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The History of Cannabis in the US and Its Influence Through the Years

By Danyal Swan August 7, 2023

From cannabis prohibition and political debates to a yearly celebration on April 20th, marijuana has long been a central component for many cultural groups around the globe. Whether it is consumed socially, for spiritual purposes, or as part of a medical prescription plan, cannabis has a history filled with both promise and skepticism. Each year brings new light to this potent herb, and many states have passed or introduced legislation that demonstrates the true utility of cannabis.

Take a journey with us through the history of cannabis as we learn more about the roots of this fascinating plant.

Encouraging Early Cannabis Beginnings: Pre-1890s

Encouraging Early Cannabis Beginnings

Historians date the evolution of cannabis use as far back as ancient Egypt, though the beginnings of the cannabis movement came in the 1600s when hemp was a popular commodity. Fibrous parts of the cannabis sativa L. plant were used to make rope, clothing, and more, and were even used on sailing vessels. Hemp was such a promising product that the newly established United States government encouraged hemp farming. Virginia took this a step further by passing legislation that required Virginia farmers to grow hemp. Virginia legislation, along with laws in the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania, also allowed citizens to exchange hemp as legal currency.

These actions made hemp a high-demand crop that was used in a variety of products. Unfortunately, as hemp growing flourished, tensions in the United States grew. The Civil War disrupted farming as a whole, and as a result, hemp was eventually replaced by other materials in the construction of many products.

By the 19th century, marijuana began its journey into medicinal products and was sold on the shelves of pharmacies. This regular availability, coupled with the growing popularity of marijuana in France, made cannabis a growing trend. Its popularity soon caught the eye of legislators. In 1880, California passed a law that made it illegal to sell, keep, or give away marijuana to anyone without a doctor's prescription.

Cannabis Progression and Regression: 1890 - 1910

In the 1890s, cannabis production continued to make the plant available for medicinal purposes. That meant farmers continued to grow hemp with cannabinoid content, but the laws continued to change. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, which placed restrictions on products containing marijuana. The Act didn't specifically target marijuana, but cannabis-based products were certainly caught in the storm.

Under the new legislation, certain specialized drugs were required to feature a label that revealed their contents. This meant that patented products or products whose creators wanted to hide certain ingredients could no longer do so. This also meant that marijuana's inclusion in a product would be front and center on the label.

Because it was already becoming known as a narcotic, the terminology of the time labeled it further as a poison. In fact, the Pure Food and Drug Act was specifically designed to target medicines with narcotics like marijuana and restrain sales and availability. In 1907, California once again found itself in the spotlight as the first state to legally refer to cannabis as a poison. The passage of the Poison Act identified several medications as narcotics and poisons.

Marijuana Tax Act and Criminalization: 1930s - 1950s

Marijuana Tax Act and Criminalization

With the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Poison Act, and several other pieces of legislation throughout several states, it seemed marijuana was under attack. However, cannabis products weren’t completely off the shelves yet. Many medicinal products still capitalized on the many benefits of the plant and, with the right prescription, were still used to help patients.

The 1920s, though, ushered in a period when Mexican immigrants reintroduced the plant as a recreational pastime, and the fear of immigrants stoked by the US government created a new stigma. Prior to the medicinal cannabis revolution, those who smoked marijuana in the late 1800s were often members of the upper echelons of society. With the plant's reintroduction in the 1910s and ‘20s, it was now seen as a product of immigrants – a group unfairly labeled as lower class. The fear and prejudice of the time created an anti-drug sentiment that meant cannabis was quickly associated with criminal activity.

This culminated in one of the most difficult decades for marijuana – the 1930s. As unemployment soared during the Great Depression, resentment toward Mexican immigrants heightened, and so did public distrust of anything associated with this population. With the stigma and racial prejudice at play, states began to outlaw marijuana one by one. By 1931, a total of 29 states had enacted anti-marijuana laws.

The federal government was soon to follow with its own sweeping attacks on marijuana. In 1932, the US established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Rather than pushing for federal legislation, this organization encouraged states to adopt the Uniform State Narcotic Act by pushing individual state governments to act against marijuana use. Because of the FBN’s encouragement, by 1936, every state had passed legislation regulating marijuana.

