A Brief History of Marijuana Prohibition and Reform
Marijuana Prohibition and Reform
Over recent years, government entities, the public, and advocacy groups have questioned the validity of the classification of marijuana as a schedule 1 drug as part of the Controlled Substance Act. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) definition states that schedule 1 substances are “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”. This statement is contradictory to modern science as current research has proven its medicinal benefits. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is a federal entity that is responsible for researching alternative treatments and medicines. They have stated that cannabinoids are beneficial for “treating certain rare forms of epilepsy, nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy, loss of appetite, and weight loss associated with HIV/AIDS”. Scientists will continue to explore the medical potential of cannabis but research is slow and limited due to federal restrictions on funding and testing. Why is marijuana classified as a substance with no medicinal value? How did it become a schedule 1 drug? We’ll answer those questions by starting with a brief history of cannabis in the United States.
Early Use and Prohibition
The US first recognized marijuana as a medicinal plant back in 1850 when it was published in the United States Pharmacopoeia - an organization (and encyclopedia) that strives for advancements in global health through pharmaceuticals and other fields. Cannabis wasn’t solely used as a medicinal plant, hemp has also been an integral building material in the world’s history for thousands of years, in modern industries we see its application in aviation, railways, aerospace, and other manufacturing applications. One of the most famous uses for hemp dates back to 1492 when Columbs navigated the ocean with 80 tons of hemp sails and ropes. Federal restrictions on cannabis in the US didn’t start until 1937 when the Marijuana Tax Act placed high taxes on the cultivation and sale of cannabis and hemp. It is believed that certain industries such as lumber and textile felt threatened by hemp due to its versatility, low cost of production, and sustainability. Industry heads were lobbying the government to push forward with this tax, unsupported claims that cannabis caused violence and addiction scarred the public, and eventually the tax was enacted by October of 1937. The American Medical Association opposed these high taxes as it put a financial burden on doctors prescribing cannabis, pharmacists who sold it, and farmers growing it which restricted patients from being able to afford their medicine. People who did not pay the outrageous tax were sentenced to prison time for the illegal possession or distribution of cannabis/hemp. By 1942 cannabis was officially dropped from the US Pharmacopeia - a direct result of the negative associations the Marijuana Tax Act created. 1951 and 1956 saw an increase in the penalties, jail time of 2-5 years along with a $2000 (over $23,000 in 2024) fine was mandatory for convicted drug offenders.
The 1960s saw a surge in cannabis use on college campuses across the US, dealers would smuggle cannabis from Mexico easily as border restrictions weren’t nearly as stringent as they are now. Maps of locations to buy or harvest weed were sold to college students, especially incoming freshmen. Reports state that it only took 20-30 minutes to buy marijuana from surrounding areas around ivy league institutions such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia University which is telling of the loose market and wide availability of illegal substances during the 60s. 1967 was the Summer of Love, a social movement that codoned the vietnam war, criticized/questioned the government, and promoted illegal drug experimentation - mostly LSD and marijuana. This monumental movement laid the groundwork for modern advocacy, it began shifting the perception from fear mongering to social acceptance - at least on an individual level for many young americans.
The War on Drugs
President Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by nearly half a percentage point. In 1971, two congressmen visiting Vietnam reported the rampant abuse of heroin in US soldiers (10%-15%), they wrote an article detailing their concerns both overseas and domestically. At the time it was estimated that .001% of the United State’s population were addicted to drugs - roughly 200,000-250,000 people. Although this is a relatively small number, politicians were concerned that drug abuse affected more than just the individual - it was “troublesome out of all proportion”. A couple months after this article was released, Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and launched an aggressive/offensive campaign to prevent and control drug abuse. He asked Congress to allocate $350 million to fight drug abuse, rehab offenders, and fund the police to focus more efforts into fighting the war on drugs. This money also went into the coordination of international drug raids. Nixon believed that in order to be successful he needed to fight this fight on all fronts - domestically and internationally.
Recently declassified documents have uncovered the brutal tactics that the Nixon administration used to control drug trafficking in Mexico. DEA or Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) agents would raid, torture, and kill those who operated marijuana or heroine farms to gather information or extinguish further operations. After Nixon resigned in 1974, president Ford was urged to continue the war on drugs, furthering the United States outreach into Mexico. What was once reserved to border towns quickly spread inward into central Mexico - it was known as Operation Condor. Thousands of DEA agents, Mexican cops, and tens of thousands of Mexican soldiers banned together to continue the pillaging of marijuana and opium farms. These barbaric practices were supported and carried out in conjunction with the Mexican government as they were being paid off and funded by our federal government. The billions of dollars that the US pumped into Mexico drastically changed the dynamics of their government which fueled corruption. Torture and brutality became second nature to enforcing bodies and corruption moved from local governments to the federal level which offered more protection to drug lords who paid the price.
