History of Legalization of Cannabis in the United States

Hemp Law

Cannabis is woven into the fibers of American society and culture. While tens of thousands of sentences are related to the possession or sale of marijuana, the plant is currently the most valuable cash crop in the USA.

The history of cannabis is filled with hypocrisy, propaganda, and blatant racism. But the U.S. is currently on the path to righting some wrongs, especially when compared to some other countries. We as a Country are reaching a breaking point and as a society we need to decide if we want to become the world’s leading producer of cannabis. Or continue stifling markets and restricting the future of Cannabis in the United States to a hodge-podge patchwork of state laws.

history of cannabis in the united states

Colonial Expansion – The Beginning

Cannabis’s story begins with the colonization and slave trade. Marijuana originated in Asia but made its way all around the world, landing in the Americas during Europe’s colonial expansion in the 16th century. Spanish, Portuguese, and British colonizers are responsible for introducing the Native Americans to cannabis.

The British were aware of the psychoactive effects of cannabis but were primarily interested in the economic value of industrial hemp. Native Americans began using the plant to treat inflammation, and as a stimulant.

Founding Fathers Praised Hemp

In the early days of the United States, hemp production thrived and considered almost a patriotic duty. Early settlers were even required to grow hemp if they owned land. There was a similar policy that existed in England to ensure the empire could continue expanding. Many of the founding fathers are on record praising hemp as a valuable cash crop because of its various applications.

Cannabis in Pharmacies

In the early 1900s, cannabis concentrates were available in most pharmacies to treat minor ailments such as inflammation and headaches. The Cannabis flower was rarely smoked in mainstream American society which was predominately white European descendants. The recreational aspect of cannabis was nearly non-existent.

Truth be told, cannabis wasn’t a big deal and did not garner much attention in those days.

The Demonization of Marihuana

Cannabis wasn’t a significant part of American life until two groups of minorities began enjoying the plant recreationally.

Mexican immigrants coming to America in the early 1900s brought their culture, food, and favorite pastime, smoking marihuana, into the states. By the 1920s, jazz was a cultural phenomenon. Black jazz musicians introduced mainstream America to recreational use of cannabis.

Music was one of the first instances of white and black cultures integrating. European Americas began adopting the slang, clothes, and habits of rock-and-roll pioneers including the use of enjoying cannabis recreationally.

Once cannabis consumption began transcending racial boundaries, the US government deemed the plant as a problem. What was once required for farmers to grow was now becoming illegal or taxed to the extent it wouldn’t be economical.

The rationale behind the propaganda and manipulation of laws that took place in this era are to say the least distressing, disturbing, and uncomfortable. The major piece of legislation that our government passed made recreational marijuana illegal, it was called the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Racial Manipulation

Cannabis continued to be demonized for decades. Tales of brown people high on marijuana coming to white neighborhoods and committing acts of violence were used to manipulate the public’s perception of the plant. Cannabis laws were strategically used to jail or imprison black and brown people. These efforts were the beginnings for many of the criminal justice issues we are still experiencing today.  

While mainstream white Americans did consume cannabis recreationally in the 1940s and 50s, it wasn’t until the explosion of rock-n-roll and the hippie movement that it began to really take hold.

Plus in reaction to the post-World War’ American Dream’ and American imperialism, many young people began using mind-expanding substances and listening to psychedelic rock music to escape reality.

Schedule 1

In direct reaction to the hippie movement, the 1970 Controlled Substance Act was passed into law categorizing drugs based on their medical application and potential for abuse. Not surprisingly Marijuana was given the highest classification, Schedule 1, which meant that they deemed it to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

It’s absurd when you think about it because they classified cannabis as the same as other schedule 1 drugs including heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote. What’s even more absured is that Marijuana continues to remain on the schedule 1 narcotic list to this day.

The newly elected at the time, President Richard Nixon, doubled down on the 1970 Controlled Substance Act by creating the Drug Enforcement Agency, (DEA) which kicked off America’s embarrassing and costly ongoing war on drugs.

Medical Marijuana

In 1996, California became the first state in the US to legalize medical marijuana. The program was a revolutionary step in cannabis reform and gave medical patients seeking relief access to cannabis without fear of imprisonment. Loopholes allowed doctors to prescribe medical cards to patients as long as they had a viable reason “wink, wink”.

The medical system was ridiculous but successful. Many states followed California and granted patients suffering from cancer treatments, anorexia, sleeping disorders, or pain from a ‘car accident’ legal access to marijuana.

Recreational Marijuana

Colorado stepped up in 2012 and legalized recreational marijuana. The program was massively successful, lowing DUI deaths from alcohol. It also brought much needed tax revenue, tourism, and an influx of new residents to the state.

Today 34 states have recreational or medical marijuana programs in place. If you are interested in the best model for legal recreational marijuana, check out New York’s plan. The artful new legislation shows that NY lawmakers took to heart lessons learned from the mistakes made in the early days of recreational cannabis.

The 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills

It took nearly 77 years since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 but the United States is finally starting to see the light. The most powerful county in the world is slowly coming full-circle on industrial hemp.

In 2014, congress created a pilot program for the industrial hemp industry, laying the framework for a legal hemp industry. President Trump extended the program by signing the 2018 ‘Farm Bill,’ officially categorizing hemp as cannabis with 0.3% THC or less.

A Hodge-Podge of the Cannabis Industry With Borders?

Today, cannabis users can walk out of a dispensary with pounds of highly potent marijuana in one part of the country and go to jail for decades if caught in possession with the same amount in other regions.

The federal status of cannabis continues to be a challenge for the cannabis industry. A black market with legal cannabis products sold in states without access exposes the flaws in only legalizing at the state level.

We’ve come a long way since the days of marihuana and over-the-top propaganda campaigns, but the US cannabis industry is still in need of significant reform. The next ten years are crucial in determining how cannabis will be sold and produced. The current system limits a cannabis company’s ability to scale; however, federal legalization could create the corporatization of cannabis, benefitting hedge fund owners instead of groups affected by prohibition.