How Did Cannabis Ever Become Illegal In The United States?

I was asking this question myself — even before I ever tried it. Why is marijuana (marihuana) even illegal in the United States?

I quickly found that the lawmakers who passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) got this little marijuana prohibition party started off back in 1970. The CSA was put into play during Nixon’s presidency whose campaign ran on the promise to “restore law and order”.

Well, the folks who came to the United States from the East primarily used this drug for medical purposes — not recreationally — and understood it as “cannabis”.

The folks from the South started to come up in the early 1900s to chase after the American dream and were smoking the marijuana leaf in pipes and cigarettes. They didn’t call it cannabis though, they called it marijuana (or marihuana). Since they were smoking it and using it recreationally, it looked nothing like the stuff the East people had.

And, because the final product was identical, East people had no idea these were the same thing.

“Cannabis came to gain this reputation in the 19th century, when it starts to appear as a recreational substance that’s smoked in cigarettes and is overwhelmingly concentrated in some of Mexico’s most marginal environments prisons and soldiers’ barracks,” says Campos.

“So you have this drug that’s kind of associated with danger and indigenous Mexico, then in these environments associated with violence and danger. Then this mixes with a bunch of other stuff [such as] widespread anti-alcohol sentiment especially among the elites and that led people to think a drug like marijuana could trigger violent, savage responses in its users. Then all of this mixes with sensationalism in the press, which was always excited to write about violent incidents with the lower classes.” (

On one side, it’s being smoked and called “marihuana” and on the other, it was called “cannabis” and is used for medicine. And to the side using it only for medicine, using drugs recreationally was overwhelmingly considered taboo at that time. (People even went as far as referring to marijuana as a dangerous drug and that it was “violence-inducing”.)

A few ugly people weren’t thrilled about the massive influx of Mexicans emigrating to the U.S., a guy by the name of Harry Anslinger took this ‘convenient’ disconnection to put together a package of fear that connected this “violence-inducing” drug to black and Hispanic people.

There is no scientific evidence that shows marijuana to be violence-inducing — it was just a perfect, convenient little opportunity for a certain group of people to hatefully attack another.

In 1936, a propaganda film called Reefer Madness was released. In the movie, teenagers smoke weed for the first time and this leads to a series of horrific events involving hallucination, attempted rape, and murder. Much of the media portrayed it as a gateway drug. (Business Insider

Anslinger is the guy who spearheaded and oversaw the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937 by leveraging the hungry media to distribute this propaganda.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. Newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst began to dish out the false claims that Mexican immigrants were being “disruptive” because of the weed they were smoking.

In the first full year after the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, black people were about three times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than whites. And Mexicans were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.

Cannabis got on Nixon’s radar to “restore law and order” and tied it into the CSA and listed it as a Schedule I drug. Cannabis for medical use went down the drain with it.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions even said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” as recently as 2016 — fear-mongering has been a staple in not only criminalizing marijuana but also making sure it stays that way.

We see how immigrants are treated in this country today — it’s really no surprise to me that it was so easy to push this hysteria and propaganda through so easily.

“They’re bringing drugs!”

“They’re bringing violent crime!”

…you and I have seen this movie before, haven’t we?

Racism and fear played a critical role in outlawing cannabis.

Before I ever even dipped my toes into the world of marijuana, I always wanted to know why it was illegal. It rings true probably more so today, but how could this not have been seen as a massive opportunity for tax revenue back then?

What else added to this fire?

What (or who) else is benefiting from the criminalization of marijuana?

State laws on marijuana use

In 1996, California became the first state to decriminalize cannabis for medical use. This started a tidal wave of change as other states followed suit with Colorado and Washington legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012.

As of 2019, there were 30+ states allowing either medical or recreational marijuana use.

States where marijuana is fully legal:

States where marijuana is fully illegal:

Check out this sweet interactive map to learn more about where marijuana is legal and what their specific laws are.

Federal laws on marijuana use

Federally, marijuana is still illegal. Cannabis use, for any reason, is illegal outside of FDA-approved research projects — even with the FDA openly recognizing the potential benefits of the drug.

— — -

Random, interesting cannabits of info

Originally published at

Writing about anything I want | 4.99 ★ on Uber