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A Journal of Cannabis and Culture

Why Marijuana First Became Illegal

Why Marijuana First Became Illegal

Marijuana has a long and complicated history in the United States. From a criminalized substance to a medicinal miracle, it’s been a long and winding road to get to where we are today. With all the excitement of the legalization in several states (and many motions to legalize it in others), it’s easy to focus on the present outlook on the drug. Perspectives are gradually shifting and people are seeing cannabis as a benefit rather than a detriment, but that doesn’t change the fact that the possession, use, cultivation, and sale of the flower was—and, in some places, still is—illegal.

It’s safe to say that many of us know the ways in which weed became legal—but do you know how and why it became illegal in the first place? Let’s go back to the beginning.

When did marijuana become illegal?

Marijuana became popular in America by the late 19th century thanks in part to the findings of Irish doctor Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy who documented the health benefits of marijuana while studying in India. Cannabis extract was used to treat insomnia, headaches, stomach pains, and other illnesses; individuals could go to their doctor or pharmacy for their own stash. But here’s where things get tricky.

Even though the medicinal benefits were clear, attitudes shifted as the country entered the 20th century and the Mexican Revolution took place. Prejudices against immigrants from Mexico caused individuals to associate marijuana with violence and other ill-founded projections of racial difference.

Tensions also grew between small and large farms, that latter of which used cheap Mexican labor, and those tensions were further amplified with the onset of the Great Depression as jobs were more scarce. Another factor was the fact that Prohibition was repealed in the middle of the Great Depression; bureaucrats needed another focus and they turned to marijuana, citing the drug and those who used it as a threat to the already weak nation.

Motivated by these general attitudes, as well as the misuse of pharmaceutical hemp and precedents formed via other legislation, 29 states outlawed cannabis between 1916 and 1931.

Reefer Madness

In 1936, the film “Reefer Madness” was released. It served as a warning to parents about the dangers of the drug, and one year later the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937—the first national regulation of cannabis—was passed, which essentially banned marijuana across the nation despite the fact that the American Medical Association supported its use for medical purposes.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively made the possession or transfer of cannabis illegal under federal law, excluding medical and industrial uses, with the implementation of an excise tax on all sales of marijuana. The regulation increased by the 1950s when Congress passed the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, both of which enacted mandatory sentencing and increased punishment for the use, possession, and growing of the drug.

A lot has happened since then. Marijuana is now legal in many states and the harsh repercussions for its use are slowly being shifted—but we are done with history for the day.

Looking for more? Head on over to MedMen and we’ll show you the current happenings of the legalized substance that is weed.

Also be sure to check out our other post about the history of marijuana. It will blow your mind!

A Journal of Cannabis and Culture
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