history of cannabis

Welcome to Part III in our series on the turbulent history of cannabis in America….

In our last installment, we left off in the early 1970s with restrictive government policy and youth culture—spearheaded by the hippies in the late 60s—that embraced experimentation and shunned the establishment. These dynamics were early indicators of the social push-pull that exemplified the next 40 years of marijuana policy in America.

Enter the War on Drugs

Although a battle of sorts had been waged against cannabis since the plant first crossed the border from Mexico, President Nixon in 1971 formally declares war on drugs. He cites drug abuse as “public enemy number one” and dramatically increases the size and reach of federal drug agencies. He also pushes through measures such as the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which include mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later spoke about those days:

“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

As we touched upon in Part II of this series, Nixon then moved to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug—meaning it has no medicinal value whatsoever. This classification began as temporary, pending review by a Nixon-appointed commission led by Republican Governor Raymond Shafer. In 1972, that commission universally recommended decriminalizing marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.

Nevertheless, the cultural tide was shifting. In the following five years, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession. By 1976, even President Jimmy Carter was campaigning on the promise of federal marijuana decriminalization. Although he walked back those views when he took office, by October 1977 the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of pot for personal use.

Within the blink of an eye, however, the winds of public opinion again shifted. Efforts to reform cannabis law were abandoned as a parent’s movement against marijuana gained steam. Some of these conservative parent groups became powerful lobbyists for stricter regulation and anti-drug campaigns. Together with the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), they were instrumental in affecting public attitudes. Marijuana was ultimately caught up in a larger cultural backlash against the perceived permissiveness of the 1970s, leading to the strident continuation of the War on Drug in the 80s.

Just Say No

The 1980s in America were characterized by harsh minimum sentencing laws and a crusading “Just Say No” ethos spearheaded by Nancy Reagan. Her husband, President Ronald Regan, led a bruising expansion of the war on drugs and incarceration rates skyrocketed. In the ensuing 17 years, drug-related imprisonment increased by a staggering 800%.

During this period, the political hysteria over drug use led to the passage of some absurdly severe penalties that rapidly increased the prison population. In 1985, less than 5 percent of Americans polled reported that drug abuse was the country’s “number one problem.” By 1989, that figure had grown to some 64 percent. However, this public consensus about the drug problem could largely be attributed to the impact of media hype: the following year, the figure plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media moved on to other topics. Nevertheless, the legacy of this fear mongering remained in the draconian policies that fuelled ongoing arrests and mass incarceration.

Throughout the 1990s we saw more of the same. While campaigning, Bill Clinton promoted drug treatment programs over incarceration, but shortly after he took office he picked up the mantle of his predecessors and continued the escalation of the drug war.

By the time George W Bush took office in 2001, the war on drugs was finally beginning to fizzle. He nevertheless took a last swing and allocated more federal funds than ever to it.

There is ample evidence to suggest that these policies failed utterly and created more problems than they solved. As the years roll on, collective, bi-partisan agreement about the pressing need to reform marijuana policy has finally led to some notable progess.

A New Era

Gone are the days when politicians dare not admit they had experience with pot. Democratic contenders for the 2020 race are tripping over themselves to display their marijuana bona fides, and new cannabis reform legislation is hitting the halls of Congress at a stirring speed.

Indeed, the marijuana reform movement has taken off throughout the country and beyond. As of 2019, marijuana has been decriminalized in 15 states, while recreational consumption is legal in 10. In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate marijuana, followed in 2019 by our northern neighbor, Canada.

Marijuana has taken a new place in the popular consciousness—entering both the premium luxury markets and saturating the wellness industry. Ironically, the fastest growing demographic of cannabis users in the country today is the over 65 crowd. 

Nevertheless, the march of progress is slow. Some 700,000 people are still arrested for marijuana offenses each year and almost 500,000 people still behind bars for drug violations.

Amazingly, when we look back at the tumultuous history of marijuana in America, we can draw a straight line from early racist rhetoric and marijuana propaganda of the 1930s to the continued classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin and cocaine, and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. Somehow, it’s taken over 80 years to even begin to evolve from the absurdities of the Refer Madness days.

Here’s hoping we are moving into an era of thoughtful reforms informed by reliable research, rather than hysterical politics. After all, sane federal policy devoid of racial and discriminatory undertones is decades overdue.