A Brief History of the Criminalization of Cannabis in the United States

Since cannabis possession, use, and sale are the most most common reasons Americans are locked up in prison and jail, understanding why this plant became illegal in the US is important. The history of its criminalization in America is rather long and absurd tale. Hemp was grown legally in America for hundreds of years. Some of the “founding fathers” even grew hemp and during part of the 18th century in America, hemp was more valuable than US fiat currency. In fact, during periods of hemp shortages like 1763 to 1767, farmers could be jailed for not growing it.1 It was mostly grown for the fiber in its stalks and was not smoked by many Americans at this time.

It wasn’t until 1937 that legally growing hemp was made impossible in America by the Marijuana Tax Act. The Tax Act didn’t technically criminalize hemp in America but rather taxed it in a way that made it unlawful to grow or possess. Anyone who wanted to grow cannabis had to possess a Marijuana Tax Stamp, but to get the stamp one needed to possess cannabis, which was illegal without the stamp. Therefore, anyone who tried to register with the requirement of cannabis was arrested for possession. Those who didn’t have cannabis when registering were just rejected. This requirement made the law self-incriminating, and such laws are unconstitutional because of the Fifth Amendment, and yet it was enforced for 32 years. It wasn’t until 1969 that it was finally deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and overturned.

The Marijuana Tax Act was not passed because the government witnessed negative social repercussions related to cannabis use but rather because numerous lawmakers and corporate executives did not want the hemp industry to overtake other profitable industries. Specifically, timber, tobacco, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and news tycoons, along with government officials feared it would overtake other resources like tobacco, timber, synthetic polymers, and the chemicals used to make them. Most hemp was grown by poor and working-class farmers, so major corporate and political powers did not profit from it until the Tax stamp was enacted. Hemp would have improved the livelihoods of many farmers and their families if it had remained legal. If made legal now, the crop could become the number one cash crop in the country and this would save the lives of many crucial trees because hemp can be used for all the same purposes as trees. To name a few, hemp’s strong, sturdy fiber can be used to make paper, insulation for homes, and bioplastics. Hemp can also be made into blankets, clothing, rope, shampoo, soaps, conditioners, and more. Hemp can also be fermented into ethanol (like corn) and used as a fuel with fewer negative environmental impacts than fossil fuels. (However, better alternative energy sources like wind don’t require combustion.) Hemp seed oil also contains large quantities of proteins and the essential fatty acids, Omega-6 and Omega-3. (Soybeans do as well.) Unlike trees, hemp also only takes a few months to grow and harvest.

In the 1930s, machines that strip hemp fiber became more affordable and practical for common people to use, and this posed a threat to several industries that rely on less sustainable and non-recyclable resources. In his book the Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer states:

In 1916, USDA Bulletin No. 404 reported that one acre of cannabis hemp, in annual rotation over a 20-year period, would produce as much pulp for paper as 4.1 acres of trees being cut down over the same 20-year period. This process would use only 1/7 to 1/4 as much polluting sulfur-based acid chemicals to break down the glue-like lignin that binds the fibers of the pulp, or even none at all using soda ash. All this lignin must be broken down to make pulp. Hemp pulp is only 4-10% lignin, while trees are 18-30% lignin. The problem of dioxin contamination of rivers is avoided in the hemp papermaking process, which does not need to use chlorine bleach (as the wood pulp papermaking process requires), but instead substitutes safer hydrogen peroxide in the bleaching process.

Thus, hemp provides four times as much pulp with at least four to seven times less pollution. As we have seen, this hemp pulp-paper potential depended on the invention and the engineering of new machines for stripping the hemp by modern technology. This would also lower demand for lumber and reduce the cost of housing, while at the same time helping re-oxygenate the planet.

