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A History of the Legalization (and Illegalization) of Pot

Paul James

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With marijuana legalization spreading across the country, more and more people are open to taking a toke for themselves. In our modern culture, smoking pot has become more socially acceptable than smoking cigarettes and (for some people) even drinking alcohol.

Scientifically, it has already proven to be safer. Yet, opinions on marijuana weren’t always this lenient.

In fact, for nearly a century, a good majority ruled marijuana as an addictively dangerous substance. Though that notion is now considered ridiculous (by most), it’s what initiated the struggle we find ourselves in while attempting for nationwide legalization.

As of now, 28 states have permitted the use of medicinal marijuana. Within eight of those states, recreational use is also allowed. That being said, we still continue to fight for future legalization laws.

This fight can be understood if we look back at how the law got to where it is now. At one time or another, marijuana was nothing more than a plant growing in the wilderness. Somehow, it’s become a topic of debate that goes beyond nature.

Early Usage of Cannabis

Marijuana has been recorded as one of the first agricultural plants to be cultivated. Dating back 10,000 years ago when agriculture was initially invented. Though at this point, it wasn’t notably inhaled, hemp became an efficient resource for people within Asia. By 6,000 B.C., cannabis seeds and oil were used as cooking necessities in China, and 2,000 years later, the same areas were using hemp to build textiles.

It wasn’t until 2,737 B.C., when the first recorded use of marijuana as medicine came to be.

Emperor Shen Neng was prescribing cannabis tea as a treatment for gout, malaria and rheumatism. This caused the drug to eventually spread through Asia, the Middle East and the Eastern Coast of Africa.

Between 2,000 and 800 B.C., Hindu’s had used cannabis for medicinal and ritual purposes. In their ancient text, Atharvaveda (Science of Charms), marijuana is known as the “Sacred Grass,” considered to be one of the five sacred plants of India. What we now deem as a “high” was once deemed as a spiritually heightening experience.

As we can see, marijuana usage hasn’t changed outside the use of hemp as material.

Today, it is still used for medical purposes and, likewise, some feel spiritual exposure through THC. The original intentions people had for smoking weed remain consistent even in our modern day.

The Early 20th Century Change in Attitude

For a great period of time, things remained the same. Cannabis was grown as a cash crop and used for a variety of reasons.

There were some concerns over people smoking it recreationally.

For instance, around 1100 A.D., Hasan ibn al-Sabbah of Khorasan, Persia was recruiting followers to commit assassinations. Stories had spread over the group’s supposed usage of hashish. These were some of the earliest myths of THC inducing hypnotically irrational behavior.

However, in terms of modern America, marijuana didn’t gain this sort of conspiracy until the early half of the 20th century.

In fact, throughout the 19th century, it was still a common cash crop and used widely for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until 1906, when America’s attitude towards weed began to change.

At that time, between two and five percent of the U.S. population was unknowingly addicted to morphine. To prevent the continuation of this, the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. The law was meant to bring the distribution of opium and morphine into the hands of doctors.

Marijuana wasn’t actually a concerned substance, yet, the regulation of chemicals became a vital altercation in American drug policy.

In 1910, after the Mexican Revolution, immigrants from Mexico flooded into America. With them, they brought the recreational habit of smoking marijuana. Soon enough, the drug was attached to the fear and prejudices of Mexican immigrants. It was often attributed with crimes that the newcomers were involved in. The phrase “Marijuana Menace” was spawned by all the anti-drug campaigners.

When the Great Depression hit, the public’s fear of unemployment only fueled their resentment toward Mexican immigrants. This ended up escalating the government’s concern as well.

A large amount of research was instigated, coming to the conclusion that pot was linked with violent crimes and social irregularity. In 1931, the response to all of this was 29 states outlawing the use of marijuana—giving it the bad reputation we now fight against.

Federal legislators didn’t take matters into their own hands. Instead, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics encouraged states to individually accept responsibility for the control of substances. The states did just that by adopting the Uniform State Narcotic Act. This still affects us today, as certain states remain more lenient with marijuana in comparison to others.

