More States Are Legalizing Cannabis—But Why Was It Illegal In The First Place?

In June of 2019, Illinois became the eleventh state to legalize recreational cannabis. Medical cannabis has been legal there since 2013 when the Illinois General Assembly passed the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act. There are currently 33 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have allowed patients to access marijuana to treat conditions such as Crohn’s disease, chronic pain, epilepsy, and PTSD.

There’s no arguing with the fact that cannabis, a plant that was once referred to as “the smoke of hell,” is slowly but surely restoring its reputation and pushing its way back into a positive light.

But as people welcome cannabis into their homes, their home states, and their medicine cabinets once again, it’s impossible not to wonder: Why was it cast out in the first place? 

Here’s what you need to know about when cannabis became illegal and why.

A Brief History of Cannabis in the United States

Cannabis has been around for a long time. In fact, archaeologist recently discovered evidence that people were using cannabis ritualistically and medicinally in China over 2,500 years ago. (Like we said, a long time.)

It’s thought that the cannabis plant was brought to the U.S. with the first English settlers. And while many find it hard to believe, it was a staple product on the shelves of pharmacies in the early 1900s. Heck, hemp was even grown during the 27th century in Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.

So what happened?

In the 1930s, the “War On Drugs” began and politicians made cannabis public enemy number one. In 1936 the film Reefer Madness—an American propaganda film created to convince the public of cannabis’s corrupting influence—was released. Before anyone knew what was happening, anti-weed posters (like these!) were everywhere.

Immigration and the Criminalization of Cannabis

Around the same time, cannabis’s name changed. Instead of cannabis, which comes from the plant’s scientific name Cannabis sativa, it became marijuana, dope, or reefer—words that can all be traced back to Spanish, African American, and Caribbean slang. This was no coincidence; it was a strategic move by politicians to make cannabis seem less like an herb and more like an illicit foreign substance.

Influential public figures started declaring cannabis a corrupting influence that was capable of causing “madness and violence.” At the same time, the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was in full swing and many refugees were entering the United States from Mexico. Quickly, cannabis prohibition became a tool in anti-immigration political agendas. At the end of the day, a fear of Mexican immigration played a huge role in the criminalization of cannabis.

Myths and Misconceptions about Cannabis Safety

But how dangerous is cannabis, really? Did these politicians actually have anything to fear? High-THC forms of cannabis can have some undesirable side effects—like paranoia and anxiety, dry eyes, hunger, lethargy, and impaired memory—but when you compare those to the risk associated with alcohol and tobacco, you realize that as far as substances go, it’s extremely safe.

Ready for some facts and stats? There are 85,000-plus alcohol-related deaths each year and 130 Americans die from opioid overdoses every single day. In contrast, no one has ever died as a direct result of consuming too much cannabis. In his book Weed: The User’s Guide, David Schmader wrote: “Even aspirin can kill you if you take too much, but a fatal dose of marijuana would require ingestion of fifteen hundred pounds in fifteen minutes—a physical impossibility for any human…”

The Legal Status of Cannabis Today

As we learn more and more about the real risks associated with cannabis use, we can debunk a lot of the myths and misconceptions floating around. And while it’s still extremely difficult to study the health benefits of cannabis in humans (and we mean, extremely difficult) because of the current federal laws, we still seem to be learning more every day.

Despite this progress, it’s been hard for cannabis to shake its discriminatory past. Today, black Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans, even though rates of use between the two groups are very similar. Not to mention, enforcing our current laws costs the United States over $3.5 billion a year.

In other words, things are changing—but we still have a long way to go.

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