As an example: If the new (1916) hemp pulp paper process were in use legally today, it would soon replace about 70 percent of all wood pulp paper; including computer printout paper, corrugated boxes, and paper bags. If hemp had not been made illegal, 80% of DuPont’s business would never have materialized and the great majority of the pollution which has poisoned our Northwestern and Southeastern rivers would not have occurred.”

This is likely accurate. The majority of our paper, lumber, and cardboard come from trees, and this industry is responsible for much deforestation. By using hemp instead of trees, we get to keep our trees, which sequester carbon, provide oxygen, and create habitats for wildlife.

DuPont was originally founded as a gun powder mill using French equipment (hence the French name). Nylon was produced in 1935 by DuPont, (its creator killed himself by drinking cyanide) but it could have been made unnecessary if hemp had remained legal because biodegradable plastic can be made from hemp without the use of chemicals or pollutants. Had this occurred DuPont would have lost money on a variety of other polymers and paper-making processes. Therefore, DuPont made many efforts to criminalize hemp.

The rich owners of large newspaper conglomerates in America like William Randolph Hearst who founded the Hearst Corporation in 1887 also sought to criminalize hemp for similar reasons. Hearst was a wealthy opportunist who took over the San Francisco Examiner from his millionaire, senator father, George Hearst. He then bought The New York Journal. He was elected for office in 1903, centralizing his power, and he acquired twenty-eight other papers. His papers eventually had over 20 million readers. They typically ran propaganda and “yellow journalism,” (as Joseph Pulitzer’s papers did) that had a major influence on public opinion.

Hearst, Pulitzer, and many other financially vested parasites produced widespread smear campaigns about cannabis in order to encourage criminalization and turn the public against cannabis largely because they did want to lose any money to the hemp industry. A transition to hemp paper would have involved a major shift in their operations that relied on tree pulp for their newspapers. Of course, their propaganda didn’t mention what they were actually concerned about. Instead, lies about how cannabis use causes “mass murder and insanity” were published in their many newspapers. Newspapers across the county also focused disproportionately on car accidents involving cannabis, even though alcohol related accidents outnumbered cannabis related accidents by more than 10,000 to 1.2

Hearst’s articles were also unapologetically racist, xenophobic, and contradictory. He claimed that smoking marijuana made black men rape white women and listen to “satanic-voodoo music.” (He was referring to jazz.) Hearst’s propaganda was extremely anti-Mexican as well.


Typical anti-Mexican cannabis propaganda


Hearst likely hated Mexicans because he lost land in Mexico to Mexican revolutionaries in 1910. His rich father originally bought 670,000 acres of land at 20-40 cents an acre from Mexico after the government defeated local Native Apache leader, Geronimo. George was friendly with the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and his property in Mexico eventually expanded to 1,000,000 acres. In 1886 William wrote to his mother “I really don’t see what is to prevent us from owning all Mexico and running it to suit ourselves.”3 However, during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 under Pacho Villa, one of the leading Mexican Revolutionaries, the Hearst ranch was looted and occupied by Venustiano Carranza’s forces.

Herman Oliphant, general counsel to the Treasury Department, introduced the Marijuana Tax Act to the House Ways and Means Committee in 1937 without consulting the American Medical Association, (AMA). Ways and Means Chairman, Robert L. Doughton, who was (not surprisingly) a DuPont partner, quickly approved the bill soon thereafter. Dr. William C. Woodward, an attorney for the AMA explained that they were never consulted about the bill and that it was based on propaganda and lies. He also discussed a few of the medical benefits of cannabis.

No distinction was made in the Marijuana Tax Act between highly psychoactive varieties of hemp and varieties with essentially no psychoactive properties that were used only for the fiber in their stalks.4 The term “marihuana” was eventually used to describe the more psychoactive varieties, but before the distinction was made, the two terms (hemp and marijuana) were used interchangeably in America. Marihuana was originally a Mexican Spanish slang term used for cannabis. Its use only became widespread in America because the government and the corporate media sought to cement the association of cannabis with Mexicans who were portrayed as lazy, criminal, and ignorant, which was far from the reality.

