WASHINGTON, May 26, 2016 — From “Reefer Madness” in 1936 to the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, from the “war on drugs” in the 80s and 90s to the medical marijuana movement of the last decade, marijuana use has been more than a legal issue. It has been a hot social and cultural issue as well.
Marijuana’s continuing status as a Schedule 1 substance maintains the stigma associated with its use in any form. Despite its many non-pharmacological uses, hemp cultivation has been suppressed, and despite its non-recreational pharmacological value, U.S. law has shown zero tolerance for marijuana possession and use.
Given this stigma, the real story behind marijuana in the U.S. is surprising.
Cannabis had a long history before our modern obsession with its use as a drug. It was used even in ancient times for medical purposes such as pain and anxiety relief. It was used by many ancient civilizations in rituals and ceremonies.
In the 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon to see drugs that are now criminalized used in a variety of widely-available medications. Opiates and cocaine were freely available in drug stores, as was cannabis. Coca-Cola famously contained extracts from coca leaves (the source of cocaine) and kola nuts, hence its name.
Public concerns with intoxicants grew in the early 20th century. The biggest concern was alcohol, which would eventually be banned in the U.S. by constitutional amendment, but the urge to make men tame brought attention to other drugs as well.
Restrictions on marijuana use in the U.S. began in 1906, and outright bans were passed in the 1920s. In 1925 it was regulated internationally by the International Opium Convention. In the 1930s, its use was restricted in every state, and in the 1950s, the first federal mandatory sentences for possession were passed.
Marijuana’s use had been accepted by many cultures for millennia, so what exactly changed the prevailing view on marijuana in so many countries so quickly?
The Temperance movement helped start the change. But it took a man of energy and determination to take that change to its conclusion.
Harry Anslinger was with the U.S. Department of Prohibition and was later commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He played an important role in altering this country’s views on marijuana in the 1930s. He initially declared that marijuana was not harmful, but changed his mind once his department needed a new purpose for its existence.
He wrote to 30 scientists asking whether cannabis was dangerous; 29 said “No.” But Anslinger connected the brutal case of a man who attacked his family with an axe to marijuana use, taking the word of the one scientist out of 30. That one claimed the substance made users violent.
Anslinger used that opinion to convince Americans to fear marijuana as a cause of violent, uncontrollable behavior. He then convinced other countries to follow America’s lead and ban the drug. In the process, he continued to ignore opinions from doctors and scientists who contradicted the official stance, gradually shaping the public’s perception of marijuana.
Scare tactics were one approach. If marijuana could provoke violent behavior, it would now be said to have a particularly pronounced effect on men of color. The movie Reefer Madness was released, and the war on drugs began.
There were a number of laws passed against marijuana in the following decades, but the use of pot by counterculture “hippies” helped push the coup de grace. In the 1970s, Congress replaced the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, now declared unconstitutional, with the Controlled Substances Act. The Act created schedules for ranking drugs according to their addictive properties and potential danger. President Nixon put marijuana temporarily in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, until a commission could assess its correct placement.
The Schaffer Commission recommended that marijuana not remain on Schedule I, and doubted that it should be illegal. Nixon ignored their recommendation.
In 1996, California became the first state to move against the “just say NO” war-on-drugs tide, legalizing medicinal use of marijuana. Today, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and many other states seem to be on the same track towards legalization. The attitudes towards marijuana have started to change and policy is showing that change.
There has been backlash to legalization, with concerns regarding harmful effects of marijuana use on young people, the numbers of people with addiction issues, and harmful health affects on adults.
As yet, those harmful effects haven’t been observed. Addiction numbers have not risen and rehabilitation centers are teaching drug addicts to cope with legalization as alcoholics do. More than anything else, the medical value of marijuana continues to grow.
The most compelling argument for the legalization of medical marijuana is its medical value. Its medical effects are why marijuana became valued by civilization five millennia ago. It has been studied for its positive effects on glaucoma, seizures, cancer treatment, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis, among others.
Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia and Guam have legalized public medical marijuana programs. The U.S. government and the National Institute on Drug Abuse published a statement admitting that marijuana does possess medicinal qualities, a huge moment for marijuana advocates and those who benefit medically from its use. Marijuana has come nearly full circle, valued again as it was millennia ago.
In the Future
Despite decades of propaganda against marijuana, its future is bright. This is positive in every way.
America’s prison population is immense, and many are imprisoned on drug charges. President Obama has been granting clemency to non-violent federal inmates, POWs from the war on drugs, in order to undo the waste caused by that war—a war based on inaccurate scientific and medical information.
The war on drugs has wasted billions of dollars on enforcement and incarceration, wasted millions of lives, corrupted foreign governments and our own justice system, and devastated neighborhoods and civil liberties.
The next chapters in the story about marijuana will be about understanding and acceptance. The end of our drug obsession will bring positive changes to legal policy, the economy and education.
Marijuana remains a controversial topic. The negative stigma is still there, but views are slowly changing. The real story of marijuana in the last century is one of lies and false accusations, and truth and education will help America see the positive impact that legalized marijuana can have on the country.