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U.S. Cannabis Prohibition Approaches its End

As cannabis prohibition approaches its end in the United States, have you ever wondered why it’s illegal in the first place? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Things might get a little hazy, but grab a snack and sit back, we have the FAQ’s! 

First, let’s go back a few years…

In the ancient world, hemp was a common agriculture crop, harvested for its protein-rich seeds, oil, and fiber that used for rope and clothing. In ancient China and elsewhere in the world, hemp was grown for food and had countless other uses, so it was only natural for people to discover that other types of the cannabis plant could be used medicinally. The spread of medicinal cannabis first started in China, then traveled throughout Asia into the Middle East and Africa. The first recorded use of cannabis as a medicine was by the mystical Emperor Shen Neng of China in 2,737 B.C. According to Chinese legend, the emperor prescribed cannabis tea to treat malaria, gout, rheumatism, and poor memory. In the years that followed, cannabis was used to alleviate pain and treat various conditions. But doctors also warned against using it too much, as they believed it could cause people to “see demons.”

Jump forward to 1619, when the first legislation on American soil involving cannabis was reportedly enacted in Jamestown, Virginia. The decree from King James I required all American colonists to grow Indian hemp for export to England. In 1862, Vanity Fair advertised marijuana-infused candy, dubbed “Hasheesh Candy.” The advert read: “A most wonderful Medicinal Agent for the cure of Nervousness. Weakness. Melancholy. Confusion of thoughts, etc. A pleasurable and harmless stimulant. Under its influence all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy.” 

At the time, marijuana was literally growing everywhere in the U.S.–but unfortunately, this is where the good times ended. Up until that point, hemp was mostly used to make clothing and rope, though some druggists in the U.S. were versed in making some medicinal products using hemp and other cannabis varieties.

In the wake of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Mexican immigrants flooded the United States labor market. Heavy tensions quickly arose regarding the influx of immigrants. Those same immigrants also brought with them the simple ingestion method of smoking the plant. Due to cannabis being associated with the cheaper Mexican labor, racist and xenophobic campaigns against the immigrants led to lawmakers and the general public acquiring a negative view of cannabis. In turn, those same lawmakers began a nationwide cannabis prohibition. 

On August 2, 1937 U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the ‘Marihuana Tax Act of 1937’, the first federal marijuana law, which prohibited the substance beginning in October of that year. It effectively banned the possession of cannabis by requiring users to obtain a tax stamp, which they couldn’t buy without providing details about the amount and location of their marijuana, thereby incriminating themselves in the process. 

Not-so-fun fact: The law was enacted just one year after the release of the notorious anti-cannabis propaganda film, Reefer Madness. The film was financed by a church group before being widely released as an exploitation film to warn the public about the dangers of cannabis use. It was just one in a long line of (ridiculous) education-exploitation films of the era, including Marihuana (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937), and Devil’s Harvest (1942). 

Regardless of the law, the 1960s and early 1970s were an iconic era for cannabis use, sparking a revolution: All across the country, young people were joining the cannabis movement. 

In 1970, President Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which federally outlawed marijuana. Under the act, marijuana is classified as a Schedule-1 controlled substance, and put on the same tier of drugs like heroin and cocaine. With the federal government’s stern stance on marijuana set, state governments were the only path to make any kind of change in cannabis policy. And thankfully, that’s exactly what happened. The fight for legalization began with decriminalization of cannabis for many states, starting with Oregon in 1973. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to completely legalize cannabis. 

In November 2019, there was a major turning point for the U.S. federal cannabis policy, when the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would effectively end marijuana prohibition. The House Judiciary Committee voted 24-10, including two “aye” votes from Republican lawmakers, to advance the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (or H.R. 3884). The MORE Act was introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). This is the first time in history that a congressional committee has approved a bill to make cannabis legal. In a nutshell, the MORE Act would federally decriminalize cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, and would require the expungement of past federal cannabis convictions.

The bill would also establish a Cannabis Justice Office to administer a program to reinvest resources in the communities that have been most detrimentally impacted by prohibition, funded by a 5% tax on state-legal cannabis commerce.

Moreover, it will allow the Small Business Administration to provide loans and grants to cannabis-related businesses and support state and local equity licensing programs, and would permit doctors within the Veterans Affairs system to recommend medical cannabis to patients in accordance with applicable state laws.

The bottom line: The end is nigh for federal cannabis prohibition.

By Merilyn McGonigal

Merilyn McGonigal (alas, no relation to the professor) is a writer and editor based in South Florida. She has crafted content for small businesses, large non-profits, tech startups, and everything in between. Writer by day and reader by night, she loathes to talk about herself in the third person but can be persuaded to do so from time to time. So it goes. Find her on Instagram here @MerilynMcg

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