Why is Cannabis Illegal Today?

Posted by Patrick Bransfield on


Cannabis is currently illegal on the federal level in the United States. But did you know that the founding fathers drafted out the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper? George Washington was an avid hemp supporter— he was even quoted on more than one occasion instructing Americans to sow the hempseed. So how did America transform from being lead by a hemp-crazed individual to its current state of federal prohibition?

Cannabis was actually legal for consumption everywhere in the United States until Massachusetts banned the plant in 1911. Many experts believe Massachusetts banned cannabis as a direct result of an influx in Mexican immigration following the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Some immigrants enjoyed recreational cannabis use, and states responded with laws against cannabis. Starting with Massachusetts, 26 states prohibited cannabis between 1914 and 1925. William Hearst, owner of several American newspapers, heightened the nation's animosity in the 1920s by launching anti-cannabis campaigns in all of his newspapers. These campaigns took the form of advertisements, editorials, and biased cannabis-law coverage (Herer). These fear mongering advertisements called the plant “marihuana” instead of cannabis, demonizing the plant by exploiting America’s fears of mexican migration. By extension, Americans were lead to believe that cannabis couldn’t have possibly existed in America before Mexican immigration. This association was racially fueled, and lead to many Americans forming uneducated opinions about the plant.

Cannabis was doomed when Harry J. Anslinger was appointed to Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner by President Hoover. Anslinger exploited racial tensions to further demonize cannabis. In a testimony before Congress supporting the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, a document Mr. Anslinger drafted, Anslinger famously attributed rape and murder to cannabis usage. He specifically referenced cases in which black individuals were the aggressors: a white girl raped by a black individual, a man’s face smashed in by another African-American man, all high on marijuana (Anslinger, Hearing on Marihuana Tax Act of 1937). This tactic directly connected cannabis to violent crime in the minds of many Americans. There are quotes available on the internet portraying Anslinger as an outright racist, though they can not be verified.

Because Anslinger was Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, his claims went unquestioned. Anslinger’s role at the Bureau put him in an authoritative position. As a result of Anslinger’s testimonies, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was adopted and effectively banned possession of untaxed cannabis in the U.S.

The Nixon and Ford administrations delivered the knock-out punches to cannabis thirty years later. Under Nixon, the Federal Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act categorized cannabis as a schedule one drug, indicating it had zero medicinal uses. This was a contradiction to the U.S. published Pharmacopeia which recognized cannabis as medicine until 1942 when it was removed from the encyclopedia. Six years later, President Ford banned federal funding for cannabis research. This move effectively prevented cannabis from being positively viewed by suspending cannabis in the xenophobic and racist attitudes of the early 20th century. As a result, the general public learned about cannabis via Reefer Madness and Anslinger’s quotes rather than via factual information.

So how was the federal government able to transform a measly little plant into a feared and prohibited substance? By exploiting the racial fears and tensions of the general American public. The federal government indicated there was a direct causal relationship between marijuana and mexican immigration, violent crime, interracial sexual relations, and even satan. As a result, those were the types of images associated with the harmless cannabis plant. These thoughts were reinforced with propaganda such as Reefer Madness, and William Hearst styled PSAs using language to incite fear.


United States. Congress. Committee on Finance. Hearing on Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, July 12, 1937. 75th Cong. Washington (statement of Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of Narcotics, Federal Bureau of Narcotics).

Herer, Jack. "The Forgotten History Of Hemp." Earth Island Journal 5.4 (1990): 35. GreenFILE. Web.

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