The attacks on marijuana didn‘t stop at politics, though it was this political agenda that fueled other anti-cannabis messages; as motion pictures became more and more popular, screenwriters pushed the marijuana envelope as well. In 1936, the film Reefer Madness depicted actors and actresses using marijuana, which then resulted in criminal behavior. The film insinuated that marijuana caused rape, violence, and mental health disorders that would eventually lead to psychosis and suicide. This depiction in the film industry further persuaded the public to associate marijuana use with negative attributes.

The combination of fear and state legislation opened the door for the federal government to put its stamp of disapproval on marijuana. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act effectively made marijuana use illegal for everyone except those with a valid medical prescription, provided they paid an excessive tax. This legislation eventually led the medical industry to remove medical marijuana-based products and inspired New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to request an investigation into cannabis by the New York Academy of Medicine. This research would take place over nearly five years and was the first official study about cannabis smoking conducted in the US.

At the height of World War II, hemp was back in popular demand as a material crucial in several necessary supplies to be used by US troops. With imported supplies dwindling, the US Department of Agriculture spearheaded a national campaign called “Hemp for Victory.” As a part of this campaign, the USDA encouraged farmers all over the US to plant hemp for the war effort. Farmers all over the country registered to do so, and by 1943, there were 375,000 acres of hemp growing in the United States.

In 1944, the contents of the LaGuardia Committee's report were finally released and starkly contradicted nearly all of the claims made by proponents of the Marihuana Tax Act. The report revealed that while predominantly minority populations consumed cannabis in Manhattan, its proliferation was not controlled by any one group, as feared by the Treasury Department. It also found that cannabis did not cause physical dependence, did not cause insanity or poor mental health, did not provoke criminal acts, and did not lead to other substance use.

Unfortunately, this would be a short-lived victory for those hoping hemp and marijuana would return to full-scale production and acceptance. In the 1950s, the Boggs Act and the Narcotics Control Act created mandatory criminal sentences for narcotic-related crimes, including those concerning marijuana.

Marijuana Reformation: 1960s - 1970s

Despite the negative turn marijuana acceptance made in the late 1950s, the counterculture movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s made sure marijuana never really left the conversation. College students, free-spirited individuals, anti-war activists, and hippies alike gravitated toward the plant.

They fought back against the political agendas that sought to paint its psychoactive effects as negative, and their efforts were fueled by studies sponsored by President Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy. These studies were among the first modern studies to agree with the LaGuardia Commission and state that cannabis was not a “gateway drug.” Even more importantly, by 1964, researchers had managed to isolate and synthesize THC.

While this scientific backing certainly mattered, the people demanded more. It was the eventual repeal of laws that had established minimum criminal penalties for drug-related offenses that really began reopening the cannabis discussion on a national level. The harsh penalties of the 1950s had done little to curb drug use across the country; instead, citizens noted that overcrowded jails and prisons made it difficult to prosecute and sentence more violent offenders.

In 1972, a bipartisan group known as the Shafer Commission attempted to repeal the criminalization of marijuana and argued that it should be deemed acceptable for personal use. The Commission made a recommendation of repeal to then-President Nixon, who ultimately denied the request. Although this federal initiative failed, states were quick to form their own opinions, and several decriminalized cannabis or reduced the penalties for marijuana-related charges.

Unfortunately, despite this state-level legislation, the federal government ramped up its attack on drugs and merged the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs with the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement to create the US Drug Enforcement Agency, known today as the DEA.

Despite these political changes, marijuana was still growing in popularity. The magazine High Times was established in 1974 and was one of the first publications to focus on marijuana culture and countering the misinformation regarding cannabis. One of its most popular pieces would come in 1990 when it published a history of 420, a popular term used by marijuana users that was coined by a group of five high school students in 1971. The growing local social movements had finally found a national platform.

By the time Jimmy Carter openly advocated for the decriminalization of cannabis in 1977, however, it was clear that the US trailed other countries in its attitudes regarding the plant. For example, the Netherlands had already instituted its “Tolerance Policy” a year earlier. This policy focused on tolerating alternative lifestyles, including those of people who choose to use psychoactive substances, and focusing on risk reduction rather than criminal penalties.

Two Sides of the Coin: Cannabis in the 1980s and Beyond

Cannabis in the 1980s and Beyond
Abroad, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize cannabis in 2013.