With the tax act in place, the government was able to profit from seizures of cannabis and fines for possession and insure other profitable taxed crops were not overtaken by hemp. The tax act also gave the government another excuse to punish, incarcerate, and deport minorities like Mexican immigrants working on the border and African Americans who smoked cannabis.

Most Americans did not object to the tax act because many believed the propaganda disseminated about cannabis, which Hollywood contributed to likely due to financial contributions from Washington. The highly fictional and sensationalized film about cannabis, Reefer Madness, made by Grand National Studios in 1936 is an example. Politicians also spread propaganda and lies about cannabis use and other drugs in congress. For example, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger, made claims during the congressional hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act that were extremely unscientific and blatant propaganda, as did many others involved. Dr. Frank R. Gomila, commissioner of public safety, called cannabis a more alarming menace to society than all other habit-forming drugs. Harry and others on the commission claimed that cannabis led to heroin and that the two drugs had similar effects. They also claimed insanity, murder, rape, and suicide were effects of cannabis. The associations made between cannabis and more harmful drugs had many negative impacts beyond wrongful incarceration. Those who used cannabis and found these claims to be false were more likely to believe they were being lied to about more harmful drugs, causing an increase in their use and addiction rates.

Anslinger testified to the US Congress in support of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, claiming “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races… Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death…Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” He also made incredibly contradictory statements, such as“Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing…You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother…Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

In 1944 a committee of individuals appointed by the New York mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia was convened to conduct one of the first in-depth studies on the effects of smoking cannabis in the United States. The LaGuardia Commission discovered that all of the effects the propaganda claimed cannabis had were unfounded. The committee also found that the plant has great medicinal value and is nearly physically harmless. But this commission’s report had no effect on the Tax Act. In fact, the federal government threatened to imprison any doctors who did such research, and this unconstitutional act was enforced until 1969 when political activist, Timothy Leary, fought to have it repealed. No one was punished for passing the Marijuana Tax Act after it was repealed, nor was anyone compensated for undeserved incarceration, despite the untold pain and suffering it caused.

Before the Marijuana Tax Act was repealed, the government completely reversed its position on the effects of cannabis. In the 1960s, instead of claiming that it resulted in insanity and indiscriminate violence, the government claimed it made users pacifistic and weak. Therefore, the government in essence admitted that the reasons they used in an attempt to justify cannabis criminalization were concocted nonsense. During the “red-scare” of the 1950s, the US government worried “communist” Russia would use cannabis as a “weapon” to weaken American soldiers. At this point, the government considered communism and Russia to be larger threats to America than American minorities and anti-war groups, so they simply changed their position on cannabis to increase public hatred of another group of people.

Although Timothy Leary succeeded in repealing the Marijuana Tax Act, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act (CDACA) of 1970 that abolished it, made marijuana just flatly illegal and reversed his hard work. Title II of this legislation called the Controlled Substances Act created five different schedules for drugs. According to the US government, schedule one drugs have “high potential for abuse” and “no medical value.” Cannabis was made a schedule one drug, despite the fact that it is not addictive and doctors across the country agreed (and continue to) that it has medical value. Psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, and LSD were all made schedule one drugs as well, despite the fact that none of these drugs are addictive.

Far more dangerous, addictive, and potentially lethal substances, on the other hand, such as cocaine, methadone, oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl, phencyclidine (PCP), hydromorphone, and methamphetamine are all schedule two drugs simply because they have some medical use as analgesics. As stated, it is not public safety governments are concerned with. They are concerned with who is using drugs, whether or not they impact their ability or desire to work or fight in the military like good little capitalist drones, and how to profit from them. People are easier to control and profit from if they are addicted to certain substances controlled by large institutions, and the state wants our emotions and identities to be in their control, so that they can profit from what we feel and who we become because they consider us property.

