How Cannabis Became Illegal

Trinity Richardson

December 16, 2022

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Contrary to popular belief, cannabis did not become illegal because of health repercussions, or because it had a negative impact. The criminalization of cannabis in America began in the early 1900s, during the Mexican Revolution. During this time, refugees from Mexico began immigrating to America in the hopes of escaping political persecution and the violence of war, bringing their traditions and customs with them. One of those customs was the recreational use of cannabis and the use of cannabis as a medicine and relaxant.

Mexican immigrants referred to cannabis as "marihuana," a term Americans were unfamiliar with. However, it was only the term that was unfamiliar, not the plant itself. Americans were extremely familiar with "cannabis," as it was an ingredient in the majority of medicine and tinctures at the time. Prior to the War on Drugs, cannabis had a long history of being used for medicinal purposes.

It was the immigrants themselves rather than the use of cannabis, that sparked fear in America. In fact, the idea that marijuana is a gateway drug didn't begin circulating until after the war. As it was, the American government wanted an excuse to monitor these new immigrants, and the excuse became marijuana. Criminalizing marijuana allowed the government more control, allowing them to search, detain, and deport Mexican immigrants for possession of marijuana. The idea that marijuana would make Mexican immigrants–particularly males–more violent and aggressive was a key part of the criminalization of cannabis. The rhetoric that men of color would not only become more aggressive but would solicit sex from white women, was used to amass fear in American citizens.

The government's attempt at control continued to escalate. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 officially and effectively banned the use and sales of marijuana nationwide. It was eventually followed by the Boggs Act of 1951, coupled with the Narcotics Control Act, which made the penalties for the possession and sale of marijuana even more severe. By the 1970s, the War on Drugs was in full swing, and the government conflated weed and hemp, banning them both.

It was not until 1996 that marijuana started to be legalized again. California was the first state to officially approve the use of medicinal marijuana, beginning the fight to end its 59-year label as a dangerous illicit substance. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 21 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

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