How Marijuana Came to Be Illegal in the United States

Marijuana legalization has been a polarizing topic for as long as many of us can remember. It is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, despite more than three dozen states giving the green light to medical cannabis, recreational use, or both. So how did we get to this point? Has marijuana been illegal since the founding of our country?

The simple answer is no. Unfortunately, the realities of cannabis are not that simple. Those who attempt to oversimplify the ongoing cannabis debate do a disservice to everyone involved. The many issues surrounding cannabis are not black and white.

1. Marijuana vs. Hemp

Any discussion of this nature must start with an understanding of the difference between hemp and marijuana. The people behind the Deseret Wellness cannabis pharmacy in Provo, Utah say that, while the difference is primarily a legal one, it is still particularly important.

Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the cannabis plant. Federal law defines hemp as cannabis with no more than 0.3% THC by volume. THC is the cannabinoid that causes intoxication. Any cannabis plants with a higher concentration are considered marijuana. Though the legal definition was established only recently, it still plays into the history of cannabis in this country.

2. Hemp in the Early Days

A document published by the University of Georgia’s Alexander Campbell King Law Library explains that hemp had a role in the earliest days of American society. Back in the colonial era, hemp was an important agricultural product in the production of rope, clothing, and sails. It was an industrial product more than a recreational drug.

By the time the Civil War came to an end, more hemp was being imported than grown domestically. Still, it was being used as an ingredient in medicines sold by pharmacies across the country. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that public opinion about cannabis began to change.

3. Fear of Marijuana

In the immediate aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, immigrants from south of the border began coming to the States and bringing recreational marijuana with them. For whatever reason, this caused fear in American society. California and Utah became the first states to criminalize marijuana at that time.

Then, in 1913, a Mexican immigrant killed one police officer and seriously injured another while chasing an El Paso woman down the street with a knife. The crime was ultimately blamed on marijuana consumption. Two years later, El Paso, TX became the first city to outlaw marijuana citing its alleged tendency to create “a lust for human blood.”

With that ordinance, El Paso lawmakers set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to nationwide criminalization. For right or wrong, unfounded fears and criminal acts by a single individual defined our nation’s attitude toward cannabis for generations.

4.  Science Shows Otherwise

Ironically, scientists and researchers maintained throughout the 1950s and 60s that marijuana does not promote violence in users. They also maintained that it was not a gateway to stronger drugs. But in the early 1970s, marijuana was added to the federal Schedule I of controlled substances, so classified based on an alleged lack of medical efficacy and a high propensity for addiction.

Much of what we have believed about marijuana all along has shown to be untrue. Science disagrees with the findings of the early 20th century and the assumptions that marijuana makes people crazy. This is not to say that it is completely harmless, but at least we know it’s not a drug that turns average people into bloodthirsty maniacs.

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