The war on drugs: Marijuana edition — Mistakes Were Made

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In the 17th century the U.S. government encouraged the production of hemp for the production of rope, sails and clothing. In 1619 the Virginia assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Hemp was even allowed as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. George Washington, the nations first President even grew hemp at Mount Vernon.

In the 1830s, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, found that cannabis extracts could help lessen stomach pain and vomiting in patients suffering from cholera. Soon, cannabis extracts were sold in pharmacies throughout Europe and the U.S. to treat stomach problems and other ailments.

Mexican immigration to the U.S. picked up after the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Mexican immigrants introduced the recreational practice of smoking marijuana to American culture. Many Mexicans used marijuana to relax after a long day of working in the fields. In the 1920s alcohol was banned (sort of) because of prohibition, so marijuana was a cheap alternative to help a person relax.

The Great Depression hit, and massive unemployment and civil unrest soon followed. There was a lot of resentment towards Mexican immigrants. That resentment soon turned into public fear of the “evil weed,” known as marijuana. This instigated a flurry of research which linked the use of marijuana with violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviors. These “behaviors” were committed by “racially inferior” or underclass communities. Soon, 29 states outlawed cannabis by 1931.

1937 Marijuana Tax Act

A national propaganda campaign against marijuana was started and in response Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. The law criminalized marijuana and restricted possession of the drug to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain allowed medical and industrial uses.

Congress decision to pass the act was based on poorly attended hearings and reports based on questionable studies. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst used his newspapers to demonize the cannabis plant and spread public perception that there was a connection between cannabis and violent crime.
In 1944 the New York Academy of Medicine issued a report that stated marijuana did not induce violence, insanity, sex crimes or lead to addiction or drug use. This report contradicts everything that was previously thought about marijuana. The leadership in the U.S. ignored the report.

World War II broke out and materials that produced marine cordage, parachutes and other military necessities became scare. In response, the U.S. government launched a “Hemp for Victory” program. The program encouraged farmers to plant hemp by giving out seeds and draft deferments to those who stayed home and grew hemp. Hemp could make all the items listed above. Through the program, 375,000 acres of hemp was grown.

Boggs Act & Narcotics Control Act

The Boggs Act in 1952, and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses, including marijuana. A first time marijuana possession offense carried a minimum sentence of 2–10 years with a fine up to $ 20,000.

In the 1960s, the counterculture of the era favored marijuana use. Marijuana use started becoming widespread with the white upper middle class. Reports commissioned under the Kennedy and Johnson administration found that marijuana use did not induce violence or lead to use of heavier drugs (a reoccurring theme).

Leary v. United States

In the 1969 case Leary v. United States, the U.S Supreme Court decided that the Marijuana Tax Act to be unconstitutional. The court stated the act violated the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination. In response to the case, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. The law eliminated mandatory minimum sentences and reduced simple possession of all drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. It also made marijuana a schedule 1 classification under the new law. A schedule one drug is one that is deemed to have high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Other drugs in the schedule 1 classification include heroin, LSD and Peyote.

Reagan Years

President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which re instituted mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. With the Comprehensive Crime Act of 1984, the new laws raised federal penalties for marijuana possession and dealing. The law based the penalties on the amount of the drug involved. For instance, possession of 100 plants of marijuana received the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. You hear about this discrepancy more with crack and cocaine, but it was also felt with marijuana possession. A later amendment to the Anti-drug abuse act established a three strikes and your out policy. The law required life sentences for repeat drug offenders and even required the death penalty for those considered “drug kingpins.”

Solomon-Lautenberg amendment

The Solomon-Lautenberg amendment is a federal law enacted in 1990 that urged states to suspend the driver’s license of anyone who commits a drug offense. States passed laws to comply with the amendment out of fear of being penalized with reduced federal highway funds, if they didn’t comply. The laws imposed a mandatory driver’s license suspension of at least six months for a person committing any drug offense, including the simple possession of cannabis. 5 states still have a version of this law still in place.

Medical Marijuana

In 1996 California passed Proposition 215. The law permits the use of medical cannabis despite marijuana’s lack of the normal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testing for safety and efficacy.

Congress responded to the new law by passing House Joint Resolution 117. This law reaffirmed the government’s stance for keeping marijuana illegal even for medicinal use.. Washington D.C., 29 states and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico, followed California’s lead and legalized marijuana for limited medical purposes.

Gonzalez v. Raich

In this Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that even when individuals are under state approved medical cannabis programs; they are still violating federal marijuana laws.

In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana in small amounts. In 2012, Colorado and Washington were the first states to pass ballot initiatives that decriminalized recreational marijuana use. As of present, 11 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use. The 11 states are Colorado, Washington, Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Vermont and Oregon.

Cole memorandum rescinded

In January 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum. The Obama-era policy discouraged U.S. Attorneys from enforcing federal law against state-legal cannabis businesses.

Even with all the progress on the state front with marijuana legalization, it remains illegal under U.S. federal law. An estimate puts the puts the worth of the marijuana industry in the U.S. as high as $35 billion in 2020. Marijuana is still classified as Schedule 1 drug even with the many research reports contradicting the U.S. government’s stance on the issue.

“Tobacco use has worse health consequences than marijuana use and is more addictive- resulting in greater compulsive use. There are 15 million alcoholics in this country whose lives are in disarray. Alcohol results in 22,000 deaths a year as a result of drunk driving alone. Yet neither of these drugs is prohibited by law.” New Jim Crow. Why is it that if you are of age you can buy alcohol or tobacco freely but the U.S. Federal government stills view marijuana as the “Devils Weed?”

The U.S. government still clings to the old stereotypes and believes about marijuana as states are getting more and more progressive on the issue. Under the Trump administration, there will be no change or positive movement on this issue. Depending on how this year’s election turns out on the Presidential and Congressional level, we may or may not have any resolution on this issue.

Originally published at on March 9, 2020.

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recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on

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