The War on Drugs – Before Legalization
09.13.21 - 4 min read
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In his monumental ballad “No Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley sings, “In this great future, you can’t forget your past,” signifying that as we forge roads ahead, we must pay homage to the paths that got us here.
Thousands of cannabis guests and patients across eight states choose RISE dispensaries as their go-to for cannabis; we believe that cannabis is a freedom that should be celebrated and explored through thoughtfully curated, high-quality cannabis products. At RISE, we work with every guest and patient to find the best cannabis products to help them find relief and relaxation while encouraging them to unwind and enjoy life.
The privilege to sell cannabis while providing a sound education on how cannabis interacts with the mind and body is never lost on us. Some of our more experienced staff members, guests, and patients who lived through the War on Drugs may never have thought we would see the day of legal cannabis. Those new to the plant, however, are now able to enjoy the freedoms that the bumpy paths to legalization have got us, perhaps unaware of the racialized and criminalized past of cannabis.
As more Americans are allowed the privilege to purchase and consume cannabis legally, it’s important to dig back into our past to acknowledge that it wasn’t always this way. Many people have suffered in their pursuit of legalized cannabis. Even to this day, while certain groups of people enjoy the freedoms that cannabis offers, others still face the consequences for their involvement with the plant. In particular, the long history of criminalizing cannabis has had the most impact on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), many of whom still bear the scars of the War on Drugs. Here we’ll dig into the annals of history to provide an overview on the long criminalization of cannabis in America up until Nixon’s “War on Drugs” declaration in 1971, ensuring that as we build our future, we don’t forget our past.
Cannabis and hemp have been used for as long as recorded time, with evidence showing that its medicinal and adult-use emerged in south Asia in 500B.C., passing through India, Africa, Egypt, and Europe as its practical and medical uses became more apparent.
It’s believed that hemp arrived in Colonial America on the Mayflower with the Puritans, both in seed form and making up the fibers of the lines and sails of the boat.
In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp, which became legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Hemp became a staple crop, the fibers being used for textiles, rope and paper. Cannabis lore even suggests that the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were widely known for growing hemp, the latter even inventing a special mechanism to aid in harvest.
Hemp played a significant role in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, with the fibers being used for ropes and sails, but the need for hemp eventually waned as emerging technologies led to synthetic fibers and steamships.
In the late-1800s, cannabis as medicine was also commonplace in American life. Then, it wasn’t unusual to visit a pharmacy to see products containing cannabis, with plant extracts primarily being used to treat nausea, digestive issues, restlessness and spasms.
Cannabis made its first appearance in the Pharmacopeia of the United States of America in 1850, where it remained until 1940 following its prohibition.
The use of cannabis for medicine remained largely uninterrupted until the early 1900s until the narrative around cannabis began to shift towards adult use with an influx of immigration to the states during the century’s first decade.
The first attempt to regulate cannabis came in 1906 with the US Pure Food and Drug Act, which required products to be labeled if they contained psychogenic substances such as cannabis.
Mexican immigrants are often credited (or blamed, depending on who you ask) for bringing cannabis use to the United States. At this time, Mexican immigrants were seen as a threat, with anti-Mexican sentiments creeping across the country. Soon, news began to spread of the terrible crimes that were associated with cannabis use, with the plant being demonized along with this group of people. The Spanish word “marijuana” replaced the plant’s botanical name and from there, the plant carried a negative connotation.
By 1914, more anti-drug laws were emerging, including The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which criminalized opium and heroin. While Mexicans were being tied to marijuana, Black people in America were being demonized for cocaine use, with a New York Times heading reading “Negro Cocaine Fiends are the New Southern Menace”.
Between 1914 and 1925, 26 states passed laws that placed a prohibition on marijuana. The events of the early 1900s set the stage for cannabis to be included as a public enemy, with a man named Henry Anslinger changing the course of history for cannabis forever.
“Women cry for it… men die for it!” was the slogan that graced some of the posters advertising the anti-cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness. The film originally titled Tell Your Children was funded in the mid-30s by a church group as an attempt to tell a moral tale of how cannabis can affect their teenagers.
The film depicts what could happen if one were to use cannabis, including car accidents, murder, rape, suicide and an overall descent into madness. It was purchased by exploitation director Dwain Esper, who inserted salacious clips of the sin, degradation, vice and insanity caused by marijuana. First distributed in the late-1930s, it was adapted by different states under titles like Doped Youth and The Burning Question, eventually becoming known as a cult classic under the title Reefer Madness.
During this time, Anslinger was busy building what became his “gore file,” an arsenal of research against cannabis. Despite his consultations of medical professionals revealing very little concern about any negative effects of the plant, Anslinger focused on reports that aligned with his goal of criminalization. In a 1937 article entitled “Marijuana – Assassin of Youth” in American Magazine, he wrote, “How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity [cannabis] causes each year can only be conjectured.”
The hysteria caused by Anslinger’s growing anti-cannabis tirades and Reefer Madness was perpetuated by Congress passing The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, for which Anslinger was a fervent lobbyist. The Act officially criminalized cannabis, restricting possession to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses. At the same time, Anslinger worked to defund any research or studies that sought to prove the efficacy of cannabis in any medical context so to further support his position.
Shortly after The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 passed, Moses Baca, who was born in Colorado but of Mexican heritage, was arrested and sentenced to 18 months for possession, while Samuel Caldwell was arrested shortly thereafter and sentenced to 4 years for dealing.
So began the long history of cannabis criminalization in the United States that exists until this day, despite the push towards legalization.
In the years following Anslinger’s big political moves, various academic attempts were made to disprove the dangerous nature of cannabis. This included a 1944 report by the New York Academy of Medicine that sought to debunk the myth that cannabis led to violence and crime, which fell on deaf ears.
Cannabis continued to be criminalized. In 2011, it was estimated by NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) that there had been 23 million cannabis arrests since 1937.
The non-intoxicating counterpart to marijuana, hemp, experienced a resurgence again during World War II. The US Department of Agriculture sponsored “Hemp for Victory” which encouraged farmers to grow hemp to support manufacturing cordage and parachutes for the troops.
The 1950s saw a tightening of marijuana laws, namely The Boggs Act of 1952 and The Narcotics Control Act of 1956, which set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses that included cannabis. People could face up to 10 years in prison with an up to $20,000 fine for first-time cannabis offenses.
Despite this, over the next few decades, cannabis became a cornerstone of American counterculture, particularly with the hippy movement of the 1960s; a time associated with peace, love, political activism and music.
College-age students became the new demographic of cannabis users, most seeing the plant as harmless fun compared to the harder drugs around. Between big events like the Vietnam War, political protests and Woodstock, cannabis became a staple of culture.
By this time, even Anslinger was beginning to question the laws that had put too-strict penalties on cannabis; while cannabis use amongst youth was widely known, there wasn’t a push to criminalize college students over the substance. Despite this, arrests for cannabis increased ten times over between 1965 and 1970.
In 1970, NORML was founded, joining the efforts of earlier that decade to repeal mandatory sentences and categorize cannabis as separate from other narcotics through The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.
One would think that cannabis’ accepted use within culture and increased advocacy around its decriminalization would lead to a reconsideration of its place in the law. Sadly, the exact opposite would happen when Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States in 1968.
What followed was a declaration of a War on Drugs in 1971, which would have decades of repercussions that have had far-reaching consequences for those criminalized by cannabis, specifically, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities.
In our next piece, we’ll look at the events of Nixon’s presidency that led up to the declaration of the War on Drugs. We’ll also discuss the subsequent initiatives that sought to stamp out cannabis use, and the current steps towards the legalization of the plant.
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