Why is Marijuana Illegal?

police 2015 marijuana arrests

We have officially passed the midway point of 2017, so why is there still so much commotion about marijuana use?

We’ve made progress in both the medical and recreational cannabis industries during the past decade. 29 out of 50 states have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. 1 in 5 Americans now live in a state where it is not a crime to access marijuana for medical reasons. On top of this, eight states have legalized the recreational use of cannabis.

Early History of Marijuana

Don’t forget—the prohibition of marijuana is a modern concept. Evidence supports the existence of ancient cannabis steam baths. Hemp, marijuana’s lower-THC cousin, has been a very valuable crop throughout much of history. Hemp was at one time the leading source of fiber for rope, paper, and even clothing in the United States. Before the late 1800s, the government actually provided incentives for farmers to grow hemp crops on their land.

Many Americans may not be aware of the country’s former medical use of marijuana. Tinctures containing cannabis were widely available throughout drug stores in the United States during the 19th century. The Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 required proper labeling of cannabis tinctures, as well as those containing heroin and cocaine. Despite this, cannabis remained a legal substance.

Post-Mexican Revolution

Around 1910 the Mexican Revolution was coming to a climax. This led to a large influx of Mexican immigrants—nearly one million—into the state of Texas. These immigrants brought with them elements of their own culture and customs, including medical and recreational cannabis use. At this point, Americans were no stranger to hemp and cannabis. Hashish lounges were actually quite popular in New York City and abroad. While they had been exposed to cannabis and hemp, Americans were unfamiliar with the Mexican phrase “marihuana.” Many of these Mexican immigrants were known to smoke the plant, a form of consumption foreign to most Americans. Anti-marijuana lobbyists made use of this unknown phrase.

As Texans began to feel unsettled by the arrival of Mexican migrants, marijuana use became an excuse to arrest, detain, and deport immigrants. In 1915 El Paso, TX became the first American city to officially ban marijuana.

A couple decades passed before marijuana again became a national issue. In 1936, the infamous film Reefer Madness was released as an anti-marijuana propaganda piece. The film depicts teenagers experimenting with marijuana before embarking on a violent, delusional adventure (rape, murder, suicide, etc.). Though Reefer Madness was originally written for a church, the film was sold to a different director who distributed it nationwide.

This fear-mongering film created an instant stigma associated with the marijuana plant. The following year, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 banned the use and sale of marijuana in 46 states.

The War on Drugs

Seeing a need to control illicit substances, the government enacted minimum prison sentences for drug use and possession in the 1950s. During President Nixon’s administration the U.S. Formally declared its War on Drugs. The Marijuana Tax Act was replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This bill created levels of scheduling for different illicit substances based on how dangerous or addictive they supposedly were.

President Nixon labeled cannabis a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive drug category. Though a bipartisan counsel suggested marijuana be reduced to a lower schedule, it remains a Schedule I substance today (alongside heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and LSD). Nixon’s White House Domestic Affairs Advisor John Ehrlichman claimed the administration was well aware of the untruth in marijuana scheduling:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana, and blacks with heroin, and criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

The War on Drug only intensified during the Ronald Reagan era. By the end of this tirade, American prisons were at nearly five times their prior population. Once again, this agenda was the result of a distaste for Mexican immigrants and African Americans. However, marijuana prohibition continues to affect both whites and minorities today.

Medical & Recreational Legalization

The majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical use, and more are ready to legalize recreationally. How can this be? Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, with crippling legal consequences.

In 1996, The Compassionate Use Act legalized the use of cannabis for medical purposes in California. With a doctor’s recommendation, patients were allowed to possess and cultivate marijuana. Unsurprisingly, this proposition was opposed by law enforcement, attorneys, drug prevention groups, etc.. During the George W. Bush presidency, raids on these distributors were frequent. Federal laws contradicted state laws, and no one knew how to navigate the situation.

Despite widespread legalization, the federal legalities of legal cannabis use remain confusing.

Why is Pot Still Illegal?

In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency had the opportunity to declassify marijuana as a Schedule I drug. So, why didn’t they? Officials ignored the high demand for access to research into the medical benefits of cannabis. They ignored the overwhelming majority of citizens ready to legalize the plant at the state level. They concluded marijuana has absolutely no accepted medical use in the United States.

How can this be? Legalization trends during the past decade gave many stoners hope we might be on the brink of nationwide legalization. The decision to keep marijuana as a schedule I drug while many states are taxing the substance seems irrational.

Many industries are negatively affected by cannabis legalization, and must actively lobby against it:

  • Pharmaceutical Industry
    • Cannabis treats many ailments more effectively than prescription drugs.
    • Loss of Revenue. $$
  • Alcoholic and Beer Companies
    • Companies don’t want the competition.
    • Partnership for a Drug-Free America is funded by alcohol companies.
  • Private Prisons
    • Looser marijuana laws mean fewer inmates, fewer guards, and fewer prison in general.
  • Prison Guard Unions
    • Reducing parole and providing offenders with treatment and rehabilitation instead of jail time threatens the job security of prison guards.

Moving Forward with Legalization…

The current U.S. political climate leaves marijuana consumers uncertain of its legal future. More states are getting legalization propositions on the ballot, yet officials like Jeff Session insist marijuana remain a Schedule I drug. President Trump’s specific views on pot use remain unclear.

Both Trump and Sessions have admitted to the states’ right to write their own laws. We can only hope the administration avoids frequent raids and leaves the choice to legalize to each state.

1 Comment
  1. Gary 2 months ago

    I think, at this point, after five years of legalization in Colorado and Washington State, with all the money those states are raking in, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III will get a whole lotta pushback from those, and other, states. Just waiting on my state to legalize recreational. While it’s true we have medical cannabis, at least in theory, it’s not yet “up & running.” Add to that is the cost of seeing a dr to get a recommendation, at $250.00, is, at least for me, cost prohibitive. So I’ll continue taking the meds for chronic pain, meds I’ve been on for close to 20 years. It should not be this hard! Many times I’ve wished I lived in a legal state.

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