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The Road to Prohibition: Why Did America Make Marijuana Illegal in the First Place?

Today, as the United States gradually welcomes cannabis and acknowledges its therapeutic benefits, it’s hard to imagine that for the majority of the United State’s history, marijuana was widely accepted and used for medicinal purposes. Up until the 1900s cannabis was freely cultivated and used to produce medications, rope, and textiles. Because of America’s aggressive war on drugs, entire generations of Americans erroneously assumed that marijuana use was dangerous and led to violent tendencies. In no small way did America’s war on drugs, which included drug enforcement policies and the implementation of in-school programs like D.A.R.E., lead to this outcome. In the midst of these changing social attitudes and state laws, it’s worth looking into what brought about American marijuana prohibition in the first place. From the objective view, it appears to have been a combination of xenophobia and competition for corporate profits.

Early American History: Hemp and Marijuana as Top Commodities

The cultivation and production of cannabis and hemp was encouraged throughout the early colonies, before they were formally the United States. In 1619, King James I announced The Virginia Company decree, which ordered every colonist to cultivate 100 help plants for export to England[1]. Hemp was even exchanged as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Domestic cannabis production continued to flourish up until the Civil War, used to produce rope and fabric. Also during this time, hemp and marijuana were embraced for their medicinal properties:
“By the late 18th century, early editions of American medical journals recommend hemp seeds and roots for the treatment of inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease,” write Patrick Stack and Claire Suddath of TIME Magazine. “Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy first popularized marijuana’s medical use in England and America… He found marijuana eased the pain of rheumatism and was helpful against discomfort and nausea in cases of rabies, cholera, and tetanus[8].”
Studies demonstrating cannabis as a viable medicine continued into the 19th century. French doctor and scientist Jacques-Joseph Moreau’s discovered that marijuana was effective at suppressing headaches, increasing appetite, and supporting sleep, and his findings were published in journals like the American Journal of Psychiatry[9]. In the 1850s, marijuana was medically prepared and made available through public American pharmacies[3]. It was listed in the United States Dispensatory, an official authority for prescription and over the counter medicines, as a treatment for conditions like improving appetite, sexual interest, mental disorders, gout, cholera, hydrophobia, and insomnia[6]. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cannabis in liquid form and as hashish was freely available to purchase at drug stores.

Early 1900’s: The Unreasonable Attack on Cannabis

Things changed for marijuana in the early 1900’s following the Mexican Revolution, as the U.S. experienced a hefty influx of Mexican immigrants. Mexicans came to Texas and Louisiana and brought with them their culture of smoking marijuana leaf in cigarettes and pipes for medicinal purposes[2]. Americans at the time were only abreast with cannabis in the form of oil or hashish, which they took orally[2]. Plus, Mexicans called their cannabis “marihuana,” a term unfamiliar to Americans[1]. Unhappy with the inbound flow of immigrants, the US media, including newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, began to falsely spread claims that Mexican immigrants were being disruptive, behaviors they attributed to their ‘marihuana’ use[1]. Cannabis began to be vilified.
“The demonization of the cannabis plant was an extension of the demonization of the Mexican immigrants,” Dr. Malik Burnett and Amanda Reiman, PhD, explains. “In an effort to control and keep tabs on these new citizens, El Paso, TX borrowed a play from San Francisco’s playbook, which had outlawed opium decades earlier in an effort to control Chinese immigrants. The idea was to have an excuse to search, detain and deport Mexican immigrants.”[1]
Congressional hearings regarding marijuana law took place in the 1930s. Those looking to control Mexican immigration deceitfully claimed that marijuana would cause men of color to be violent and sexually assault white women. The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry J. Anslinger, argued that there was an increase in reports of middle-class people smoking marijuana. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who encouraged the adoption of cannabis restrictions, supported Anslinger’s argument for the implementation of the Marijuana Tax Act. The act would levy a tax equaling roughly one dollar on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis while implementing penalties and enforcement provisions to cannabis handlers[7]. In 1937, despite being opposed by the American Medical Association who argued in support of the therapeutic benefits of marijuana, Congress passed the act. Some historians believe that the efforts to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 were spearheaded by Hearst, Andrew Mellon, and the Du Point family, who saw the hemp industry as a monetary threat[6]. According to authors and historians Laurence French and Magdaleno Manzanárez, hemp was becoming a cheaper substitute for wood pulp used to print newspapers, and Hearst and the others who had lumber and paper holdings were looking to destroy the competition[6].
“With the advent of the decorticator machine hemp was seen as a more economical alternative to paper pulp used in the newspaper industry,” French and Manzanárez explain in their book, NAFTA & Neocolonialism: Comparative Criminal, Human & Social Justice. “Hearst felt his larger timber holdings threatened while [Andrew] Mellon (the richest person in the US at the time and the Secretary of the US Treasury) was the main financial backer of the DuPont industries that just came out with a new synthetic fiber, nylon. For nylon to succeed it had to replace the traditional resource, hemp[6].”
In a competitive response, Hearst launched an aggressive crusade against marijuana through his newspapers and magazines, which regularly published sensational stories about the threat of marijuana and the life-threatening plight of those who used the drug[2].