The act was incredibly powerful to help create the negative preconceptions of cannabis because it proposed that any state that wished to regulate marijuana could do so by linking it as a narcotic. The act went as far as to compare pot to opiates and cocaine in order to persuade American society that THC was a harmful, habitual substance.

Within a couple of years, the propaganda film Reefer Madness hit theaters, only convincing the American public more of the dangers of cannabis use. For a while, Hollywood even banned the showing of narcotics in films. A year later, a propaganda campaign followed the film, in which the “evils of weed” was oversaturated.

This led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, criminalizing cannabis for good.

Reefer madness became implanted into America’s legal system, and it took over half a century to create a new outlook on weed. The first half of the 1900s showed America’s reluctant refusal of marijuana. But the second half showed attitude shifting in a new direction.

From the Hippies to the Millennials

As the love children of the 1960s were emerging from the depths of a post-World War II America, recreational marijuana use skyrocketed.

With the substance spreading through upper white middle-class adolescents, many began to fear again as they did when Reefer Madness was playing on screens. Though, it should be noted that Kennedy had made efforts to relieve the misconceptions surrounding weed, but these efforts only led to the consideration of treatment for marijuana use.

By the 1970s, stoners had witnessed some light shed upon their habit. Legislators came to the understanding that the criminal punishments for cannabis were too harsh and had done nothing to stop its usage.

The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was espoused and eliminated federal sentences for individuals who possessed small amounts of the drug. As the decade persisted, 11 states decriminalized marijuana and many others reduced penalties.

However, when the 1980s hit, these optimistic approaches to the drug war saw a drastic change.

The era is commonly known as “drug hysteria,” in which there was a major increase in the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes. In 1980, 50,000 Americans were behind bars for the said offenses. In 1997, that number grew to over 400,000. This was a reaction to the widely publicized crack epidemic.

Within the mid-to-late 1980s, a zero-tolerance policy was motioned for drug users.

The HIV/AIDS crisis only supported these notions further by the advocation of reducing the expansion of syringe access. Daryl Gates, a Los Angeles Police Chief, was a strong supporter and founded the D.A.R.E. drug education program. The nation quickly embraced this, even though there was little-known results.

Though much of this has to do with substances other than marijuana, it didn’t do anything to help the legalization process that only started happening recently.

In fact, the drug war has quite a lot to do with the public’s opinion of cannabis during the ’80s and ’90s. This opinion led to the increased incarceration rates that mostly affected African-American communities; biases were spread around, just as they had been with the Mexicans in the early 1900s. Weed was blamed for completely unrelated offenses in a desperate attempt to keep THC out of the lungs of America.

It wasn’t until 1997 when California became the first state to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana.

With this came a counterculture of pot enthusiasts. Young people from all over America began to recognize the many opportunities weed had to offer. They took a public stance on the emancipation of marijuana for the sake of a better society, attempting to not only put a halt on past biases, but to also take the first steps toward changing views on marijuana for the benefit of future generations.

By 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational consumption of THC—a success for millennial stoners and a backlash at every person of authority who ever proclaimed marijuana as dangerous.

Current Cannabis Climate

Now, in the year 2017, we continue to see legalization spread across the nation. Though it’s going to be a long journey, it’s finally coming to life after over a century of misconceived notions.

Just a few months ago, I was able to legally smoke marijuana for the first time. It felt liberating knowing I had the right to be high. To not have to worry about the opinions of others or the jurisdiction of 20th century America.

Looking back at marijuana’s history, I’m grateful to live in a time where these prejudices are being legally dropped. Though I’ve come to understand why the law is the way it is, I never felt satisfied with it. Just like many other Americans.

To my fellow stoners who are likewise legally allowed to appreciate the relief of smoking pot, I raise my joint, as if it were a glass of wine, in a toast to the future of our country and the liberation we undoubtedly deserve.

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