Why is marijuana still illegal in many parts of the US?

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 dealt recreational and medical cannabis (and hemp) a death blow, effectively stopping production by putting penalties in place for users and growers. Like so many ill-advised policies, this one started with cultural misunderstanding and racism. Beginning in 1910, there was a huge influx of Mexican immigrants looking for work or fleeing political violence during and after the Mexican Revolution. Along with their language, customs, and traditions they also used marijuana after a day’s work for medicine and relaxation. Even though cannabis was present in many American medicines at the time, “marijuana” –a new, foreign, dangerous word and product- alarmed many.   The campaign to ban marihuana/marijuana had begun. These attitudes were exacerbated by a “jazz culture” in many urban cities where musicians, largely people of color, were widely known to partake as well.  Propaganda, in the form of sensational movies such as Reefer Madness, fueled the fire of mistrust. There are also suggestions that Dupont lobbied for a ban on marijuana in order to cripple the hemp trade.  As the story goes Dupont had developed synthetic fibers, including nylon, and this was one opportunistic way to gain market share.  The villianization-of-cannabis campaign took hold; In 1942, it was removed from the US Pharmacopeia in 1942. 

In 1970, Congress, acting under then President Richard Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) as a component of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  Five schedules of drugs were created and cannabis was vengefully placed in a list of Schedule 1 drugs along with heroin and LSD. Schedule 1 drugs have “no currently accepted medical use” and have a high potential for abuse.  Even methadone, cocaine, and OxyContin, the biggest culprit in the current opioid scourge, are considered Schedule 2.   Nixon then commissioned a report on Marijuana and Drug Abuse known as the Shafer Commission. Former Republican Governor Raymond Shafer headed the committee and after extensive study, the commission determined that the personal use of cannabis should be decriminalized and penalties levied on non-violent drug offenders should be reviewed.  This was not at all what Nixon expected; he was livid with the findings and simply ignored the report and its recommendations.

1980’s anti-drug slogan “Just Say No” and the famous commercial of an egg frying in a pan with an ominous announcer saying “this is your brain on drugs” worked to convince the public at large of  danger of all drugs while the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 increased federal penalties for simple possession, introduced mandatory sentencing, and inserted the requirement that three offenses meant a life sentence for repeat drug offenders.  This, of course, has led to unnecessary and expense for the incarceration of non-violent offenders and continue biases against minority and poor populations.

There is another long lasting casuality from this action:  Research.  Because cannabis still remains on the Schedule 1 list it have “no currently accepted medical use”, to say research opportunities are limited in the US is an understatement. The barriers that a researcher needs to overcome to just obtain permission to research anything about cannabis (including much of hemp—a drought resistant, bug resistant crop that can be made into 25,000 items), are insurmountable. So the United States is ceding its research crown to countries such as Israel to lead the way.  At the same time, 2/3rds of our states have already decided that cannabis does have accepted medical use.

View the status of cannabis legalization across the US.