Three years after CDACA passed in 1970, the Rockefeller drug laws passed in New York, which called for mandatory minimum sentencing, (MMS) although they weren’t the first. The Boggs Act of 1952 was the first piece of legislation to call for MMS. This act required anyone convicted of cannabis possession (including first offenders) to be sentenced to a minimum of two to ten years in prison and fined up to $20,000. The Rockefeller drug laws were even more Draconian. They required a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years to life for the sale of a mere two ounces of any narcotic and the same sentence for the possession of four ounces of a narcotic, regardless of the circumstances. Both of these acts also defined “narcotics” as a variety of illicit substances including cocaine and cannabis, which are not chemically narcotics. (A narcotic is an opioid or “painkiller” like morphine.)

The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 was the first act to misclassify cocaine as a narcotic and since then many lawmakers and cops still refer to non-narcotic drugs as narcotics, and users suffer because the punishments for narcotic offenses are more severe. This misclassification also demonstrates how disturbingly ignorant most law-makers and other officials are about drugs and their effects. (The Controlled Substances Act still refers to cocaine as a narcotic.) Calling all illicit drugs “narcotics” groups them together, stigmatizes them, and furthers the misconception that all illicit drugs are the same and should be treated as such. This word has the same negative connotation as “marihuana,” and it is used by the government for the same reasons.

The Rockefeller drug laws were adjusted in 2004 and again in 2005, but they and other laws that call for MMS are still enforced, and they do great harm. Regarding every court case as the same doesn’t make sense because no case is ever the same. Like the Rockefeller drug laws, the “three strikes law” also requires judges to turn a blind eye to the specific circumstances of each case. This law has been passed in 13 states, and it requires a sentence of 25 years to life for a third conviction of any felony. Most felonies are charges for possession of very small amounts of an illicit drug bought for personal consumption. Felonies also include bicycle theft (this qualifies as “grand theft auto” for some reason), opening mail that isn’t yours, writing on a mailbox, and certain driving infractions like DUIs (or OUIs) and more minor offenses. In California where the three strikes law applies, some prisons are currently holding almost double their capacity of inmates. Inmates are not getting help and when released, they often go right back to their old habits or worse ones.

It is evident governments are much more concerned with the identities of residents and their productivity (labor and capital) than anything else because the drugs politicians push the hardest against, such as cannabis and psychedelics, are the least dangerous.5 It is also in the interests of governments to keep the most popular, addictive drugs legal because they profit from their taxation. Tobacco and alcohol are heavily taxed and they produce enormous revenue for the state, despite the millions of deaths they cause every year.

From 2005 to 2009 in America alone, an average of 480,000 people died annually from tobacco related illnesses, and from 2006 to 2010 an average of 88,000 Americans died annually from alcohol.6 In 2010 the number of deaths from prescription drugs in America (22,134) was almost triple the number of deaths from all illicit drugs combined, (8408)7, and cannabis, the drug most criticized by the government, has never caused any documented deaths.

According to a 2017 poll conducted by the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion, more than half (52% to be exact) of all Americans 18 or over have admitted to trying cannabis8, and when they realize they are being lied to about its effects, some assume other more addictive drugs (licit and illicit) are just as harmless as stated, and this can cause addictions to very dangerous substances and deaths. America is still being brainwashed about the effects of drugs by the government today. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, a sector of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, has never made an advertisement about the dangers of cigarette smoking, drinking, or even heroin and cocaine use. Almost all of their advertisements are about cannabis. The ONDCP has also infiltrated television programs themselves. Between 1998 and 2000, various networks, such as the WB, received tens of millions of dollars to have their scripts revised to include anti-drug messages.9 Most of these scripts were revised to condemn the use of cannabis more than any other drug.

Anti-drug organizations are often no more honest about their intentions than governments. For example, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, (an organization that produces some of these advertisements with the ONDCP) is funded primarily by tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical, and oil companies. If it was actually “anti-drug” on principle, the organization would not take this money.

