Is Cannabis Legal? The History of Cannabis in the United States

It is believed that the Cannabis plant first originated thousands of years ago, at the Himalayan foothills in Central Asia (2). Archaeological evidence suggests that cannabis plants were used approximately 10,000 years ago in Taiwan to make rope and clothing (3). Consuming cannabis also dates back to ancient times. Chinese emperors brewed cannabis tea, Hindus drank warm spiced milk with “gunjah”, and Nomadic tribes in Morocco ate hash jam (5). Cannabis plants are believed to have been cultivated in India for medicinal purposes as early as 900 BC. Hindus offered cannabis to deities during religious ceremonies, and the plant continues to have religious associations in India (6). Cannabis was used globally for thousands of years before laws began to regulate it. The first recorded regulation of cannabis was in 1378. Soudoun Sheikouni, the Emir of the Joneima in Arabia, ordered all cannabis plants to be destroyed and enforced harsh punishment on those who disobeyed. Consumption did not dwindle, but instead began to increase over time (7). Many other cannabis restrictions continued globally throughout the following centuries.

1600s – 1900s

In 1619, King James I announced that American colonists in Jamestown needed to increase their support of England. Therefore, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation saying that all landowners were required to grow and export 100 hemp plants. After this, colonists continued to grow hemp to support America, and hemp was allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Cannabis crops were actually a big part of the establishment of the United States. Hemp had many industrial applications such as rope and fabric for clothing and ship sails, and it was one of George Washington’s primary crops. Hemp growth for these purposes continued strongly in the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was sold in public pharmacies as a medicinal ingredient in the mid to late 19th century (9, 10).

1900s – 1930s

In the late 19th century, pharmaceutical regulations began to appear. This legislation came at the state level, issuing penalties for mislabeled or altered drugs. One of these regulations was “poison” laws, which deemed certain ingredients such as cannabis to be harmful, and required labeling of the word “poison” or obtaining a prescription to purchase these medicines. This began the regulation of cannabis in the United States. In a 1905 USDA bulletin, eight states are mentioned as having poison laws for cannabis (11).

The first regulation on cannabis from the United States Congress was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required pharmaceutical drugs that contained cannabis to be accurately labeled (9). As time went on, restrictions on cannabis began to increase, and it was labeled as not only a poison but a habit forming drug.

After the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Mexican immigrants began coming to the United States. During this time, many Mexicans would smoke cannabis after a long day of working in the fields (12), and this introduced the recreational use of cannabis to American culture. Unfortunately, cannabis became associated with American’s fear of and prejudice towards these Spanish speaking newcomers. Campaigns sprung up that were anti-cannabis and anti-Mexican, creating a negative stereotype (9). By 1920, individual state laws were beginning to prohibit the sale of cannabis completely.

After creating the first international drug control treaty in 1912, countries met in Geneva in 1925 to revise the International Opium Convention. The goal of the meeting was to discuss restrictions on opium, morphine, and cocaine. Although hemp was not originally on the agenda, the Egyptian delegate proposed that hemp should be considered as dangerous as opium, and some countries including the U.S. agreed. The Egyptian delegate cited instances of cannabis use leading to insanity, but these statistics turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Other countries did not necessarily agree but they did not possess the information or experience with cannabis to disagree, so no one objected strongly. A recommendation was made to outlaw cannabis wholly, but a compromise was found. The exportation of Indian hemp was banned to countries where it was outlawed, and countries that allowed it received stricter regulations. Importing countries would need to have a license approving the import of hemp and confirm that it was for medical use only (18, 19, 20).


The 1930s were a significant turning point towards outlawing cannabis completely. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established in 1930, led by commissioner Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger took a very strong stance against recreational drugs, and claimed that cannabis caused people to act extremely violent, sexual, and irrational (13).

During the Great Depression, high unemployment rates refueled American’s fear and resentment of Mexican immigrants. Since cannabis was already associated with Mexicans, this increased regulations. Research at the time linked cannabis to crimes committed by minorities. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed cannabis completely. This put pressure on the federal government to take action, who decided not to create federal legislation. Instead, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics pushed for state governments to accept responsibility of the problem by finalizing the Uniform State Narcotic Act in 1932 (9).

This Uniform State Narcotic Act was created by The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and had gone through several drafts in the late 1920s. It declared that the federal government should require all states to follow the same restrictions, building upon the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act which introduced regulations on all opiates and coca imports (24). While the goal was to make uniform drug laws, it was still left up to the states whether or not they would consider cannabis to be a narcotic and apply the same regulations (22).

Some argued that these drug regulation acts were just trying to raise revenue, because they focused on collecting taxes. This was addressed within congress during the passing of the act, and the representative who introduced it rebutted. He argued that it’s impossible for that to be the case, because the acts prohibit the importation of opium, which is something that brought the U.S. a lot of revenue. He argued that the goal was strictly to regulate the use of opium in the U.S. for health and safety concerns (23).

In 1936, the propaganda film Reefer Madness was created, helping to fuel the hysteria that surrounded cannabis. The film wasn’t produced by the government, but by a church called “Tell Your Children” who originally titled it the same name. The church paid French director Louis Gasnier to create the film, but it was never released by him. Instead, it was purchased by a man named Dwain Esper, who recut the film with some additional scandalous shots and released it. The film tells a tale of horrible cannabis-fueled events such as murder, a hit-and-run, suicide, attempted rape, and descents into madness. The film was well viewed all the way through the 1950’s, and was rediscovered in the 1970’s when cannabis legislation was being debated again (25, 26).

