actively try to make a difference in the world.
David McDonald