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The Outrageous History of Cannabis in the USA

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The Outrageous History of Cannabis in the USA

Is weed legal in the United States? As more states choose to legalize marijuana, its interesting to remember our shockingly bizarre history with cannabis.

Cannabis laws are rapidly changing across the United States and around the world. A record number of states are decriminalizing weed, and it seems that federal marijuana legalization is closer than ever. With this shift in public opinion, many people are left wondering how cannabis became illegal in the first place. The complicated history of cannabis in the US is full of lies, politics, racism, crime, and other interesting twists. 

How Weed First Got to America

Experts believe cannabis originated in the Himalaya region of Asia before being brought to Europe through trade routes. In 1545, Spanish colonists introduced hemp to the Americas by bringing it to modern day Chile. For these colonial Europeans, hemp was an important source of fiber used to create rope and clothing. Around the year 1600, cannabis was brought to Nova Scotia in North America by the first Canadian apothecary, Louis Hèrbert. 


Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, hemp production was encouraged in colonial America. Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut required farmers to grow hemp; Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland exchanged hemp as legal tender. During the American Revolution, hemp prices skyrocketed, creating lucrative opportunities for farmers. This variety of the cannabis plant was an important source of fiber for clothing, but was not known as a recreational drug at the time. 

Early Medical Uses

In the 1830s, Irish doctor William Brooke O’Shaughnessy traveled to India and learned about the medicinal properties of cannabis. He published his findings, popularizing the concept of medical marijuana in the West. Cannabis became a popular treatment for stomach pain and vomiting during the cholera epidemics of the 1800s. Some of the country’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, like Eli Lilly and Pfizer, manufactured cannabis extracts.

Much like medical cannabis today, a prescription for marijuana was marketed as a cure for everything from epilepsy to mood disorders. In 1906, the US passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required cannabis to be labeled as an over-the-counter medication. At the time, this label applied to “dangerous” drugs like alcohol, morphine, and opium.

Recreational Cannabis Use Comes to America

Following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a wave of Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States. Recreational marijuana use was already common in Mexico, and so the immigrants brought the cannabis culture with them.

While cannabis use was common in Mexico, it was not legal. Mexico criminalized cannabis in 1920, nearly two decades before the United States. Many people mistakingly believe that the US made cannabis illegal first and everyone else followed suit. In fact, many countries made cannabis illegal before the US in the early 20th century, including Canada, South Africa, Jamaica, Australia and Great Britain.

During the Great Depression, severe unemployment and social unrest led to a growing resentment of Mexican immigrants and fear of recreational cannabis. Many Americans also began arguing for prohibition of alcohol around this time. A puritan stance against all intoxicants was becoming increasingly popular. This growing fear swept the nation, and by 1931, 29 states had passed anti-cannabis laws. 

The Anslinger Era

In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed, with first commissioner Harry Anslinger at the helm. Anslinger was previously the head of the Department of Prohibition, an office which became defunct when alcohol prohibition ended in 1933. Anslinger heavily campaigned and lobbied for cannabis to be federally criminalized, prompting the Uniform State Narcotic Act of 1932. This created uniform regulations across the country on the sale of narcotics. 

Anslinger was a known racist and used hateful ideas to fuel his public smear campaign against cannabis. With his colleague William Randolph Hearst, he promoted and spread rumors of the “dangers of marijuana.”

Anslinger was once quoted stating, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother. Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

In 1936, the anti-cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness was released, adding to the growing public fear of cannabis. Anslinger campaigned for and drafted the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This was the first federal cannabis law that restricted access to marijuana and hemp unless you paid a special tax.

Positive Attitudes Towards Hemp

In 1942, the US Department of Agriculture released Hemp for Victory. This film encouraged farmers to plant hemp and assist in the war effort. Tax stamps under the 1937 act were issued to farmers, and ultimately the Hemp for Victory program saw 375,000 acres of hemp growing nationwide.


