Marijuana Legislation in the USA – An historical overview

From mandatory growing laws to outright prohibition, cannabis in the US has seen a rich and illustrious history. With Pennsylvania recently becoming the 25th state to decriminalize marijuana, it becomes evident that public perceptions have changed from the dire warnings of “Reefer Madness” to more accepting levels of tolerance towards medical marijuana and its recreational use.


In this post we will examine some of the highlights concerning the various approaches to marijuana legislation adopted in the USA through its history.


Early days


The government encouraged agricultural hemp production from the early 1600’s onwards. Hemp was used in many industries and was used to make fibers for ropes, clothing, textiles, paper and more.


In 1619, the state of Virginia passed mandatory growing laws which required all farmers to grow hemp. Failure to grow hemp could even have landed you in jail at the time. Hemp was considered legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. You could pay your taxes with hemp.


By the late 1800’s, marijuana was a key ingredient in a number of medicines. It was sold openly in drug-stores and pharmacies. The period also saw hashish gaining some popularity.


1900 – 1930


The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 mandated that any over the counter remedy containing marijuana needed to be labeled.


In December of 1914, the Harrison Act was enacted by congress. The Act allowed for government to impose a tax on various opiates, including opium and coca leaves. The Harrison Act set the stage for many future drug laws.


After the Mexican Revolution, many immigrants began flocking to the US in search of a better life. Mexican immigrants brought with them a culture of recreational marijuana use. Racial prejudice towards blacks and Mexicans began to be associated with marijuana during the 1920’s. Anti-drug campaigns warned of a “Marijuana Menace.”


In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created. It was headed up by one Henry J. Anslinger. Anslinger was an ambitious man who needed to cement a compelling need for his department once alcohol prohibition had ended. He capitalized on racial prejudice and misrepresented the dangers of cannabis in order to promote his own agenda.


1930 – 1960


The next 30 years saw marijuana going from being a useful plant to being viewed as a dangerous narcotic. By 1931, 29 states had passed some form of legislation banning the sale of marijuana.


The newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics began pushing the government to adopt a Uniform State Narcotic Law. This law was enacted by President F. Roosevelt back in 1935 and brought state laws into accordance with federal laws.


The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively criminalized marijuana. Possession of the drug was restricted to individuals who paid an excise duty for authorized medicinal and industrial purposes.


1951 to 1956 saw the implementation of federal laws which resulted in mandatory sentencing for drug related offenses. These laws against marijuana possession were extremely harsh. Consider that a first time offender could face up to ten years imprisonment coupled with a $20 000.00 fine.


1960’s to 1990


The 1960’s saw marijuana becoming popular among middle class white counter-culture. Free love, peace, rock music and marijuana smoking were the rage. By 1970 Congress was forced to repeal many of the mandatory minimum sentences. It was evident the stiff penalties of the 1950’s had done little to curb recreational marijuana usage.


The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 came about under the Reagan administration. This Act took the “three strikes and you’re out” approach. Repeat offenders were sentenced to life imprisonment while the Act also made proviso for the death penalty to be applied to drug kingpins.


In 1989, George Bush began his “war on drugs” campaign. This was criticized since pot smokers were often targeted by law enforcement agencies without tackling harder drugs such as cocaine and meth.


1990 to current


The first majorly progressive step towards decriminalization was taken in 1996 when Californian voters passed Proposition 215. This paved the way for the legal sale of medical marijuana in the treatment of patients suffering from HIV and other conditions.  This state law flies in the face of federal laws.


Closing Remarks


Since then, over 25 states have decriminalized marijuana. However, only four states allow for the recreational use of weed. It is rumored that President Obama intends to do away with federal laws against marijuana when he exits the White House. Canada also intends to legalize marijuana by the spring of 2017.