How Did We Get Here?
The History of Marijuana in the U.S.
AT ONE TIME, cultivation of the marijuana plant was considered esirable. In the early days of the
American colonies, cultivation of hemp was
encouraged since it could be used to produce
rope, paper, sails and clothing. In fact, the
Virginia Assembly in 1619 passed legislation that
required farmers to grow hemp; Massachusetts
and Connecticut adopted similar mandates.
The American colonists found hemp to be
such a valuable commodity that it was used
as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia and
Maryland during the colonial period. Domestic
production of hemp flourished until after the
Civil War when other materials replaced it. Even
though hemp is the same, from the same plant
family used to produce marijuana, it’s likely that
early versions of the plant had low levels of
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that
produces the narcotic effects. However, just as
hemp was fading from interest as an agricultural
commodity, scientists were beginning to
discover medicinal uses.
In the 1830s, an Irish doctor found that use
of cannabis extracts helped ease stomach pains
caused by cholera. Over time, other researchers
discovered that cannabis extracts could be
used to treat a variety of stomach problems as
well as other ailments and marijuana became
a popular ingredient in medical products until
the late 19th century. Apart from medical uses,
other forms of marijuana came into more
widespread use; hashish, a purified product of
the plant which is smoked through a pipe, has
been widely used throughout the Middle East
for centuries and became fashionable in the
United States towards the end of the 1800s.
All this began to change in the early 1900s,
in part generated by anti-Mexican attitudes.
Marijuana had been widely used for recreational
purposes in Mexico, and as Mexican immigrants
flooded into the United States to escape
the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of
1910, marijuana became linked with Mexican
immigrants. Anti-Mexican sentiment in the early
years of the 20th century helped popularize the
idea that “reefer madness” caused irrational
behavior and led to terrible crimes. In the
following years, marijuana became associated
with violence, crime and deviant behavior,
particularly among lower classes or those who
were seen as “racially inferior.” By 1931, 29
states had adopted laws outlawing marijuana
use, often in connection with Jim Crow laws.
In 1932, the two-year old Federal Bureau of
Narcotics encouraged states to continue these
anti-marijuana efforts with the adoption of
the Uniform State Narcotic Act. At that time,
the federal government didn’t feel it had the
authority to regulate drug use, but that was
soon to change. In 1937, Congress adopted the
Marijuana Tax Act which effectively criminalized
marijuana by restricting possession to those
who paid a stiff excise tax on the drug.
Anti-marijuana sentiment continued until
1970 when, as part of the Nixon Administration’s
War on Drugs, Congress adopted the Controlled
Substances Act. Only two years later, a
report issued by the National Commission
on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, also known
as the Shafer Commission, recommended
easing federal restrictions but those findings
were ignored. However, due to the federal
ban, researchers have been unable to access
marijuana easily to conduct studies or research
that might identify beneficial use or evaluate the
claims of reefer madness.
Despite the federal government’s position,
states started taking a different approach
to marijuana and cannabis derivatives. The
Controlled Substances Act of 1970 continued
a prohibition that dated back several decades.
Even so, despite the federal prohibition, states
began to take a different approach to marijuana.
Starting with California in 1996, nearly 30
states, the District of Columbia, Guam and
Puerto Rico have adopted laws permitting the
use of marijuana for medical purposes. Now,
nine states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine,
Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and
Washington) permit marijuana use by adults.