How Marijuana Became Illegal in the U.S.

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Whenever the topic of marijuana comes up in almost all parts of the world, what follows is a heated debate on its legal status. To some people, it is just a herb to which they have attached some religious belief while to others; the topic invokes a mixed feeling as they consider it an enigma. For marijuana to capture the attention of legislators, it succinctly proves that it is not just a normal plant. There is more than meets the eye. It is therefore imperative for one to examine thoroughly and elaborately the history behind the legal status accorded to marijuana depending on the circumstances of each case (Wihbey, 2013). For one to decipher this phenomenon, one needs to approach the topic with a rational mind. Surprisingly, the speed with which the waves of legalization seem to be sweeping the American masses is nostalgically the same speed which aligned the nation towards criminalization of the drug.

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The legal status of marijuana has always been attributed to the controversial nature of the drug which on the one hand threatens its existence while on the flip side it guarantees with certainty its indispensable nature. The negative effects of the drug have only been attributed to its abuse (Wihbey, 2013). Therefore, without the aspect of abuse, any legislative body automatically lacks the mandate to interfere. However, should it happen that the drug is abused, any government will most definitely step in to protect its citizens from the impending harm. Whether the drugs illegalization solely stems from its abuse is a question for another day. This paper seeks to establish the unjustifiable events which culminated to the ban of marijuana in America. Further, the paper will interrogate the special reasons which were advanced to justify the move and why the tides seem to be changing in favor of marijuana.

Events Leading to Criminalization of Marijuana

Initially, marijuana had a nationwide acceptance owing to its medicinal value. This was largely associated with Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy’s research published in 1830 on the drug. Marijuana was already in the American soil long before the Mexican Revolution in 1910 thus its presence in America could not be entirely associated with the immigrants. Travelling back in the lanes of history, one can establish that is had attained a nationwide recognition before the arrival of the immigrants. The 1862 Vanity Affair Issue’s advertisement of Hashish Candy applauded the drug for its medicinal value (Siff, 2014). Hashish was the most popular form of marijuana in America during those days. The blame on the immigrants was fuelled and catapulted by another motive.

While it is evident that the drug had already penetrated the United States’ soil before the Mexican Revolution, the immigrants’ form of using the drug is what caused the uproar. As per their culture and traditions, they smoked the marijuana leaves in cigarettes or pipes, something that the Americans had never seen before. To the Americans, this was a culture shock. It was a culture shock which conveniently coupled with anti-Mexican xenophobia to call for the illegalization of the drug. As per Schlosser (2004), the prejudices visited on the immigrants overflowed to their traditional intoxication.

Following the unfounded prejudices about the “new drug”, the police ruthlessly proclaimed the most outrageous and unjustified effects of the drug. According to them, it made its user’s blood thirsty, violent and superhuman (Little, 2017). In their view, there was a mysterious force in the new drug. To make sure they captured not only the attention of the legislating body but also outraged the public, the police accused the immigrants of supplying the dangerously mysterious drug to the unsuspecting American children. With such a bold accusation, the government did not blink and forthwith stepped in to protect its vulnerable citizens.

To ensure its citizens were safeguarded properly, the government allowed the hullaballoo on marijuana to inform its decision. Indeed it enacted the first legislation which shyly intimated marijuana’s illegality in 1906. The legislation christened Pure Food and Drug Act was the federal government’s ever first attempt to bring marijuana under the ambit of illegal substances. Ironically, it became a statutory obligation for pharmaceutical companies to list cannabis on the label of their drugs in the instance any had been utilized to manufacture the drug. This was the government’s way of assuaging the public fear.

By 1925, 26 states had criminalized the plant. The once easy to find drug became a rare commodity and backed by the federal government’s legislation prohibiting the drug, most state governments felt confident enough to take this measure. It is important to note that most of these marijuana prohibiting laws were devoid of not only public participation but also legislative debate thus making their existence a controversial thing (Siff, 2014). The media was also an important tool which the anti-narcotic campaigners used to spread their propaganda and politics on marijuana. Noteworthy, they only concentrated on the negative effects of abuse and decided to cast a shadow over the medical utility of the drug. It was depicted as a “personal murder” weapon which threatened the values the nation held dear. The penalty for possession and trafficking the drug kept rising during the years of its condemnation.

The New Wave

While a majority of the states were confident to follow in the footsteps of the federal government in the twentieth century, things seem conspicuously different today (Siff, 2014). The once loud public outcry calling for the criminalization of marijuana is silent. The silent is not loud, for behind the silence one cannot help but hear whispers calling for the legalization of the once monstrous drug. One cannot help but marvel at the current surge and desire for legalization.

Although the calls for criminalization were almost abrupt unjustified outbursts, the new wave for legalization has been progressive and empirical. In 1960, there was a subtle change of opinion on the smokers after it was discovered college students used marijuana to pass the time. Also, to them, the drug was a way of becoming defiant. It emerged that rather than the naïve claim advanced by the police in the 1880s, the smokers were now fully aware of the activity and its legal implications.

By 1965, the drug menace was nearly the only heading in most of the newspapers front pages. Ironically, neither the press nor the police had any impetus to put the young generation for an offence they had come to perceive as trivial in its very nature. According to research, by 1967, the number of arrests had multiplied by tenfold. However, in the following years, nobody cared anymore about the drug. Some of its strongest antagonists began to question the basis behind its criminalization.

With such an unexpected twist of events, it is not surprising that most states are now finding their paths when it comes to marijuana. Most have been bold enough to partially legalize its use either premised on its medicinal value or some other ridiculous basis. It is not certain whether the federal government will change its stand about marijuana, but given the current state-law conundrum, the federal government might as well allow its hand to be twisted. A full legalized status for marijuana seems a possible possibility for America.

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How Marijuana Became Illegal in The U.S.. (2022, Sep 29). Retrieved December 10, 2022 , from

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