history of marijuana in the U.S.

ORLANDO – With the rapid shifts in public opinion on marijuana in recent years and more states legalizing weed, it’s tempting to think a dramatic new chapter in this story is being written right before our eyes.

It’s true that fast-growing public acceptance of marijuana for recreational or medical use seems higher than it’s ever been. But the truth is, this country is actually shifting back to when the American colonies were first being formed — even the first 150 years of how the nation viewed marijuana.

And while some people think the public debate over weed use started in the 1960s with the counterculture movement, the first real effort to ban weed didn’t happen until the 1930s. Prior to that, you could buy marijuana at your local pharmacy.

The first effort to decriminalize marijuana started in the 1970s (when 11 states did vote for decriminalization, starting with Oregon in 1973), the legalization of marijuana is nothing new. It took this nation close to 200 years to decide marijuana needed to be banned. Now we’re simply going back to our roots.

What’s the History of Marijuana Use in the U.S.?

Historically, it took a long time before marijuana was viewed as a dangerous drug. If fact, it was fully embraced for quite a long time.
Marijuana is produced from the same cannabis plant as hemp, a strain with a lower quality of THC. Made from the fibers of the cannabis plant, hemp was used to make early products like cloth, rope and paper, proving to be essential in the earliest days of the American colonies. Back then, governments recognized the use of cannabis; in 1619, Virginia voted to require hemp to be grown on every farm in the colony!

New products like cotton made hemp less important and it passed its peak by the end of the Civil War. But that was when a different version of the cannabis plant gained popularity. Medical cannabis started being used as an ingredient in certain medicines, and cannabis was thought to have therapeutic benefits for various medical conditions.

At the same time, recreational use of marijuana didn’t start until after the turn of the century. And racism may have played a major role in getting it banned.

In the 1910s, marijuana was brought into this country by Mexican immigrants, refugees fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution and the dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz. Critics of the drug would later point to that, and continued use within the U.S. Mexican and black communities, while calling for the drug to be banned. Anti-Mexican sentiments were considered to be a key aspect of the eventual stigmatization of weed.

What’s the History of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S.?

By the 1930s, marijuana was catching on. It had become popular in emerging jazz clubs, where “hep cats” like Cab Calloway were singing tunes like “Reefer Man.”

That didn’t go unnoticed by the federal government or Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and by 1936, every state had voted to ban the non-medical use of marijuana. Congress responded with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (actually misspelled as the Marihuana Tax Act), and the plant literally became outlawed at the federal level. Supporters of the bill often focused on its drug use within the Mexican and black communities (many of the jazz clubs were it was popular with in the black community).

At that point, cannabis became an underground drug. Still, despite the national prohibition, it’s popularity grew, particularly in the 1950s with the Beat Movement, which championed its use. That was followed in the 1960s by the hippie and counterculture movements. The Culture Wars were on.

Legalization supporters scored a major victory in 1969 with the Supreme Court’s Leary v. United States ruling. Timothy Leary, a college professor and political activist, had been arrested for possession of marijuana in violation of the Marihuana Tax Act, and he challenged the law on the grounds that the act required self-incrimination in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The court unanimously agreed and declared the law to be unconstitutional.

But Congress responded in 1970 by passing the Controlled Substances; Act, supported by President Richard Nixon, which officially banned cannabis for any use, including medical. The new federal law made marijuana a “Schedule I” drug, defining it potentially dangerous, one that could lead to addiction, and with no medical benefits.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

When Did Public Attitudes Start Shifting?

It’s important to remember that in the 19th century, cannabis was legal. So when you consider the recent movement toward legalization, that essentially brings us back to where this country was for the first century after our founding.

States now legalizing medical marijuana are following a historic pattern. By the 18th century, American medical journals were recommending hemp roots and seeds to treat everything from venereal disease to irritated skin.

The American Medical Association came out against the federal ban in 1937, noting the many great medicinal uses that marijuana served. Once the Marihuana Tax Act had been passed, pharmacies were forced to stop selling it.

The New York Academy of Medicine actually challenged the ban in the 1940s, noting that there was no evidence that marijuana was addictive. But their message fell on deaf ears.

As marijuana began being more commonly used in the 1960s, there was a medical breakthrough in the 1970s when researchers at Harvard University demonstrated that smoking marijuana helps cancer patients cope with extreme nausea from their chemotherapy. That would lead to further research showing that marijuana had positive benefits for treating chronic pain, spinal injuries, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis. That’s a key reason why more than 35 states voted to allow medical marijuana research programs from the 1970s on.

That would continue until the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration launched its War on Drugs and made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do further medical marijuana research.

Why Are We Going Back Toward Legalization of Marijuana?

The current movement toward legalization didn’t happen overnight, and was a slow process from the 1970s on.

In 1972, an organization called the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws began lobbying the government to reclassify cannabis as the less restrictive “Schedule 2” so the medical benefits of marijuana could still be used. Their efforts got a boost in 1976 when a patient named Robert Randall convinced the government to let him use marijuana as part of his glaucoma treatment, after the Food & Drug Administration created a new code for “Compassionate Use.” (Randall had noted that marijuana use had helped him avoid the loss of his vision.) And starting in 1982, the National Academy of Sciences began releasing more and more information on the medical benefits of marijuana.

Even so, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug today in the eyes of the federal government.

If the federal government remained stubborn, the states have been moving in their own direction. In 1996, California voters approved the California Compassionate Use Act, a referendum to allow patients who had grown and were in possession of cannabis to be free of legal repercussions as long as its use was backed by a physician.

And, of course, in 2012 Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use. Since then, marijuana has also been legalized in Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, while its use for medical purposes has been legalized in numerous other states. Still, it remains fully illegal in at least 15 states.

The movement is growing, though, and the public appears to be following it. A recent poll from the General Social Survey by NORC at the University of Chicago found that 61% of Americans supported marijuana legalization in 2018, up from 57% in 2016 and 31% in 2000.
Gallup just found the level even higher, at 66% in 2018.

More states are expected to join the 29 that have made marijuana legal for medical or recreational purposes, or both. So in a sense, America is heading back to its historic roots when it comes to the cannabis plant.

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.


  1. Good article. I live in San Francisco, where they recently opened a marijuana dispensary in a shopping mall a few blocks from me.. The stuff from the dispensaries is much better than you can find on the street. If you go to the right dispensary, you can find good deals on it. It helps me enormously with my insomnia.

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