Many people are surprised to learn that marijuana was not always illegal in the United States. In fact, it was not until the 1930’s that marijuana was illegal in all 50 states. Complete illegality would remain in place for nearly eight decades, until 2013, when voters in Colorado and Washington State re-legalized marijuana in those states. If you’ve been charged with a marijuana charge, we urge you to consider consulting with a drug defense attorney.
The history of marijuana in America is long and complicated. Its widespread legality prior to the 20th century was largely due to its widespread use of hemp rope and cloth products made from the fibers of the marijuana plant. The first regulations regarding marijuana were enacted primarily for the regulation of this market.
Some of America’s Founding Fathers were growers of marijuana for hemp. George Washington grew it at Mount Vernon, as did Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. However, in the 1800’s interest in marijuana began to shift from hemp to medicinal products. By 1850, marijuana was widely available in a number of medical preparations that were commonly sold in pharmacies.
Regulations and restrictions on marijuana were encouraged by the passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. States also began passing restrictions on marijuana, beginning in Massachusetts in 1911. Soon many states were requiring people purchasing marijuana to have a prescription from a doctor.
The complete criminalization of marijuana was accelerated in 1930 by the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. It was headed by Harry J. Anslinger, who took a special interest in making marijuana universally illegal in the United States through getting the U.S. to sign the 1936 Geneva Trafficking Conventions, which required the signers to make marijuana illegal on a national level. This was reinforced by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially made it impossible to grow marijuana commercially or prescribe it as a medicine. Additional legislation passed by Congress in 1952 and 1956 further strengthened the marijuana laws.
The social movements of “beatniks” in the 1950’s and “hippies” of the 1960’s brought marijuana back into the public eye with their demands for reform of the marijuana laws. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Leary vs. United States that the Marijuana Tax Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment. Congress responded with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which re-established marijuana’s illegality, but removed mandatory minimum sentences from marijuana offenses, and thus was actually considered a small reform over earlier, harsher punishments.
However, in 1973 President Richard Nixon revived the Federal effort against marijuana by creating the Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet, the 1970’s also saw the first serious attempts by the individual states to lower the penalties for marijuana use. California was the first to label marijuana use a misdemeanor, punishable by only a fine. Several other states soon followed with marijuana reform laws of their own, although the federal government was not supportive of these efforts.
Even as the Federal crackdown intensified, the states continued to relax marijuana laws throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s. The passage of Proposition 215 in California in 1996 represented the most radical reform yet, in which the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, so-called “medical marijuana” became legal for the first time since the 1920’s. Medical marijuana became the new cause behind which reformers of marijuana laws began to rally.
The use of marijuana as a medicine turned out to be a winning political argument for reformers. Legalizing marijuana purely for recreational use never attracted the support of a majority of the electorate. However, marijuana as a medicine has been repeatedly legalized by voter referendums or state legislators. The idea of marijuana as a medicine has done much to remove the stigma that became attached to the plant during its years of complete illegality.
The first states to endorse full legalization of marijuana by adults are Colorado and Washington, whose voters ratified the legalization at the polls in 2012. Several other states are expected to follow suit in referendums in 2014 and 2016. However, federal laws forbidding marijuana production and sale remain enforceable, and the full legal ramifications of the conflicts arising between state and federal law have not been ironed out. Therefore, the complicated legal history of marijuana will continue.