The History of Cannabis Prohibition: How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the US?

The magical plant of cannabis. Despite the fact that cannabis has been used as a medicine thousands of years ago, there is still a lot of controversy surrounding this plant. Many do not approve of using cannabis for medicinal or recreational purposes. To this day, marijuana legalization has been a subject of debate.

In some countries, it is now legal to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, and more and more countries are passing laws to allow the use of cannabis. But how did marijuana become illegal in the US anyway?

In this article, we will go back in time for a moment to find out.

The First Use of Cannabis

It appears that throughout history, cannabis crops were very important and not merely for its psychoactive properties. In fact, people relied on hemp for making clothes, paper, fishing nets, rope, etc. The Chinese, who are credited for inventing hemp paper, also used cannabis to make oil and used seeds for food.

It is believed that cannabis was first used in China around 2900 BC. It was Emperor Shen Nung who reportedly first started using marijuana as a medicine around 2700 BC. The plant was believed to help with issues such as constipation and fatigue. Cannabis was also used as anesthesia before surgeries.

This mysterious and multi-purpose plant then slowly spread to the rest of the world starting from East Asia, then Europe, and finally America. The effects of marijuana became known to people around the world and the use of cannabis increased.

Spreading to the West World

When cannabis arrived in Europe and America, it quickly became a popular crop to grow. The use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in England reportedly began after physician William O’Shaughnessy returned from India spreading the knowledge of marijuana. By 1850s, cannabis was already available in pharmacies in the US.

Cannabis was hugely popular in the 19th century. There were even so-called hashish parlors where people could go and enjoy weed whenever they wanted. Some sources estimate that there were about 500 such parlors in New York.

First Attempts to Regulate the Use of Cannabis

For a while, cannabis was widely used everywhere but this changed at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1906, a law was passed which required the labeling of cannabis and other opiates (Pure Food and Drug Act). Before that, pharmacists could basically put anything they want on the labels.

In the following years, states across the US began limiting the sale of cannabis making it harder to acquire narcotics. Soon, cannabis was made illegal for non-medical use and could only be sold by pharmacists. By 1929, cannabis became illegal in most of the US.

By the 1950s, the use of marijuana was demonized. This was mostly thanks to The Boggs Act and the Narcotics Control Act (1952 and 1956). Those caught in possession of marijuana were sentenced to years in prison. Offenders were also due to pay huge fines (up to $20,000).

By 1970, cannabis was regarded to be equal to heroin. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed banning all use of cannabis including for medicinal purposes.

Cannabis Legalization

Once again, cannabis legalization became the subject of debate around the 1970s when scientific evidence appeared proving that cannabis can help with certain diseases (glaucoma). The period is marked by attempts to recognize the medicinal properties of marijuana. President Carter wanted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis (less than an ounce) but when Reagan assumed office, a war on drugs began.

Meanwhile, cannabis became available in coffee shops in Amsterdam while Morocco became one of the biggest producers of the plant.

In the 90s, the perspective started to shift and cannabis was legalized for medicinal use in California in 1996. This refers to patients suffering from serious illnesses such as AIDS and cancer. Other states followed and marijuana was legalized in Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, etc.

War on Drugs

But just when it appeared that cannabis would attain legal status throughout the US, President Clinton assumed office and continued the legacy of Reagan. Soon, both cannabis providers and patients were arrested even in California, the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use.

When President Bush came into the office, he continued the war on drugs just like his predecessor, also going after medical providers of cannabis as well as patients. It was not until Obama became President that the situation began to change.

Obama asserted that this was a public health matter and not something that the Department of Justice had to deal with. Cannabis legalization first began in Colorado, then Washington, and soon many states followed.

Today, the recreational use of marijuana is legal in many parts of the United States. The authorities, however, still consider it to be a dangerous drug with no benefits at all.


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