Governments and anti-drug organizations focus so much on cannabis mostly because they can’t profit from it and they have disdain for the cultures and people they associate with its use, which they perceive to be unproductive or overly liberal. (Some are also motivated by unscientific propaganda or unrealistic concerns about their children). There is still such a stigma attached to cannabis that few object when DEA agents insist on raiding medical marijuana dispensaries, even though the majority of doctors who study it agree that it has medical value. These DEA agents could ignore these dispensaries and focus on hard drugs, but instead they bust dispensaries and arrest terminally ill patients at their own discretion to satiate their own greed.

In October 2009 Deputy Attorney General David Ogden wrote a memorandum (sometimes called the Ogden memo) for selected US attorneys instructing the DEA to not prosecute legitimate cannabis dispensaries and only prosecute those breaking state law, but this memo was largely ignored and raids of legitimate dispensaries have continued. The memo holds almost no legal weight whatsoever and was likely written to secure the votes of medical cannabis supporters. But if the White House actually wanted to end DEA raids of dispensaries it would be as simple as rescheduling cannabis in the CSA. Another similar memo was released on August 29, 2013 by United States Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole called the Cole memo, which was rescinded by the parasitical Jeff Sessions. (Sessions has even blocked two dozen DEA requests to grow cannabis for research.) The Rohrabacher–Farr amendment is the only actual piece of legislation that prohibits the feds from spending money on prosecuting medical cannabis users and dispensaries but it still doesn’t change the CSA that makes cannabis federally illegal and those who follow state cannabis laws are still at risk. For example, the “Kettle Falls Five,” five defendants who grew and distributed medical cannabis in Kettle Falls Washington in accordance with Washington’s medical cannabis laws were charged with five violations of federal law and received years in prison. Chris Bartkowicz, David Chavez, Robert Duncan, James Dale Holland, Charles Kisor, Ricardo Montes, Abraham & Winslow Norton, Aaron Sandusky, Luke Scarmazzo, Erik Stacy, Jordan Wirtz, and John Wayne Wyatt are further examples who are currently serving time in federal prisons, despite following state laws. The feds have such disregard for state cannabis laws that the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment was originally interpreted by the parasitical DOJ as only applying to state officials who want cannabis.

The DEA has the legal authority to shut down dispensaries in every state, including states where medical cannabis has been made legal by state law because it is a federal agency and the CSA that makes cannabis a schedule one substance is a federal law that trumps state law. Attempts to reschedule cannabis have been thwarted by the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), even though many FDA and DEA officials have recognized in court and in publications that cannabis does have medical value. DEA Administrative Judge, Francis Young, called cannabis “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”10

The current position the FDA and DEA hold on cannabis is not based on scientific understanding or concern for public health. They do not adopt more progressive drug polices because they are motivated by profit. The FDA does what is most lucrative for large pharmaceutical companies because this is what is most profitable for the FDA. Pharmaceutical companies often pay FDA officials to approve drugs they know are dangerous, sometimes without even testing them. In fact, under the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDFA), the FDA gets $100,000 for every drug expedited through the approval process. (The administration also tries to make healthy foods less available by regulating and restricting them as “drugs” in order to increase sales of pharmaceuticals.) If medical cannabis was made federally legal, it would replace many currently legal, FDA-approved prescription drugs, some of which can be very harmful, addictive, and lethal. Pharmaceutical companies have spent millions fighting against pro cannabis legalization for this reason. For example, Insys Therapeutics gave half a million dollars in 2016 to Arizonans for ‘Responsible Drug Policy’, to defeat the state’s ballot to legalize cannabis. In a blatantly hypocritical move, Insys Therapeutics has developed synthetic THC they call Syndros, which was approved by the FDA and DEA.

