Legalization of Cannabis: A Brief History
In the United States, cannabis was prevalent for both recreational and medical use until 1906. Hemp was actually one of the first crops in America, grown by George Washington and appearing on the ten dollar bill. It was used to create many items including cloth and rope, and in the mid 1800’s cannabis was used for medicinal purposes as well.
The first regulation on cannabis was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required certain drugs to be more accurately labeled. As time went on, restrictions on cannabis began to increase as it was identified as a poison and a “habit forming drug”. By 1920, individual state laws were beginning to prohibit the sale of cannabis.
1925: International Opium Convention
In 1925, the first international drug control treaty was signed, called the International Opium Convention. The treaty banned exporting Indian hemp to countries that outlawed it, and enforced stricter regulations on countries that allowed it. Importing countries would need to have a license approving the import of hemp and confirm that it was for medical use. The United States supported these restrictions on Indian hemp, and restrictions began appearing around the world, making cannabis a controlled substance on a large scale.
1934: Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act
By the 1930’s, cannabis was regulated across the United States. The Uniform State Narcotic Act was created in the late 1920’s, and finalized in 1934. This decided that the federal government should require all states to follow the same restrictions, especially due to the recent 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act which regulated all imports of opiates and coca products. Some believe the real objective of these acts was to be to create revenue generating policies. Taxes were imposed, but states did not have the authority to seize illegal drugs or charge perpetrators of drug crimes.
1937: Marihuana Tax Act
In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, enforcing a federal excise tax on hemp sales. This effectively made cannabis illegal by discouraging agricultural growth of hemp. Because the federal government had to allow states to regulate their own medicine, they used this tax as a loophole for regulation. It is theorized that this act was created not only due to misconceptions about cannabis and hemp, but because certain politicians stood to profit off the decrease in hemp production.
Hemp began to make a comeback during World War II. Before the war, the U.S. navy had been using hemp from other countries to make rope and other materials for their ships. During the war, the supply lines were cut off. This forced the U.S. to enact a program to encourage local farmers to grow hemp again, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted the hemp tax. Hemp production increased rapidly, growing millions of acres worth until the war ended. When it did end, the government began to decrease hemp production again since it was no longer needed for war efforts.
1970: Controlled Substances Act
In 1970, the signing of the Controlled Substances Act established five classifications of drugs. Cannabis was categorized as a schedule I drug, which have no medical use according to the DEA and FDA. Schedule I drugs also have a tendency to be abused, and users are more likely to establish psychological and physical dependencies. The Controlled Substances Act grouped all types of cannabis together, even though hemp can’t be used as a drug. Because of this misunderstanding, cannabis was outlawed completely.
1990s – Present
Cannabis remained illegal until the early 1990’s, when Proposition P and Proposition 215 fought to legalize medical cannabis. Prop P obtained legalization for medical cannabis in San Francisco, and Prop 215 finalized it at a state level. Other states began to legalize medical cannabis throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, and in 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis. Although medical cannabis is now legal in many states and recreational is legal in some, it is still federally regulated.
There are many arguments for why cannabis should be legalized on a federal level. Some argue that if cannabis is legalized for recreational use, it would reduce violence. Other reasons in support of legalization include that a legal market would eliminate a black market, and ensure safer cannabis. Being one the largest agricultural crops would certainly cause an economic increase in various facets of legal cannabis and create jobs. It would also save law enforcement time and money, allowing them to focus on more important legal issues.