Also in 1936, the Trafficking Convention concluded in Geneva, during which Harry Anslinger tried to push total criminalization of all activities related to opium, coca, and cannabis. Other countries opposed this, wanting to only criminalize illicit trafficking of drugs. The U.S. refused to sign the treaty because Anslinger felt the regulations were too weak (27). 

In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, enforcing a federal excise tax on hemp growth and sales, effectively making cannabis illegal. The tax was $1-$24 per year for any person involved with cannabis, whether it was the grower, importer, buyer, or the doctor prescribing it. Doctors also had to provide detailed sales logs, including their patient’s information. Not only would this annual tax be up to $637 today after adjusting for inflation, but the penalties for selling to someone who had not paid the tax included a fee of over $2000, adjusted for inflation, and five years of jail time (14).

The use of recreational cannabis did not decrease, so Anslinger started running campaigns against it. William Randolph Hearst owned a newspaper empire at the time and contributed to demonizing cannabis and encouraging the connection between cannabis and violence. Hearst had also helped Anslinger get the Uniform State Narcotic Act passed in 1934 by endorsing it in his newspapers (21). It is theorized that the Marihuana Tax Act was created not only due to misconceptions about cannabis versus hemp, poorly attended hearings, and unreliable research, but also because certain politicians stood to profit off the decrease in hemp production. Some scholars believe that since Hearst and other prominent men had invested in nylon and other replacements for hemp, this was motivation to outlaw hemp. Other scholars, however, disagree with this theory (15).

1940s – 1960s

Hemp began to make a comeback during World War II. Before the war, the U.S. navy had been using hemp from other countries to make rope and other materials for their ships, but the supply lines were cut off when the Philippines fell to Japanese forces in 1942. This forced the U.S. to enact a program to ask local farmers to grow hemp again, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted the hemp tax for these growers. A film was created called Hemp For Victory, which encouraged farmers to grow hemp for the war. Hemp production increased rapidly, with millions of acres being grown until the war ended. After the war, the hemp tax was reinstated and the film was hidden (28). In the 1950s, regulations and punishments got even more strict. The Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 introduced mandatory sentencing and increased punishments for cannabis. First-time cannabis possession was punished with a minimum of two to ten years in jail and a fine up to $20,000 (9).

The 1960s brought a change in political and cultural climate. America began to have more lenient attitudes towards cannabis, and it began to be used by the white upper middle class. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson commissioned reports which found that cannabis use did not lead to violence and was not a gateway for harder drugs. Because of this, politicians began to consider changes in cannabis policy.

1970s – 1980s

In 1969, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided that the Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional because it violated the fifth amendment right of self-incrimination (16). Therefore, Congress repealed the act and in its place passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Cannabis was still illegal under this legislation, however it repealed mandatory sentencing and reduced crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor (17). Part of this act established five classifications of drugs to categorize all legal and illegal drugs. Cannabis was categorized as a schedule I drug, meaning it has no medical use. Schedule I drugs also have a tendency to be abused, and users are more likely to establish psychological and physical dependencies (29). The Controlled Substances Act grouped all types of cannabis together even though hemp can’t be used as a drug, since the differences were still not understood. This meant that cannabis was outlawed completely, even for medical use. In 1973, a few bureaus merged to form the Drug Enforcement Administration (30).

During the Reagan Administration, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 reinstated mandatory sentencing. It was decided that mandatory prison sentences would be administered, such as 25 years for repeated drug crimes and even potential death penalty for criminals running large scale drug operations (9, 31).

1990s – 2000s

Arguably one of the most famous people in the history of cannabis is “Mary Jane” or “Brownie Mary” as many called her. Mary Jane Rathbun was a waitress in San Francisco who became famous for selling pot brownies (8). Mary ran an illegal kitchen out of her house in the 1980s and 90s to provide pot brownies to her friends who had AIDS. She became very politically involved in the fight for legalization, and was arrested a few times (5). Despite the arrests, Brownie Mary continued baking, motivated by the fact that the pot brownies helped decrease nausea and low appetites suffered by AIDS and cancer patients (8). Brownie Mary became a leader of the medical cannabis movement, helping pave the way for new laws. In 1991, Mary successfully campaigned to help pass Prop P in San Francisco, which asked California to restore cannabis to a list of available medications. She opened the first medical dispensary with a friend and sold the brownies to anyone who was sick. She also helped fight for Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which passed in 1996 (5). This law gave critical patients in California, including those with cancer, AIDS, arthritis, and chronic pain, the right to obtain and use cannabis medically if recommended by a physician (8).

After California passed Proposition 215, other states began to legalize medical cannabis in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis. Currently, in some states it is still considered completely illegal, in some it is completely legal, and others fall somewhere in between with decriminalization and/or legal medical use. Cannabis is still federally regulated (32).

There are many arguments for why cannabis should be legalized on a federal level. Some argue that if cannabis is legalized for recreational use, it would reduce violence. Other reasons in support of legalization include that a legal market would eliminate a black market, and ensure safer cannabis. Being one the largest agricultural crops would certainly provide an economic boost in various facets and create jobs. It would also save law enforcement time and money, allowing them to focus on more important legal issues in the United States.


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