A Brief History of Cannabis in the US

Nowadays it seems every state in the US is looking to decriminalize marijuana use, whether recreational or medicinal. We’ve come a long way since the 70’s when all marijuana was demonized, and the drug was prohibited as if it was the most dangerous substance out there.

A lot has been said about the war on drugs but today most critics agree that it was a failure and that it unfairly targeted racial minorities and created way more harm than good. That’s especially true when it came to crimes related to marijuana, which seem to be disproportionately prosecuted and often end in outrageous sentences when they involve black and Latino kids. Now the US is ready to move forward, and it’s a good time to review the history that got us here

A Rocky Beginning

Cannabis was first introduced in America in the 17th century. It wasn’t in the form of a joint, though. Back then, it was hemp that was passed around the Jamestown colonies and quickly became one of the most important textile products in the country. It wasn’t until two centuries later that the use of marijuana as a drug was discovered in the US, and even then, it was supposed to be medicinal use. In the beginning, it was used in a fairly natural form, but proponents soon started adding components, experimenting and mixing it with narcotics, which predictably lead to people using it recreationally, and, of course, the government took notice. By 1906, the first law to regulate marijuana use was passed. In fact, it was then that the misconception of the “gateway drug” started, though it wouldn’t be called that way till a few years later. The initial laws were more like economic measures. They didn’t exactly prohibit selling, buying, or using marijuana, but rather tax the drug while still allowing herb to be used in textile production. But as panic grew and people became more and more fearful of addiction, the government started regulating more and more until finally by 1952 there were several laws prohibiting sale and trafficking, and establishing penalties for consumption in the entire country.

The Merry Pranksters of the 60’s

No government could have foreseen what the 60’s would bring along in terms of recreational drug use. By 1938, Albert Hoffman had invented LSD but it wouldn’t be popularized until the 60’s when it was used recreational at parties by the hippies and the beatnik and a wildly experimental psychological/spiritual movement. Collectives like the Merry Prankster filled with musicians, writers, and artists would often host “Acid Tests”, parties where they would distribute psychedelics and marijuana to guests. These parties often featured Grateful Dead members, and influential people of the time. These guys are often considered responsible for making drugs widely accessible to the entire country, which of course worried the government who responded with the Drug Enforcement Act of 1970 effectively outlawing all drug use and criminalizing LSD, marijuana, heroin, cocaine and others. Not even medicinal research was allowed for most of them, which sadly lead to a decades-long hiatus in the research the medical community was already doing. It wasn’t until the 90’s when the scientific community managed to make the case for medicinal research. And it would still take years before the general public could reap the benefits. By the 00’s legalization started to really make the waves that have had a ripple effect all over the world.