The 1950’s through the 1970’s: A Journey to Full Prohibition

Thanks to World War II, cannabis production was ignited in the US once again, as imports of hemp that were needed to produce parachutes, marine cordage, and other military necessities became scarce. The Department of Agriculture gave out seeds and encouraged American farmers to plant hemp in its “Hemp for Victory” program[3]. But fears of cannabis returned in the mid 1960s when reports found that marijuana use was up in youth and college students. The media pushed the so called campus drug epidemic[2]. Richard Nixon, during his 1968 presidential campaign, promised to restore “law and order” to America. Upon being elected, he declared a War Against Drug Abuse[2]. Under Nixon’s presidency, the Controlled Substances Act, which classified drugs on four different schedules, passed in 1970. The federal act classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, causing it to be considered one of the most dangerous substances that carry the highest penalty. The act fails to recognize the differences between marijuana and hemp. The act is still in place today.

The 1990s: Cannabis Returns for Medicinal Purposes

In the early 1990s, researchers made notable breakthroughs, expanding our current understanding on cannabis. Specifically, they learned how the compounds inside cannabis, cannabinoids, interact with a part of our body called the endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for performing different tasks in an effort to maintain homeostasis. It was in this decade that scientists identified the two types of cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, which are present in the nervous system and immune system[10]. When stimulated, the cannabinoids trigger a variety of physiological processes, including but not restricted to, controlling inflammation, limiting cell damage, and reducing pain[11]. With these scientific breakthroughs came greater support to make cannabis accessible for those in medical need. While cannabis continued to be federally illegal, in 1996, California became the first state to establish medical marijuana legislation. Arizona followed with their own medical marijuana legislation later that year, and Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Maine passed laws before the end of the decade.

The 2000s to Today: Cannabis’ Gradual Acceptance

Since the first statewide medical marijuana laws went into effect, the number of states adopting cannabis legislation has been steadily growing. As of today, 23 states and Washington DC have passed medical marijuana laws. Four states, including Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, have legalized recreational marijuana. Today, more Americans understand and respect cannabis as a therapeutic method thanks to recent groundbreaking discoveries by researchers. Read up what studies have found on cannabis’ benefits in the treatment efforts of conditions like Alzheimer’s diseaseParkinson’s diseasecancer, and epilepsy. Because of changing public perceptions and grassroots efforts toward recreational and medical legalization, it looks like 2016 could be a historic year for state and federal cannabis legislation. Check out our predictions on what 2016 US cannabis laws might look like.


  1. How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place? (2014, October 9). Drug Policy Alliance. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/how-did-marijuana-become-illegal-first-place.
  1. The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History. (2014, May). Origins: Current Event in Historical Perspective, The Ohio State University. Retrieved from http://origins.osu.edu/article/illegalization-marijuana-brief-history.
  1. Marijuana Timeline. (n.d.). PBS Frontline. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html.
  1. Milestones in U.S. Marijuana Laws. (2013, October 27). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/27/us/marijuana-legalization-timeline.html?_r=0#/#time283_8117.
  1. History of marijuana in America. (2015, September 2). CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/14/us/gallery/marijuana-history/.
  1. French, L., & Manzanárez, M. (2004). NAFTA & neocolonialism: Comparative criminal, human & social justice. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=4ozF1Yg-c4MC&pg=PA129&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  1. Earleywine, M. (2002). Understanding marijuana: A new look at the scientific evidence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=r9wPbxMAG8cC&pg=PA24#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  1. A Brief History of Medicinal Marijuana. (2009, October 21). TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1931247,00.html.
  1. Historical and cultural aspects of use of cannabis. (2015, November 27). Cannabis – Challenge for Modern Society, Lithuania 2015. Retrieved from http://www.cannabisconference.eu/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Mari-J%C3%A4rvelaid.pdf.
  1. Pertwee, R. G. (2008). The diverse CB1 and CB2 receptor pharmacology of three plant cannabinoids: Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabivarin. British Journal of Pharmacology, 153(2), 199–215. http://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bjp.0707442.
  1. Introduction to the Endocannabinoid System. (n.d). NORML. Retrieved from http://norml.org/library/item/introduction-to-the-endocannabinoid-system.
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Post by Jeffrey Stamberger

Jeffrey writes media content covering the latest in news, medical research, policy changes, and product education from the cannabis industry.

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