This Independence Day, let’s explore the history of cannabis prohibition in the United States — including how historical advocates have fought for cannabis freedom, and how cannabis freedom has been suppressed throughout America’s past.
Early history of cannabis
Cannabis has been a part of human society for thousands of years, with many countries acknowledging its medicinal qualities and healing potential. Throughout Ancient China, India, Africa, Southwest Asia, Afghanistan and beyond, people used cannabis to aid all sorts of ailments like insomnia, headaches, indigestion, and lack of appetite. The Vedas, Hindu’s sacred ancient texts, even refer to cannabis as a source of liberation and joy.
Cannabis remained an important remedial herb throughout the Middle Ages, thanks to early English botanist William Turner. He sang the praises of cannabis properties in his 1538 publishing, “A New Herball.” During the two centuries that followed, cannabis was common in medicine — by the late 19th century, patented tinctures and extracts were available at many apothecaries and pharmacies, and more than 100 studies had been conducted on cannabis. But while it was accepted as a medicinal supplement, cannabis was not used recreationally in the United States.
It is also important to note that cannabis was used to make paper during its early history in the Americas. Europeans brought cannabis to the Americas, calling it by its sister name “hemp.” In fact, King James I of England issued a royal hemp-growing decree in 1611 for the colonists in Jamestown, Virginia. Hemp was also brought to South America by the Spaniards, where cannabis was used as both a paper source and a smoking herb that brought euphoria, relaxation, and physical relief after long days of work.
Cannabis prohibition in the early 20th century
It is not until the 20th century that cannabis turns from a medicinal herb to a dangerous drug and becomes ruthlessly prosecuted. After the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s, many Mexicans migrated to the US and brought cannabis with them. In Mexico during this time, smoking cannabis for its non-medicinal and mind-soothing properties was more common than in the United States. American politicians who opposed immigration vilified cannabis and the Mexican Americans who smoked it, referring to the plant as “locoweed” and by its Spanish name, “marihuana.” With these crude, cruel nicknames came far worse racist stereotypes.
California was the first state to outlaw cannabis in 1913, having taken strict anti-drug laws and outlawing the sale of common drugs like morphine, cocaine, and opium without a prescription. Other states followed suit soon after, beginning with Utah, Texas, and New Mexico. By 1925, twenty-six more states passed cannabis prohibition laws.
Two men in particular contributed heavily to the anti-cannabis campaigns during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The first was William Hearst, a businessman who invested in thousands of woodland acres in the hopes of providing all the pulp necessary for the day’s newspapers. Hemp was a fierce competitor of paper, being cheap and easy to grow (cannabis is a weed, after all!). Hearst used his newspapers to portray hemp as extremely dangerous, malevolent, and harmful to the youth. This had a domino effect that spurred even more racist, sexist, and damaging stereotypes around cannabis — one of the most famous examples being the movie “Reefer Madness,” which came out in 1936.
The second man who was staunchly anti-cannabis was Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was appointed in 1930, and fought hard to pass the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This act placed a punitive tax on cultivating, importing, distributing, and possessing cannabis — a tax so steep, no one could feasibly pay it. Anslinger’s racist beliefs also fueled his fight for cannabis prohibition; he claimed that the People of Color who used cannabis brought about “Satanic” practices, including jazz and swing music as well as interracial relationships.
Anslinger also fought hard to keep pro-cannabis advocates down. In 1944, the New York Academy of Medicine produced a report that concluded cannabis is only a mild intoxicant — which Anslinger preemptively slammed through an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Throughout the 50s, politicians like Anslinger made sure that cannabis was seen in the same class as hard drugs like heroin and cocaine — giving it the nickname “dope” to amplify its supposedly harmful impacts.
Cannabis prohibition in the late 20th century
In the 1960s, everything changed. This generation had freedoms their parents never had, and they were pushing all the boundaries: protesting wars, listening to rock n’ roll, and expanding their minds in college and with drugs. Many experimented with cannabis as well as psychedelics, another adaptogen with a “set and setting” aspect to its ingestion.
In 1969, Timothy Leary (a famous psychedelic philosopher) found a loophole in the Marihuana Act. It reached the Supreme Court and the law was stricken down, causing a series of cannabis laws to be questioned. But despite changing mentalities around cannabis laws, arrests for marijuana possession were on the rise. President Richard Nixon’s “War Against Drug Abuse” furthered the criminalization of cannabis. With the passing of “the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act” in 1970, cannabis joined the most restrictive drug category — and as a result, cannabis-related arrests increased and the plant was disallowed from use in all medical practice.
During the late 70s, people once again began questioning whether the harshness of cannabis laws was necessary or even logical. Some individual states began to eliminate cannabis-related penalties and decriminalize cannabis. President Jimmy Carter called for the decriminalization of cannabis in 1977, presenting the true fact that anti-cannabis laws bring more harm to cannabis users than the plant itself.
However, the pendulum swung back the other way in the 80s, caused by another war against hard drugs. While The War on Drugs started with a fair message — the goal to protect children from mainstream drug-heavy culture, and not to advocate for adult prohibition — politicians once again co-opted the movement to suppress cannabis rights. President Ronald Reagan and his team looped cannabis in with hard drugs like crack cocaine, a particularly large fear at the time.
By 1986, the United States government had passed three harsh anti-cannabis laws. The final law was the severe Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which greatly increased cannabis-related arrests — especially of Black people and other People of Color. The number of people imprisoned on nonviolent drug offenses leaped from 50,000 to more than 400,000 from 1980 to 1997. We still feel the effects of these racist laws today, with People of Color being 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people.
Recent cannabis prohibition history
In the mid-90s, LGBTQ+ activists in San Francisco began giving cannabis to people with HIV and AIDS. These leaders, including “Brownie Mary” Rathbun and Dennis Peron, demonstrated the healing potential of cannabis and showed that this plant is not a dangerous drug — rather, cannabis is a safe substance that can target symptoms of illness like nausea, spasticity, insomnia, and chronic pain.
California became the first state in 1996 to legalize cannabis for medical use with Proposition 215. This permitted cannabis for medical use in serious diseases like AIDS and HIV, cancer, MS, and more. Alaska, Oregon, then Washington followed soon after, and many states since then have followed suit — including Massachusetts, which legalized medical cannabis in 2012.
Cannabis freedom has come a long way, but we have a long way to go. Rev recognizes this and gives to causes like the Last Prisoner Project, whom we have supported this year. By creating Last PrisonER Project Low Dose fruit chews and donating one dollar per package, we have reached $12,000 in donations! We hope to continue helping cannabis be recognized as a powerful, widely-accepted medicinal substance that everyone is free to use and enjoy.
For more cannabis history, insights, and inside scoops, check out the Rev Blog and subscribe to our newsletter below!