Saturday, March 6, 2010

Week 10: How Marijuana Became Illegal

Distribution Source: YouTube
Content Source: The History Channel
Format: Video
Length: 42 minutes and 40 seconds
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

I'm not sure how Maryland public schools stack up against other states (and countries) in terms of drug education courses, but I distinctly remember mine. We had an austere state trooper named Trooper Hamby come to our sixth grade science class and lead a course called DARE - Drug Abuse Resistance Education. We were taught, basically, that doing any kind of drug would result in either going to jail or dying. The approach was very clearly to scare the hell out of us. We were taught about all drugs, but I remember them focusing specifically on marijuana. In particular, we learned that it was an addictive drug that also served as a "gateway" to all the other, more deadly drugs.

It's clear that America has a certain fascination with marijuana: from its place as the counter-culture drug of choice (perhaps shared with LSD) to Bill Clinton's infamous "I didn't inhale" nonsense, it has always garnered attention. More recently, states have begun decriminalizing it, and given the recent recession, a discussion of legalizing and taxing the drug has gained more support. While still illegal nationally, fourteen states have decriminalized marijuana. (Click here to see how your state stacks up...) Putting aside the politics of the issue, the facts are astounding: 20 million Americans have been arrested, convicted and incarcerated for using marijuana. As of 2006, 44% of all drug arrests are related to marijuana. So how did marijuana become illegal, anyway? And why?

To answer this question, we should start with the understanding that marijuana was not illegal in the United States until 1937. While marijuana had a long medicinal, functional (the word "canvas" comes from cannabis), and of course recreational history in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the drug did not come to the US until the World Fair of 1876. The sultan from Turkey introduced the drug at his booth, leading to perhaps the largest bakeout until Woodstock in 1969.

Following the expo, pot became more popular in the US. However it wasn't until 1920, when alcohol was outlawed, that marijuana's popularity took off. Indeed, it was the only legal recreational drug in the country. In particular, the drug became linked with the New Orleans culture of jazz and partying. It didn't take long for politicians to pay attention to the drug, and they soon began to blame the general chaos of the city - as well as its high violence rate - on marijuana. It was also a way to target the black population in the city. By 1924, Louisiana and fourteen other states had banned marijuana for non-medicinal purposes.

Each state had come up with different reasons for the ban - in the same way that Louisiana used the laws as a way to target blacks, the southwestern states used the laws to target Mexicans. By the early 1930s the Great Depression had set in, and with whites in breadlines, the surplus (Mexican) cheap labor was not at all appreciated by politicians. Following the 1931 Mexican Repatriation, the marijuana laws in these states became very strict. Possession of one joint could result in a life prison sentence, but more likely would result in a deportation.

The repeal of prohibition in 1934 placed pot squarely in the focus of authorities. Harry Anslinger, a senior prohibition official, was appointed as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The organization had previously focused on cocaine and heroine, but under Anslinger the focus came to marijuana. The southwestern states pushed Ansliger for a nationwide ban on marijuana, and eventually he took his case - that pot caused rampant sex and murder - to Congress. With strong support from states with immigrant and minority "problems", Anslinger's proposed legislation passed in 1937. At the time, it was believed that an outright law banning marijuana was unconstitutional. As a result, the law dictated that a "marijuana stamp" was necessary to possess pot legally. Conveniently, extremely few stamps were created. Furthermore, one needed the drug in possession to obtain a stamp... of course, this possession was already illegal, by the very same law!

Following the law's passage, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created a commission to study the affects of marijuana. The LaGuardia Commission released its findings four years later, and based on extensive research claimed that marijuana was significantly less damaging than suggested by Anslinger. However the law stuck. It wasn't until the 1960s that the constitutionality of the 1937 law was questioned, on the grounds that one could not adhere to the law without breaking it.

The Supreme Court overturned the law, but in 1970 the Controlled Substances Act passed, banning the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of a series of substances (including marijuana). This law came at a very divided time politically, and is considered by many to be a direct response to the "hippie" and anti-war movement. Not only did the law expand the nature of the nation's drug laws, it increased dramatically the federal government's policing powers. Similar to the LaGuardia Commission in the early 1940s, the Shafer Commission concluded soon after the law's passage that with respect to marijuana the law was unusually harsh and the punishments did not seem to be aligned with the crimes. Among other things, the CSA listed marijuana as a "Schedule 1" drug with LSD and heroin, and prevented doctors from prescribing the drug.

As we all know, today marijuana continues to be illegal in the United States. The Controlled Substances Act has been the basic framework for US drug policy for the last four decades. Without getting into a discussion of how things should be, there is a broader lesson to be learned from this case study. It is a lesson of how politics, and how the underlying societal forces that dictate the political discourse, drive the laws under which we live. It's clear from my research this week that cultural divides and extreme misperceptions about the effects of marijuana were what initially drove the passage of legislation against it. This is not to say marijuana should or shouldn't be illegal - the point is that objective and scientific study were not the basis of the legislative process. This reinforces to me the importance of observing - and thinking critically about - the political process, and how and why conclusions are reached.


  1. I think that it is important to mention that Marijuana was in a position to usurp the logging industry as a material for paper, 2x4, etc. Ergo the logging industry created a smear campaign to paint Marijuana as a very dangerous recreational drug. The material used referred to being high as "refermadness" which was basically an insane state of marijuana induced psychosis. Total BS.

  2. Thanks for the note - was not aware of the logging industry being anti-marijuana, will certainly take a look.

  3. To understand the War On Drugs it is instructive to understand the War On Salt conducted by the Three Kings of France prior to the French Revolution in the 18th Century as detailed by Simon Schama in his history "Citizen" and by the British in India in the 19th Century.

    Few people reflect on the reason pacifist dissident Gandhi marched to the sea.

    It was an act of Civil Disobedience against the punitive taxation on Salt.

    When Gandhi arrived at the sea he made his own salt from the ocean rather than comply with the British Regulatory Scheme.

    From the Government's point of view there is gold in them thar regulations and money to be made for all the right people.

    The War On Drugs has been a goldmine for all concerned-producers and regulators.

    Societal Anarchy is merely collateral damage.

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