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The Evolution of Marijuana Legalization

For some people, marijuana is a fun recreational drug, while others treasure it for its medicinal properties. Still others take a darker view of cannabis, condemning it as a dangerous vice or even a tool of the devil. The history of marijuana is certainly a colorful one, as public attitudes have shifted dramatically over the years, from acceptance to denunciation, and back to acceptance again. Let’s take a look at some of the important legal and social milestones in U.S. history that mark important changes in our relationship to marijuana.

Marijuana Legalization

We’ll start our journey in 1619, when the Virginia Assembly passed a law requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Not only was hemp legal, its cultivation was literally mandated by force of law. For centuries, cannabis was simply a part of everyday life, used in medicines, paper, clothing, and other household products. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp on their farms.

In the early 20th century, Mexican immigrants to the U.S. brought with them their custom of indulging in recreational marijuana use. Their love of marijuana became a social scandal when it became known to the wider U.S. public. Anti-immigration activists seized on marijuana as a way of demonizing the often impoverished Mexicans in their midst. Marijuana became linked with socially undesirable persons, whose alleged misbehavior was blamed on their love of the plant. Suddenly, marijuana was bad news.

In 1906, the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring products intended for human consumption to be accurately labeled as to their contents. Prior to this law, it was common practice for food products to contain all sorts of mystery ingredients. With the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, however, products containing marijuana had to be labeled as such. This had the effect of making things easier for prohibitionists agitating for more restrictive laws regarding the distribution of marijuana.

Some U.S. cities began cracking down on marijuana. For example, New York passed the Towns-Boylan Act (1914), which penalized the sale of “habit-forming drugs,” marijuana among them, for recreational use.

Marijuana Legalization

In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was founded as an agency affiliated with the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Cannabis was among the drugs under the jurisdiction of the newly established FBN. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 imposed a substantial levy on cannabis transactions, possibly with the aim of crushing the marijuana industry altogether. The FBN enforced this law ruthlessly.

During the hard years of the 1930s, public antipathy toward marijuana deepened. Even Hollywood turned its eye to this alleged social ill. The movie Reefer Madness (1936) depicted high school kids succumbing to the temptation to smoke pot and suffering utter ruination as a result. In later years, Reefer Madness would become a touchstone among movie fans who adore wildly campy, over-the-top melodramas that bear little relationship to reality, but, at the time, the movie was a huge success and quite effective in convincing the American public that pot was a dangerous problem, indeed. Other movies in a similarly hyperbolic vein followed, such as Marihuana (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937), and Wild Weed (1949).

1944 saw the first really thorough scientific study into the effects of marijuana: the La Guardia Committee. The entity behind this enterprise was the New York Academy of Medicine, which concluded in its report that, contrary to public hysteria, marijuana seemed to be fairly harmless. For its trouble, the La Guardia Committee was widely denounced for arriving at a socially unacceptable conclusion, and its findings had little effect on marijuana law.

Marijuana Legalization

Prohibition marched on. The Boggs Act of 1951 established a minimum sentence of two to five years for a first-time offender caught possessing marijuana.

The 1960s ushered in a vast wave of social change, and, among many other things, marijuana benefited from the reappraisal of outdated norms. Pot use boomed with the rise of the Boomer generation, particularly among those attending college during these years. One of the most prominent advocates of marijuana was Timothy Leary, whose arrest for cannabis possession led to a huge turning point in legalization history. In Timothy Leary v. United States (1969), the Supreme Court found that the Marijuana Act of 1937, used to prosecute the famed drug activist, was unconstitutional. Leary was set free, and an onerous law soon found itself in the dustbin of history.

Marijuana Legalization

However, the forces of prohibition soon struck back. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act. This law legally classified drugs into five different categories. Oddly, marijuana ended up in Schedule I, the most dangerous class, along with heroin, LSD, and mescaline. With its official classification as a Schedule I drug, marijuana could not be legally prescribed for medical purposes. (Cocaine, which made the less restrictive Schedule II, was deemed medically useful and could be legally prescribed.)

The Controlled Substances Act also brought into being the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, which promptly launched an investigation into the medical and social effects of cannabis. Sometimes called the Shafer Commission (after its Chairman, Raymond P. Shafer), the organization produced a report in 1972 titled Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. Like the La Guardia Committee before it, this group found that social hysteria surrounding cannabis was basically unfounded, and urged abolishing the draconian laws attached to its possession. Once again, however, scientific inquiry had little immediate effect on federal governance.

Nonetheless, increasingly relaxed public attitudes toward pot led to victories at the state and city level. Many localities, like Oregon, Alabama, and Los Angeles, began reclassifying marijuana offenses (PDF) as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

The magazine High Times launched in 1974, and soon found a large audience among aficionados of marijuana culture. This monthly publication is still going strong today.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan famously declared a War on Drugs, and marijuana was one of the many substances targeted for destruction. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 instituted a mandatory minimum of five years in prison without parole for a first-time offender caught with 100 kilos of marijuana.

Marijuana Legalization

The War on Drugs did not result in victory for either side, however, and eventually pot legalization would achieve a number of victories. California Proposition 215 (1996) permitted the legal use of medical marijuana in the state. Several other states and localities would follow suit over the next decade or so.

At this point, however, legalization usually centered on medical marijuana—attempts to fully abolish laws regarding recreational use routinely failed at the ballot box, as it did in California (2010). Additionally, the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. Raich (2005) that the federal government had the right to prosecute persons using cannabis even in states where its medical use was legal.

A major turning point occurred in 2012, when the states of Colorado and Washington both legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Several other localities followed their example; 2014 saw Alaska, Oregon, and Washington D.C. legalizing casual cannabis use. As things stand today, marijuana legalization occupies two tracks: one that recognizes its medical benefit, and the other that recognizes its social usefulness as a recreational tool. The number of states and cities that permit medical marijuana exceeds by a substantial margin the number that allow it for personal, non-medical use. Nonetheless, the course of legalization seems to be irreversible; in 2013, the Justice Department announced that it would abstain from attempts to block state laws relating to marijuana legalization.

The day of full legalization may be even sooner that we ever could have reasonably hoped for. In the meantime, you can count on ClearTest to provide you with the drug testing products you need to stay out of trouble.

Marijuana Legalization


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Posted by A. Shapiro
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