Why is cannabis illegal in the United States?
Marijuana was common in America for many years. Wild marijuana plants grew all over the place. Marijuana was mostly used in the 1800’s and early 1900’s as a medicine, but also as a recreational alternative to alcohol. Some Americans preferred marijuana because it didn’t lead to a hangover the next day like alcohol.
Pharmacy prohibitions in New England states started in the early 1910’s, but weren’t widely enforced. That was the start of the pharmaceutical industry’s opposition to marijuana. Marijuana prohibition for sure started in 1915 in El Paso, Texas, where a marijuana possession ban went into effect. The prohibition was mimicked off of a similar law in San Francisco aimed at opium dens.
Marijuana prohibition was born out of racism
From the dawn of prohibition into today, marijuana prohibition has been a way to disproportionately control and/or harm minority populations. Marijuana prohibition is a racist policy, plain and simple. It’s not as overt as some other racist policies from the past, but the dramatic effect it’s had on minority populations is undeniable.
The early 1900’s saw the Mexican revolution occur, and when combined with the good economic times of the ‘Roaring 20’s’ in America, there was a huge influx of immigrants from Mexico. That led to racial tensions in the South and Southwestern parts of the United States. Racial issues, and the growing desire to use marijuana as a discriminatory criminal justice tool, grew significantly from the mid-1910’s to the 1930’s.
By the 1930’s, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. The last thing that some American leaders wanted was Mexicans standing in bread lines, and minorities ‘stealing’ jobs from white people. Add to that opposition from capitalists like William Randolph Hearst and companies like Dupont to hemp, and you have the foundation for prohibition in America. It’s not a conspiracy. Racism combined with capitalism is why marijuana is illegal in America.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibited marijuana across America. As the late great Gatewood Galbraith described marijuana and hemp prohibition as being one of the most significant moves in the history of politics. The federal government told its citizens what seeds it could not plant. That’s significant even beyond marijuana prohibition, as Gatewood would point out. A lot of the policies that govern the agriculture industry in America were somewhat born out of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in an indirect way.
From 1937 into today, marijuana prohibition has been used to harass, intimidate, arrest, and incarcerate minority populations and other members of society that the government has deemed undesirable. The 1937 law eventually got struck down for being unconstitutional, but was replaced with another prohibition law.
That law was pushed for and signed by then President of the United States Richard Nixon. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is the law that governs the land today. Richard Nixon didn’t exactly hide the fact that the federal law was largely geared towards being able to go after minorities and those that lived a counter culture lifestyle. That’s why marijuana is a Schedule I substance, despite federal patents based on marijuana’s medical properties, and a federal medical marijuana program that currently serves four patients by distributing marijuana to them every month.
Modern Legalization Efforts
My home state, Oregon, was the first to decriminalize marijuana in the 1970’s, not that long after the Controlled Substances Act took effect. In 1996 California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. In 2012, both Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. There are over two dozen medical states, and four recreational states in America now (and DC!), with many more potentially on their way in November.
Yet, federal prohibition continues. Why? Part of the reason is that it’s a racist policy that some in society still don’t want to give up, but it also largely involves money. Huge, massive industries would start losing profits if marijuana were legalized. The law enforcement industry (police unions, prisons, etc.), pharmaceutical industry, alcohol industry, and drug testing industry would all have their bottom lines thrashed if federal prohibition ended. That’s bad for business, and as such, those industries will fight to the end to keep failed prohibition in place.
Fortunately momentum is on our side. Congressman Earl Blumenauer feels that by 2020 marijuana prohibition will have been defeated at the federal level, and states will be allowed to decide the issue themselves. Only time will tell if that happens, but I think there’s a great shot of that happening, and my optimism grows with each passing election and session in Congress as support continues to build.