The war on drugs has had long lasting impacts that are prevalent today. 2020 saw a significant drop in drug related arrests, although it is still the leading cause of incarceration making up 26% of the total arrests which is roughly 1.16M people annually. 11% of the total arrests in the US were marijuana related. The most documented of these impacts is the disproportionate rate of minority groups being arrested for drug related charges. African American and Hispanic populations are arrested at a higher rate than what is proportionate to the population that they make up.
Despite having relatively equal numbers of drug users across all groups, we see that there are far more disparities against people of color. The figure below is taken from the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice. These targeted groups faced generational problems; millions of people were criminalized, incarcerated, and left with lifelong criminal records - most of which were for personal use, this affected their livelihood, limited their societal standing, and restricted access to benefits.
Cannabis Reform Bills
As of January of 2024, 38 states have legalized medicinal use of marijuana while 24 states have approved recreational use. The ability for states to legalize comes from the 10th amendment which states that any power, laws, or regulations not delegated to the federal government by the US constitution shall remain within the states. Since the constitution did not give the federal government jurisdiction to regulate drugs, it allows the states an opportunity to make their own local laws. As long as cannabis production and commerce is done within a legal state, the federal government has decided to respect the will of the people. The remaining states who have not legalized hold a strong position against recreational or medical use, regardless of its proven medicinal value.
The STATES Act stands for “strengthening the tenth amendment through entrusting states” the bill was originally proposed in 2018, sponsorship of the bill came from both republicans and democrats. This bill proposes the abolishment of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, making it legal across the country, and giving states the opportunity to regulate it as they see fit. Unfortunately, this bill was shot down by the Judiciary Committee - an entity that oversees the Department of Justice and reviews new legislation. In 2019, the bill was proposed again with revisions and restrictions, it required research to be conducted on the effects of legalization as it relates to traffic safety and testing standards, along with consequences for distribution to minors. The bill was again shot down by the Judiciary Committee. 2021 saw the bill again with a new name “The States Reform Act” which was more thorough and detailed. This bill removed most federal restrictions, opening the door for interstate commerce, and gave the federal government - more specifically the FDA, an opportunity to regulate cannabis like they do alcohol. The judiciary committee didn’t shoot this bill down as quickly as the others, instead they referred the bill to entities such as the Health - Aviation - Highways and Transit - Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials - National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands - Indigenous Peoples of the United States, and others for review. Eventually this bill was shot down by the committee for Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. The most recent STATES Act changed their name to “Sustaining Tenth Amendment Truths For Every State, this bill was different because it broadened the scope of removing not just marijuana from the controlled substances act, but many other illicit drugs as well. Once again, this bill was shot down and it’s easy to understand why.
There have been other cannabis reform bills on both the state and federal level calling for the removal of cannabis from the controlled substances act. Of the recent bills, the Marijuana 1 to 3 Act of 2023 is amongst the most promising. It requests the federal government to reclassify the scheduling of marijuana from class 1 (includes heroin, cocaine, LSD, meth, ecstasy, and peyote) to class 3 (steroids, testosterone, tylenol w/codeine). Many people believe that there is ample proof of cannabis’ medicinal value, this declassification would allow Americans from all states to access cannabis via prescription. This bill would be preferential since it would still allow the states to regulate marijuana without entities like the FDA overstepping their reach and potentially revoking current laws and regulations that states have already garnered. It would also allow more stringent states to restrict recreational use and mandate medicinal use however they see fit. Another benefit from this type of reform comes from the alleviation of heavy taxation on the cultivation and sale of cannabis businesses. Currently,under IRC 280E, cannabis cultivators or retailers are not allowed to claim any kind of deductions related to their business since marijuana is still a schedule 1 drug. This code was originally developed when a 1981 convicted cocaine dealer claimed deductions for business related expenses. In response the government prohibited schedule 1 or 2 trafficking businesses to claim deductions or credits - since tax codes apply federally so does the classification of marijuana, regardless of local legalities. The chart below is a good representation of how these businesses are treated, many cultivators cannot afford their grow-ops because their taxes outweigh the profit.
It’s clear that marijuana reform is a hot topic on a lot of people’s minds from individuals to politicians. The tax revenue generated by the sale of cannabis is very lucrative, Washington state alone made $515.2M in 2022, this kind of money can provide substantial funding to state and local programs. The War on Drugs is an outdated policy that targeted minority groups and punished the masses for individual possession and use. Prohibition only lasted 13 years before the 21st amendment was created and allowed alcohol to be distributed again. Marijuana has been federally illegal since 1969, that’s over 50 years of mass incarceration for a plant that offers many people physical and mental relief. Change has been slow but steady as states invoke their 10th amendment right to legalize cannabis. While it remains federally illegal, as more states go green, it’s a promising sign for further reform on a national level.