With 23 states, as well as Guam and Washington, DC, already having passed medical marijuana laws—and more states pondering similarly relaxed stances — the demonization of the drug in the eyes of the American public, as well as legislators, continues to wane. How far will the prohibition of pot ultimately be pushed back, though? It’s too early to tell. We can, however, make an educated guess regarding the pace of progress by studying how marijuana law has changed in the United States during its history.
Colonial cannabis use
The use of marijuana in the United States dates back to the 17th century. Before a single marijuana law was created, the American government promoted the production of hemp to create clothing, sails, and rope, and marijuana—a mixture of dried flowers and leaves derived from the hemp plant—became a widely used ingredient in numerous over-the-counter medicines by the late 19th century.
Below the border fears
Things began to change a decade later, however. Mexicans were using cannabis for relaxation and medicinal purposes, and in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the immigrants flooding into the U.S. from south of the border brought their marijuana with them.
Fear and prejudice regarding the new immigrants extended to a dislike of their use of marijuana, and those openly protesting its use blamed the drug — as well as the Mexicans who used it — for any number of serious crimes. Not only was marijuana possession now seen as a good reason to deport Mexican immigrants, but by the time the Great Depression rolled around, massive unemployment fueled even more resentment toward Mexicans and increased public and governmental outcry about marijuana. Spurred by spurious research linking pot use with violence, crime, and other socially deviant activity among (mostly) “racially inferior” communities, 29 states had passed legislation banning the substance by 1931. And in an effort to further curb the drug’s use nationwide, Congress passed a dagger of a marijuana law called the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which effectively banned virtually all sales and use of the substance.
Mid-century marijuana crackdown
During the 1950s, the federal government established tougher sentences for those convicted of drug-related offenses, including first-offense marijuana possession. A decade later, however, reports commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson found that pot use did not induce violence or serve as a gateway to harder drugs. These findings, coupled with increased use of marijuana among the white upper middle class, paved the way for increased discussion and increasingly lenient attitudes toward the drug.
By 1970, Congress, recognizing that the harsh minimum sentences had done absolutely nothing to slow down the nation’s drug culture, repealed most of the mandatory penalties for marijuana-related offenses. However, that year also saw Congress pass the Controlled Substances Act, which placed drugs into various categories—or schedules—based on their potential medical value and abuse potential.
Nixon nips it in the bud
Clouded by his dislike for the counterculture associated with marijuana, President Richard Nixon disregarded scientific, medical, and legal findings pointing to the benefits and actual effects of the drug, and instead pushed for cannabis to be placed under Schedule 1, the most restrictive category reserved for drugs like heroin and LSD that the federal government deemed as having virtually no positive benefits.
Not even the findings of the Shafer Commission, an investigative body appointed by Nixon himself, could convince the president that marijuana should be decriminalized and removed from Schedule 1. Nixon rejected the commission’s report, and the Schedule 1 designation would continue to cause those convicted of marijuana-related offenses to receive needlessly harsh sentences. Also, since Schedule 1 meant that the federal government categorized the drug as basically worthless, physicians and scientists were blocked from obtaining marijuana for the purpose of studying its medical, scientific, and pharmaceutical usefulness.
The "War on Drugs"
Still, while Nixon himself rejected the commission’s recommendation, the remainder of the decade saw eleven states decriminalize marijuana and most others drastically reduce penalties for marijuana-related offenses. But while states were moving to lessen the penalties related to marijuana, the creation of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973, as well as a concerted effort by concerned parents across the nation just a few years later, was very effective in shifting public sentiment back toward stricter regulation and stiffer sentences. As part of his war on drugs, President Reagan built on this newfound momentum, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 combined to increase federal penalties for pot-related crimes, including a "three strikes and you're out" policy, which required life sentences for repeat offenders, and the death penalty for those deemed to be "drug kingpins." But while President Bush declared his own War on Drugs in 1989, by 1996, things started to loosen once again.
Turning the tide
That year, California voters passed Proposition 215, a marijuana law that allowed for the sale and medicinal use of marijuana for patients suffering AIDS, cancer, and numerous other serious diseases. While opponents of the measure claim there is too little evidence to establish the medicinal benefits of marijuana, advocates cite the thousands of years the drug has been used as medicine by countless cultures—a reality that far exceeds the danger associated with it.
While the details vary from state to state, millions of Americans suffering from a wide variety of medical conditions can, with a physician’s order, obtain marijuana to help treat their symptoms. An increasing number of Americans — mainly in western states — also have access to marijuana to use for recreational purposes.
*Since this article was originally published, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole Memo, a document issued by the Department of Justice in 2013 that helped pave the way for the growth of the recreational marijuana industry. Sessions' move has unleashed confusion across the cannabis landscape.
We'll keep you posted on legal developments related to marijuana.