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A History of Marijuana in America

The issue of legalizing marijuana in the United States is not a new debate, but it is entering a time when legislation toward the intoxicant is changing rapidly. The history of marijuana usage in America is marred with exaggeration and prejudice that has recently caused politicians and medical professionals to reconsider their position. Suffolk University has made their stance on the subject clear with serious penalties for any student found with marijuana, including a fine and potential school board hearing. However, students at Suffolk University are questioning whether or not the school and the government in general are effective in reducing marijuana use.

The Suffolk University Polling Club has completed their marijuana survey for Suffolk and is awaiting results from Emerson, Emmanuel and UMass Amherst for comparison. Questions provided dealt with drug use both on and off campus and also asked participants if they have ever seen marijuana in the Suffolk dorms. With over a hundred students in the Boston area polled, some from smoke-free campuses, the findings of the survey will provide an exclusive and unique look into modern drug use.

Cannabis used to be a common component in medicine.

Cannabis used to be a common component in medicine.

Marijuana was not always considered a criminal act in the U.S. For several centuries the cultivation of hemp (the herb used to create the intoxicant) was commonplace as the plant could be made into fiber for clothing and sails. During the 18th and 19th century cannabis became a conventional component of medicines. Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy popularized its medicinal uses by prescribing the drug as a treatment for nausea due to illnesses like cholera and tetanus.

The government did not take notice of drug abuse until the Food and Drug Administration began monitoring morphine and opium use. The Harrison Act of 1914 was the first of its kind to criminalize an intoxicant. Around this time an influx of Mexican immigrants caused the job market to become overpopulated. Prejudices against the foreigners grew in relation to crime and the marijuana cigarettes they brought with them. By the time the Great Depression hit and unemployment skyrocketed, the bias against Mexicans was supported by exaggerated claims linking marijuana to violence and sex crimes.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Uniform State Act led to the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. This piece of legislation put the possession and distribution of marijuana under the government’s control. The Act was also the start of the criminalization of the intoxicant as those without a stamp were arrested. However, following a study published by the New York Academy of Medicine in 1944 that disproved many of the preconceptions about the harmful side effects of marijuana, authority officials became lax in their regulations.

Then during World War II the Department of Agriculture started the “Hemp for Victory” propaganda campaign to persuade farmers to grow the crop for use as uniforms and parachutes. Around 375,000 acres of American farmland were devoted to this cause. As the government now supported hemp to an extent, presidential-funded studies were produced discussing the past exaggeration of marijuana usage.

The youth of America during the 1960s used marijuana in an act of rebellion against conformity.

The youth of America during the 1960s used marijuana in an act of rebellion against conformity.

The 1960s brought with them the counterculture in which young people found the drug to be a form of rebellion. Conservative groups at the time feared the increasing discontent among so-called “hippies” and “delinquents” and sought to control the masses. Restrictions tightened on marijuana use and fear of the drugs mind-altering effects were increased.

Later on the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act categorized marijuana as a lesser intoxicant in comparison to substances such as cocaine and heroin. This allowed Americans to learn about alternative sides of cannabis use such as medical benefits. The publication High Times continued to bring marijuana into the mainstream since its creation in 1974.

A decade later the second wave of prejudice against the intoxicant began with the War on Drugs and the start of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, both conservative acts intended to curb the rebellious nature of America’s youth. In 1986, President Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act that re-criminalized marijuana. At this point in history, possession of marijuana was treated similarly to that of heroin. This was quickly deemed overkill and an amendment to the legislation imposed a three-strike system instead.

Since 1996 when California passed Proposition 215 legalizing marijuana, 28 states have decriminalized the intoxicant, 24 of which are for medical use only (Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Alaska allow for recreational use of cannabis). The District of Columbia is the most recent to sign into law an act allowing for medicinal use of the drug. However marijuana is still not recognized medically or recreationally at the federal level, harkening back to the issue being in the hands of state governments.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana (NORML) has been working toward nation-wide legalization since 1970. Their mission statement claims allowing the drug will provide enhanced safety regulations and improved, non-biased education on marijuana usage. Suffolk University is the only college campus in Massachusetts to host a NORML chapter. SUNORML boasts their involvement in the Boston Freedom Rally, an annual protest against the illegal status of marijuana. Currently Massachusetts has decriminalized the possession of one ounce or less of the intoxicant.

The history of marijuana in America is extensive, laced with fear of other cultures and wrongly based in false claims made by biased organizations. To become active in the legalization of marijuana, join a local NORML chapter or attend (and politically participate) in conventions and protests geared toward this end. The future for the drug is uncertain, but the campaign is far from over.

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