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“Reefer madness” and America’s racialized prohibition of Cannabis began in the 1920s

In the early twentieth century, societal prejudices held against both Black and Mexican Americans fused. This effort served to demonize and criminalize those who sold and used cannabis. The term “‘marihuana” came into vogue around this time. Authorities used the term to associate the plant with anti-immigrant sentiments. Mexican laborers in the Southwest, viewed by some as lazy and criminally minded became associated with “marihuana”. Many accepted smoking as an explanation for their assumed bad attributes.

Similarly, propagandists villainized Black Americans in the South by initiating a campaign of racialized fears that their marijuana use would incite violence and crime. This particularly impacted jazz musicians in New Orleans.

This approach ushered in a new viewpoint in American society. Subsequently, cannabis use became a scapegoat for public safety concerns.  While cannabis was once an acceptable remedy prescribed by doctors, “marijuana” use came under attack.  This negative propaganda ultimately resulted in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act (MTA) in 1937. The MTA made “marihuana” incredibly expensive and inaccessible. Effectively, its use and sale became illegal under federal law.

Remember, cannabis hasn’t always been illegal in the US.

The “New” Jim Crow

These changes in attitudes towards cannabis, and the criminalization of “Marihuana,” gained momentum alongside already existing laws that were designed to marginalize and punish Black Americans.  These laws, also known as “Jim Crow” laws, were designed and enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They intended to enforce racial segregation in the American South.  As the demonization of cannabis deepened, much of the law enforcement efforts focused disproportionately on legally isolated Black and minority communities.[mfn]Fremon, David.

The Jim Crow Laws and Racism in American History. Enslow Publishers, 2000. [/mfn] Subsequently, punishment for possession and purchase increased. These communities already experienced marginalized by Jim Crow rule. They suffered under the thumb of permanent disadvantages in education, employment, and economics.  The criminalization of cannabis and other substances has often been described as “The New Jim Crow”. Many drug laws have served to isolate Black Americans in the prison system.[mfn]Alexander, Michele. The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2010. [/mfn]

Creating a “War on Drugs”

In the 1940s and 1950s, marijuana prohibition got worse.  Consequently, state laws across the country became increasingly draconian. They heavily punishing marijuana possession and sale.  In the 1960’s, drug use became a symbol of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent against the Vietnam War.  Marijuana found itself caught up in a broader cultural backlash. It became a symbol for the perceived chaos of the civil rights and anti-war movements.[mfn]Matt Thompson, The Mysterious History Of ‘Marijuana’, Nat’l. Pub. Radio Code Sw!tch: Race In Your Face (Jul. 22, 2013), [/mfn]

In response to these movements, the U.S. government chose to increase the legal framework by which marijuana possession, use, and sale would be punished.  In 1971, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs”. As a result, this increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).  The War on Drugs also significantly enhanced criminal penalties for the possession, use, and distribution of controlled substances, including marijuana.  That same year, the Nixon administration passed what became known as the Controlled Substance Act. The CSA declared cannabis a Schedule I drug, defined as a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.  This federal law remains in effect today.

The 1980s & 1990s: militarized policing and draconian punishments for drug crimes

In the 1980s and 1990s, American leaders and lawmakers continued to push for tougher enforcement of existing drug laws. To this effect, they increased punishments for nonviolent drug offenses (possession and sale).  In turn, the prison population skyrocketed.  In particular, the Reagan administration’s highly-publicized anti-drug campaign, with its slogan “Just Say No,” seemed to enhance these regressive policies and amplify that message that “marijuana” caused a negative impact on society.  As a result, many underwent arrest and imprisonment for marijuana crimes. Some receiving life sentences in prison for what is considered legal conduct today in some states.[mfn] [/mfn]

Pioneer voices for responsible and compassionate regulations for controlled substances  

During this time in American history, with so many people being incarcerated for marijuana related crimes, it became extremely difficult to return to a time of cannabis acceptance, and to advocate for its responsible use. Moreover, political uproar around punishing drug users caused many lawmakers to condemn and eradicate programs that aimed at creating harm-reduction strategies intended to reduce the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users, and to denounce the use of cannabis as treatment for those suffering from the disease.

Over time, a strong and passionate movement emerged to decriminalize the responsible, adult use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Additionally, the ensuring AIDS epidemic contributed to openmindedness.

Advocates, farmers & pioneers took huge risks to fight against prohibition 

In the 1980’s, criminal punishments for marijuana crimes increased. Still, public health workers and social workers took up the fight for the right to provide compassionate care. This included allowing cannabis use for HIV patients.  In addition, legal advocates stepped up to protect the rights of farmers and small business collectives. Consequently, these people risked arrest and prison time to produce and distribute cannabis to medicinal users.  This fight led to California creating the first medical cannabis laws in the United States. As a result, 1996 brought the passage of Proposition 215, or the “Compassionate Use Act”.

For decades, grassroots organizers have led the way in educating and advocating for responsible cannabis regulation and use.  For example, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) emerged in 1970 as a pioneer legal and public policy organization to fight against marijuana prohibition on the state and federal level.  As a result, NORML created a cadre of social justice attorneys who demonstrated investment in decriminalizing marijuana across the country.  Due to the fact that unjust laws have reduced the social mobility around cannabis, dismantling cannabis prohibition remains a critical component to achieving racial and social justice.

So is cannabis legal or illegal?

Click here to read more about the impact of the War on Drugs.


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