Violent crime rates in America have declined in the past twenty-five years11, but American drug laws have only become more strict and addiction has increased because of it. America incarcerates nearly twenty-five percent (2.3 million inmates) of the world’s prison population, (10.35 million inmates) yet America has less than five percent of the world’s population.12 The population of China is about four times larger than America’s population, yet they have a far smaller prison population and a slower rate of incarceration. Despite the fact that the rate of serious crime in America over the past twenty years has gradually declined, the rate of incarceration has tripled due to more severe drug laws, stricter enforcement, and more funding to counter-drug agencies.

Between 1970 and 2005 the US prison population grew by 700%. In 1971 there were fewer than 200,000 prisoners in America.13 In 2006, a record 7 million people were either on probation, behind bars, or on parole, and in 2010 more than one in 100 adults in the United States was incarcerated.14 The drug war cost the federal government about $15 billion dollars in 2010 and state and local officials spent $25 billion more of taxpayer money, capital that state officials and feds are happy to receive.15

The war against cannabis and all drugs is clearly a culture and class war above all else, and even some judges, cops, and politicians who are not corrupted by power or corporate influence realize this. In the documentary America’s War On Drugs: The Last White Hope, Superior Court Judge, James Gray, explained: “85% of all people in the United States of America that use any form of illicit drug only use marijuana. That means that the total number of people who use anything else would not justify this colossal prison industrial complex [if cannabis was legalized.]” After James Gray realized the futility of the drug war as a judge, he wrote a book called Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About it.

Governor Ron Paul is one of the very few politicians who has recognized this problem. In 2001 he said: “For the first 140 years of our history, we had essentially no federal war on drugs and far fewer problems with drug addiction and related crimes as a consequence. In the past 30 years, even with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the drug war, little good has come of it. We have vacillated from efforts to stop the drugs at the source to severely punishing the users, yet nothing has improved.”

Despite the slowly growing number of cops, judges, and authority figures who recognize the drug war has never worked, it is unlikely that any of these schedule one substances will be rescheduled in near future. The reason being that the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998 requires the director of the ONDCP or the “drug czar” to prevent anyone from conducting any studies on a schedule one substance, (such as cannabis) for the purpose of determining what benefits (medical or otherwise) it may have. This Act expired in 2003, but this requirement was included in later Acts. Until the legislation that prohibits testing is repealed, it will be far harder to prove the medical efficacy of cannabis. However, many studies already have, which is the subject of the next section.


1 Herndon, G.M., “Hemp in Colonial Virginia,” 1963.

2 Herer, Jack: The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Chapter 4. Ah Ha Publishing, 1985.

3 Robinson, Judith: The Hearsts: an American Dynasty, Pg. 89. University of Delaware. 1991. Print.

4 Cannabis Sativa is much more fibrous than Cannabis Indica, which is usually short, bushier, and has denser flowers. Cannabis Ruderalis is shorter than both and is an auto-flowering plant, meaning it will flower regardless of the light cycle its exposed to.

5 Some psychedelics, like LSD, however, can be lethal even in very small doses. Repeated, daily use of certain psychedelics can also have negative impacts on brain function. However, the most commonly used psychedelics are far safer and less lethal (relatively, not by weight, of course) than tobacco or alcohol. In other words, 30 hits of acid would not likely kill you but 30 shots of liquor probably would, depending on your tolerance and weight.

10 Young, Francis: Marijuana Rescheduling Petition. Docket No. 86-22. September 6th 1988.

13 Currie, Elliott: Crime and Punishment in America. Metropolitan Books, 1998. Print.

14 The Pew Charitable Trusts: “One in 100 Behind Bars in America in 2008” January 26 2008, Pg. 34. Journal.

15 Jeffrey A. Miron & Kathrine Waldock: “The Budgetary Impact of Drug Prohibition” Print. 2010.

One response to “A Brief History of the Criminalization of Cannabis in the United States

  1. Pingback: Los mitos caídos del prohibicionismo - Infocannabis.org·

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