Marijuana's recent history has been somewhat of a dichotomy. On one side of the coin is the federal government, which in the late 1980s was still set on keeping marijuana criminalized. Through what would become known as the War on Drugs, lawmakers pushed information that cannabis was a "gateway" drug that would lead to other drug use and criminal behavior. Politicians spent millions of dollars on campaign ads and school programs to help educate the youth on the dangers of cannabis. This instilled fear in many parents – many of whom had grown up at the height of the anti-cannabis messaging of the 1950s.

On the other side of the coin is the cannabis research occurring as the medical field began to extol cannabis' health benefits for those who suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, cancer pain, glaucoma, low appetite, and more. In 1985, the FDA approved Marinol, the first synthetic version of cannabis available for purchase. Additional research revealed the existence of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), the body’s own system of cannabinoid chemical receptors that modulate critical functions like sleep, mood, pain, and more. They would soon discover that cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant, much like the body’s own endocannabinoid compounds, could exert positive influences on the body by interacting with the ECS.

By the mid-1990s, states were beginning to take notice of the anecdotal and scientific evidence for cannabis as a therapeutic substance. In 1996, California passed Proposition 215, making marijuana use legal for patients with AIDS, cancer, and a host of other conditions. As other states followed and created their own medicinal cannabis legislation, including Oregon, Arizona, Hawaii, Alaska, Maine, Maryland, Vermont, and Montana, two states took the initiative even further. In 2012, both Colorado and Washington passed laws allowing the recreational use of marijuana. 

Abroad, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize cannabis in 2013, followed by Canada years later. While the US government continued to avoid the cannabis conversation, this move was the progressive touch that other states needed. Florida embraced medical cannabis in 2016, a full two years before California passed full legalization. Today, there are a total of 22 states and counting where cannabis is legal both recreationally and medicinally.

Federal Legislation and the Future: Present Day

The aforementioned 22 states correspond to over 200 million Americans with access to cannabis in a legal capacity. Still, the journey to get here has been anything but easy. Throughout American history, cannabis has been on a journey from a supported crop and medicinal compound to a racially prejudiced political motivator, and finally has been recognized as a beneficial component of many health regimens. While it has often seemed like there is a long road ahead to reach an agreement between state and federal governments regarding cannabis use, that may not always be true.

In 2022, Congress introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, also known as the MORE Act. The Act was ultimately passed in the House. If it ever becomes a law, it would officially decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.

While states continue to decriminalize marijuana and approve it for medical purposes, recreational purposes, or both, the process takes time. Estimates predict there will be almost 70 million cannabis users by 2030, adding a potential $58 to $72 billion to the economy. Cannabis use has nearly come full circle as a useful medicinal product and a valuable contributor to our quality of life as well as our economy.

MÜV Florida Dispensaries: Your Source for Quality Cannabis

MÜV Florida Dispensaries

While it is only legal to possess medical marijuana in Florida, the future for full legalization remains bright. Until that time, MÜV Dispensaries are dedicated to providing Florida medical cannabis patients with top-quality medicinal products and keeping you informed regarding all things cannabis. Our dispensary locations across Florida are staffed with knowledgeable and professional Cannabis Advisors fully trained to answer any questions you may have.


Resources:

  1. Bridgeman, M. B., & Abazia, D. T. (2017). Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 42(3), 180–188. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5312634/
  2. Carliner, H., Brown, Q. L., Sarvet, A. L., & Hasin, D. S. (2017). Cannabis use, attitudes, and legal status in the U.S.: A review. Preventive medicine, 104, 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2017.07.008
  3. Hudak, J. (2016). EARLY REGULATION AND A NEW (DRUG) DEAL. In Marijuana: A Short History (pp. 31–40). Brookings Institution Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7864/j.ctt1hfr1qj.6
  4. Yu, B., Chen, X., Chen, X., & Yan, H. (2020). Marijuana legalization and historical trends in marijuana use among US residents aged 12-25: results from the 1979-2016 National Survey on drug use and health. BMC public health, 20(1), 156. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-8253-4

Content Manager for MÜV Florida and Contributor for Zen Leaf Dispensaries. A cannabis connoisseur with a passion for explaining the miraculous possibility of the plant, Swan began her journey with cannabis as a recreational user and quickly realized its positive impact on her depression and severe anxiety. She joined the cannabis industry as Receptionist and MedTender and witnessed first-hand the immense potential of the plant for a wide variety of ailments, deepening her passion for alternative medicine. Swan is dedicated to self-education on the plant and sharing its potential with all. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa.

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