Unfortunate History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States
Most Americans associate marijuana use with the hippie movement of the 1970’s. Little do most know, marijuana was very important to this country when it was founded. In 1610 the Jamestown colony mandated that every household cultivate the native Indian hemp. They used it to make clothes, fiber, cloth, and medicine. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776 on hemp paper. In 1850, the Census Bureau estimated that 8,327 plantations nationwide grew hemp. It took all the way until the early 1900’s for the United States to suddenly have a problem with plant.
Southern California and Texas were flooded with immigrants from Mexico around 1910. After long days of laboring they would often smoke marijuana to relax. The US abolished slavery in 1865 but equal rights for non-whites were still far from being realized. As a result, the public started unfairly associating marijuana use with the Mexican immigrants, who they didn’t like because they looked different. El Paso was the first place to outlaw marijuana in 1914 because of a bar fight attributed to “loco weed.” Texas’ first law against marijuana read, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff is what does it to them.” After marijuana was outlawed there, it was only a matter of months before the government enacted The Harrison Act of 1914, followed five years later with The Alcohol Prohibition of 1919. These laws effectively robbed taxpaying citizens’ access to substances that had been legal since the beginning of time.
Fearful of the spread of this terrible “Mexican crazy drug” the government began to put out massive propaganda to discourage the spread of marijuana use. Marijuana use was a conflict of interest for our government because they made tax revenue from doctor-prescribed cocaine, heroin, and morphine. They feared that Americans would obtain marijuana to use as a substitute to these substances and they couldn’t get their hand on those tax dollars. The first campaigns were launched immediately and the commissioner of Federal Bureau of Narcotics proclaimed, “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”
During the Great Depression, massive unemployment increased public resentment and fear of Mexican immigrants, escalating public and governmental concern about the use of marijuana. This instigated a flurry of research which linked the use of marijuana with violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviors, primarily committed by racially inferior or underclass communities. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana.
The hemp industry was obviously disappointed with the turn of events that was unfolding. To make matters worse, due to the Industrial Revolution it was quickly becoming cheaper for the industry to import hemp instead of producing it domestically. With international politics becoming increasingly tense, the US was cut off from most of its Eastern hemp import around 1942. The government needed more rope for its WWII ships and so the government started huge hemp farms in the Midwest to manufacture rope. In one year American hemp farmers harvested 375,000 acres of hemp. In 1944 the New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report that declared contrary to popular belief, use of marijuana does not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or further drug use.
It was starting to become more obvious to the public that marijuana might not be so dangerous after all, so of course the government stepped in and imposed the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. Together they set mandatory minimum sentences for first-offense marijuana convicts to 2-10 years along with fines up to $20,000. By 1958 the state of Virginia had a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for first degree murder. Rape had a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Possession of marijuana, however, carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years. It wasn’t until 1970 that congress finally repealed most of the mandatory penalties for drug related offenses. It was short-lived though, because congress flipped their position in 1986 when President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, re-enacting mandatory sentences for marijuana-related offenses.
Finally in 1996 voters in California passed Proposition 215 allowing for the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients with serious conditions. This law stands today despite the DEA’s effort to override the law on a federal level.
Little has changed in the past 13 years as far as the federal government’s view on marijuana. There is hope however, as several elected officials are at least open to debate. Most notably, California governor Arnold Schwarzenneger said, “I think that we ought to study very carefully what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs, what effect it had on those countries, and are they happy with that decision.” He added, “I’m always for an open debate on it.” He isn’t the only prominent political figure to show some support for the cause. San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano was asked by the San Francisco Chronicle whether legalizing marijuana was just a trick to increase the states revenue. (an estimated $1.3 billion annually) He replied, “It’s also about the failure of the war on drugs and implementing a more enlightened policy. I’ve always anticipated that there could be a perfect storm of political will and public support, and obviously the federal policies are leaning more toward states’ rights.”
There is still plenty more work to do because President Barack Obama is still strongly opposed to leaving marijuana legislation in the state’s hands. On March 26, 2009 the president offered to answer a few questions from the online audience. An overwhelming 3.5 million people voted to ask the president to consider legalizing marijuana to generate revenue. In response the president said, “Three point five million people voted. I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don’t know what this says about the online audience but I just want — I don’t want people to think that — this was a fairly popular question; we want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.” All we can do for now is continue to put the facts in front of our politicians and hope that they make the right decisions.