History of Cannabis in the US- an Overview
Cannabis Legalization in the U.S.
Let’s take a moment to explore a brief history of cannabis legalization in the United States. We have also created a Cannabis Timeline for you that we will be continually adding interesting information to that begins in 10,000BCE and traces the plant across the continents.[coming soon]
The earliest evidence of cannabis consumption dates back to the Jomon Period of Japan that ranged from 10,000-3000 BC. Through travel, trade, and war, the cannabis and hemp seed slowly spread over the world. Over the centuries, cannabis and hemp were listed in multiple pharmacopeias and religious texts throughout the East and eventually the West. In 1850, Cannabis was even listed in the Third Edition of United States Pharmacopeia as “Extractum Cannabis or Extract of Hemp”. The listing continued until 1942.
History in the United States
The First War on Drugs in the United States began in the late 1800’s. It was a response to a surge in immigration fueled by the Mexican Revolution. Slowly but surely, each state began to redefine cannabis, and by 1931 a total of 29 states had outlawed the plant. During this era, the word “Marijuana” was popularized by anti-cannabis parties as a tool to make cannabis seem more foreign and shift cultural opinions on immigration.
Ideologies shifted as the United States came out of the Great Depression in the 1940s, attitudes began to change and scientists researched cannabis for its therapeutic benefits. This research continued successfully for a few more years: isolating CBN and CBD in 1940, and discovering THC in 1942. Unfortunately, between 1945 and 1956, multiple laws were passed limiting the legality of cannabis and placing it under the control of the Federal Narcotics Control Act.
In 1970 the Controlled Substances Act was passed, making cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. This implied it had no medicinal value what-so-ever and limited research even more. It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that research would rekindle.
The Second War on Drugs in the United States took place in the 1970s. As the world was looking towards another war, the movement of Flower Power was starting to take over and states started to decriminalize cannabis, with Oregon at the forefront in 1973. The response was a second War on Drugs, which served two purposes: to shut down conversations about cannabis- effectively limiting anti-war speech- and to target the growing Black Rights movement. Mandatory sentences were re-enacted by President Reagan along with the “Three Strikes” policy, requiring life sentences for repeat drug offenders.
The War on Drugs continued under President George Bush when he took office in 1989, calling cannabis the “greatest domestic threat facing our nation”. One year later he approved the 1033 program, equipping local and state police with military-grade equipment for drug operations that is still commonly used today.
Legalization Began In 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. They passed the “Compassionate Use Act”, or Proposition 215, allowing for the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients with AIDS, cancer, and other serious, painful diseases. Oregon followed suit in 1998, and in 2012 Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis. In 2014 Oregon legalized recreational cannabis using Measure 91. As of April 2022, the Marijuana Policy Project reports that 31 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized low-level marijuana possession offenses in some regard. Tension between federal laws criminalizing marijuana and state laws permitting marijuana in certain circumstances began increasing during this time and continue today.
Today, we await change. On April 1st, 2022 the House passed a Decriminalization of Cannabis bill with a vote of 220-204. The bill would create grant programs to aid communities and individuals impacted most by drug offenses and establish funding programs to provide loans to small cannabis businesses owned by disadvantaged individuals. It also requires that federal non-violent cannabis related convictions and arrests be expunged within one year of enactment. At the time of this article this bill is heading for the Senate where it faces an uncertain fate. A research study done by Pew Research Center showed that nearly 2 in 3 Americans support both medical and recreational cannabis. With the overwhelming majority of people backing the plant, we are optimistic that it will only be a matter of time before Federal Legalization.
Alexander Campbell King Law Library, School of Law, University of Georgia Survey of Marijuana Law in the United States, https://libguides.law.uga.edu/c.php?g=522835&p=3575350
Herodotus, The Histories. A. D. Godley, Ed.
National Library of Medicine, Racism and Its Effect on Cannabis Research, March 2020
CSA Labs, The Early History of Cannabis and Hemp in Asia, May 20, 2020
Brittanica ProCon History of Cannabis as Medicine 2900 BC to Present, February 3rd, 2022
DEA Museum, A Life of Service, Henry Jacob Anslinger, Narcotic Enforcement in the 1930s, https://museum.dea.gov/exhibits/online-exhibits/anslinger/narcotics-enforcement-1930s
Anslinger, Henry, Marijuana- Assassin of Youth, The American Magazine, 1938
US Customs and Border Restrictions, December 20, 2019, Did you know…Cannabis was once a legal cross-border import” https://www.cbp.gov/about/history/did-you-know/marijuana#:~:text=In%20principle%2C%20the%20Marihuana%20Tax,in%20this%20country%20less%20economical.
American Civil Liberties Union, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, 2020
Dale H. Gieringer, The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California, 1999.
NPR, The Mysterious History of Marijuana, Matt Thompson, July 22, 2013,
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