Following the war, hemp once again became effectively illegal under the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. First offenses were punishable by prison sentences of 2-10 years and fines of up to $20,000. Tightening tax regulations soon made growing hemp unprofitable for farmers, and the last US hemp farm in Wisconsin stopped cultivation in 1957.

Marijuana Becomes Mainstream

In spite of the harsh minimum sentences, an underground cannabis culture thrived in the US. During the 1960s, cannabis became popular among white, middle class Americans as part of counterculture movements like the beatniks and hippies.

Studies commissioned by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson rejected suggestions that cannabis led to violence and hard drug use. In fact, widely published rumors suggested that President Kennedy habitually smoked cannabis in the White House to relieve back pain and symptoms of Addison’s disease, a rare autoimmune disorder.

The War on Drugs

Nixon began pushing ahead with his anti-cannabis agenda once he became president. He appointed the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, also known as Shafer Commission. In 1971, the president called drug abuse “public enemy number one in the United States,” and instituted his War on Drugs.

The following year, Nixon was infuriated when the Shafer Commission released a report calling for the decriminalization of cannabis possession. In response, in 1973, Nixon formed the modern DEA. This was done by combining the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs with the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement.

Cannabis Counterculture

As Nixon cracked down on cannabis with his War on Drugs, some glimmers of hope remained. In 1970, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded. Since then, NORML has been fighting for cannabis reform and has become one of the most widely recognized activist groups in the community.

In 1974, the same year as the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s impeachment, another cornerstone of cannabis culture was introduced to the American public. The High Times magazine was founded by Tom Forçade, a man who had also helped initially fund NORML. 

Just Say No

The National Federation of Parents for a Drug-Free Youth formed in 1980. This organization campaigned for stricter drug laws in response to growing drug-use rates amongst minors. Nancy Reagan, who had just become First Lady, was the founding and honorary Chair of the organization. Nancy Regan became a key figure in several anti-drug campaigns of the 1980s and appeared on a variety of television programs to speak about drug abuse. In 1985, she hosted the First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse at the White House.

In 1986, under Ronald Reagan, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and Comprehensive Crime Control Act. This reinstated minimum sentencing and created a “3 strikes” policy that required life imprisonment after a 3rd offense.

These strict rules were strengthened by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which also created the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP.) The ONDCP went on to create the “Just Say No” campaign, spearheaded by Nancy Reagan. The campaign included anti-drug television commercials and programming, as well as school-run anti-drug programs. 

The First Pro-Cannabis Laws

Reagan’s renewed War on Drugs continued until the next major development came in November 1996. California passed Proposition 215, legalizing medical cannabis use in a state for the first time ever. Since then, a total of 33 other states have legalized some form of medical cannabis.

In 2012, 16 years later, a US state finally legalized recreational cannabis. Colorado and Washington passed pro-cannabis Amendment 64 and Initiative 502 respectively. These ballot initiatives legalized cannabis for adults and instituted a system to allow commercial cannabis cultivation, production, and sales.

(Erik S. Lesser – Shutterstock)

Between 2012 and today, 10 more states have passed laws allowing for recreational use of cannabis. With the cannabis industry already worth billions, the economic appeal of legalization is swinging many voters.

The Future of Cannabis Legalization

The fight against cannabis has been a century-long story of everyone getting riled up over a simple plant. And now, the United States is rapidly accepting marijuana use and passing pro-cannabis laws. Although legalization is the will of the people, the federal government is slow to reverse years of anti-cannabis policy.

For those waiting on federal legalization, change is likely to come at a slow pace. However, as more states pass progressive cannabis laws, pressure mounts on the federal government to catch up. For now, cannabis advocates in the US will have to wait it out. To help the cause, stay involved with politics and activist groups as well as educate your community.

Sarah Haze

"Sarah is an American expat living in Spain with her husband and little doggie. She comes from a performing arts and teaching background with a degree from the University of London. For the past 3 years Sarah has worked in and written about the legal cannabis industry both in Spain and the US. She cares about sharing her passion for cannabis, yoga, healthy lifestyles, counterculture and travel trough writing and social media."


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