Did you know that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both marijuana farmers? Or that the Declaration of Independence was written on paper made from hemp, a fiber made of marijuana? In fact, the first American flag was woven with marijuana fibers. Before its recreational use, many people do not know that marijuana was a commercial cash crop right next to cotton in the early 17th century. The English brought it into Jamestown in 1611, using it for rope, cloth and paper. However, issues did not arise until the 1900s. Why? Immigration.
During 1910, the Mexican revolution brought an influx of immigrants to the United States, who then brought marijuana with them; making it prevalent around the Texas border. Anti-immigrationists spoke out against marijuana because they tied marijuana use to the prejudice they held against immigrants, mainly Mexicans, and also African Americans, the “subsequently with black and poor communities “ (Brent 1). Consequently, California was the first state to make marijuana illegal in 1913 (History of Marijuana in 4:20).
Despite this, recreational marijuana use became popular in the 1920’s and 1930s. Along with anti-immigrationists, the white establishment believed that smoking marijuana caused white girls to sleep with black men. Harry Jacob Anslinger, the architect of national prohibition and the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at this time, stated that, “marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and others” (Brent 3).
This belief was widely spread with the use of propaganda. “Reefer Madness,” a movie financed by a church group in 1936, even claimed smoking leads to rape, insanity, manslaughter and suicide. These extreme and unsubstantiated beliefs were “justified” by a prominent doctor in New Orleans, who blamed pot smokers for an outbreak of robberies in the 1930’s. Newspapers sensationalized articles, stating that, “pushers hovered by schoolhouses turning children into ‘addicts’” (Brent 4). These notions became popularized and lingered for decades to come. Even law enforcement officials, “trafficked in the ‘assassin’ theory, under in which killers were said to have smoked cannabis to ready themselves for murder and mayhem” (Brent 5).
Legal scholars at the time, such as Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread foresaw the growing popularity of the drug, specifically among minorities “ensured that it would be classified as a ‘narcotic,’ attributed with addictive qualities it did not have, and set alongside far more worse dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine” (Brent 6). And they were right.
Soon after, Congress consulted with Harry Anslinger who convinced the government that marijuana caused insanity and pushed people to commit criminal acts, while others also claimed that marijuana was “fiercely addictive.” He testified that, “even a single marijuana cigarette could induce a ‘homicidal mania,’ prompting people to want to kill those they loved’ (Brent 7). This case brought about The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which attempted to eradicate the sale and use of marijuana through heavy taxation (Brent 8). President Franklin Roosevelt then passed the bill.
The marijuana issue was not brought up again until the 1950s, thanks to a researcher Dr. Harris Isbell, director of research at the Public Health Service Hospital in Kentucky. He disputed all accusations to the drug, telling Congress that, “smoking marijuana has no unpleasant aftereffects, no dependence is developed on the drug, and the practice can easily be stopped at any time” (Brent 9). Even still, Congress proceeded to heighten penalties on users and holders. This is because though the argument that marijuana itself was not addictive relinquished, Congress stated that pot was a “steppingstone” to stronger, addictive drugs such as heroine. Punishments were severe. For example, according to Brent, Louisiana “created sentences ranging from five to 99 years, without parole or probation, for sale, possession or administration of narcotic drugs” (Brent 10). This was passed without backlash or opposition, and the only explanation is because of the enduring prejudice against minorities, who were still the primary targets and those who paid the price. But soon, a revolution arose.
In the 1960s, white middle and upper class students started to more commonly use marijuana. This is partially due to the acknowledgement that respected writers at the time, such as Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs smoked pot. The 1960’s also brought about a new cultural revolution in which marijuana took a large part of. It was the time of the hippies, the Beatles and young adults including students and dropouts, all who participated and enjoyed smoking marijuana at a time that both pacifism and rebellion had arisen. Only now did society have a change of heart in regard to punishment and penalties, because marijuana had started to affect white lives.
In 1972, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse released a report challenging the approach to decreeing penalty on users and those in possession of the drug. The commission concluded that, “criminalization was ‘too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use [and that] the actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance,’” (Brent 11) Though the Nixon administration dismissed these ideas, all states softened penalties for marijuana possession during the mid-1970s. This is also because it was only in the 70s that marijuana started to be recognized as a medicinal and therapeutic drug. Thirty-five states made medical use of marijuana legal. Then, the 1990s brought about more public opinion and studies regarding its therapeutic use and unfair arrests and penalties. It also started to appear in the lives of government authority.
Attitudes towards marijuana really started to change in the 1990s. The United States’ past three presidents, dating back to Clinton in 1993 have all admitted to smoking marijuana. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana (not recreationally, though). Alaska and Oregon followed suit in 1998, then Maine in 1999. Hawaii, Nevada and Colorado followed in 2000. The 21st century brought about studies regarding the positive effects of marijuana, especially in comparison to alcohol and tobacco which has been legal but is arguably much more detrimental. Consequently, marijuana became somewhat mainstream. Celebrities, politicians, entertainers publicly admit to smoking. At this time, also, Rhode Island, Michigan, New Mexico, Montana and Vermont all legalized medical marijuana, followed by Arizona, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Washington DC. Then, just recently in 2012, Colorado and Washington legalized its recreational use. The revolution of legal marijuana has come a long way. Now, in New York City, one can only get a ticket and fined for possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana (Taylor 1). Now, my generation is left hoping that recreational use will become legal nation-wide in our lifetime. Hopefully, soon.
History of Marijuana in 4:20. Dir. Eric March. 4TT. Youtube, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
Staples, Brent. “The Federal Marijuana Ban Is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia.”The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 July 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.
Taylor, Matt. “New York City Is Finally Softening Its Stance on Pot | VICE | United States.” VICE. N.p., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.