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Reefer Madness! The Twisted History of America’s Marijuana Laws

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A 1936 movie poster. (Getty Images)

Talk about a buzz kill!

On Thursday, just four days after recreational marijuana became legal to buy and sell in California, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions nudged federal prosecutors to aggressively enforce the federal law that strictly prohibits the drug.

In announcing the Justice Department's new stance on the issue, Sessions reversed an Obama-era policy directing federal prosecutors and authorities to generally deprioritize marijuana enforcement, particularly in states that had voted to legalize it for medical or recreational use.

Sessions previously served as an Alabama senator and a federal prosecutor at the height of the drug war. He insists that marijuana is "only slightly less awful" than heroin, blaming it for spikes in violent crime. In May, he ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against low-level drug offenders, overriding his predecessor's push for more lenient sentencing guidelines.


New threats of a federal crackdown have been staunchly criticized by liberals who say it will only further the steep human costs of the nation's largely ineffective drug war. Some conservatives also have opposed the action, considering it a states' rights issue. And while some in law enforcement support the tougher approach, a bipartisan group of senators in March even urged Sessions to uphold existing Obama-era marijuana policy of allowing states to implement their own recreational marijuana laws.

It's still unclear if this most recent change in federal enforcement policy will impact the rollout of California's newly relaxed weed laws.

Marijuana advocates argue that legalizing the drug will lower the number of racially skewed drug arrests. Contrary to Sessions' contention, they say it will also likely reduce violence by undercutting the black market and taking the trade away from criminal organizations. A regulated market, they argue, will also ensure that consumers are purchasing a safer, pure product.

Sessions and other opponents argue that legalization will lead to increased use of the drug, particularly among children and teens, resulting in an uptick in harder drug use and violent criminal behavior.

"Marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized," said Sessions. "It ought not to be minimized. It is, in fact, a very real danger."

Meanwhile, marijuana has long reigned supreme as the nation’s most popular illicit drug. And Americans seem to be increasingly open to legalizing it: In a recent Gallup Poll, 64 percent of respondents said they were for it, the highest (no pun intended) level of public support in the nearly half-century of polling on the issue.

California's legal shift, which went into effect on Jan. 1, was set in motion when voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, a full two decades after it became the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana.

For a place known for its trendsetting ways and love of all things green, California is actually a bit late to the rec room: It’s the sixth state to hop on board the legal weed train, trailing Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada and, yes, even the nation’s capital.

But as the nation’s most populous state, and biggest marijuana producer, California's legal shift is being considered a dramatic step toward mainstreaming what promises to be an incredibly lucrative industry.

Under the state's new rules, people who are 21 and older can legally purchase up to an ounce of weed and grow up to six plants per residence. Smoking in public, however, is still subject to fines (unless permitted by local jurisdiction).  

And because marijuana sales are now taxable, the shift promises to be a huge windfall for the state. 

Recreational marijuana sales are projected to bring in roughly $5 billion in annual sales, and about 35 percent will go to local and state taxes, according to a study commissioned by the state regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the, um, budding new market.

The federal government's most recent backlash against marijuana's latest resurgence is little surprise,  given America's long, racially fueled war against the drug.

What follows is a twisted history of a very contentious weed.

1600s to mid-1800s: Cannabis literally becomes part of the national fabric

In the early 1600s, the British government encouraged colonial farmers  to produce hemp, a form of cannabis with low levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC. The extremely hardy, fast-growing plant was primarily used for the production of rope, sails, clothing and paper, a fiber critical to the British and Spanish empires. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that flat-out required farmers to grow it. 

In the 19th century, as hemp production waned, more potent forms of cannabis were used as ingredients in many medicinal products and sold openly in pharmacies.

1900 - 1920s: "The Marijuana Menace"

Front page of the Ogden Standard (Utah) from Sept. 25, 1915. (flickr)

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a wave of Mexican immigrants poured into the southwestern U.S. and helped popularize the recreational use of the drug. Cannabis in Spanish was referred to as “marihuana” or "mariguana" ("marijuana" is the Anglicized bastardization).

As the drug grew more popular, it was negatively associated with Mexican immigrants. Anti-drug campaigners began to warn against the encroaching "Marijuana Menace," describing the terrible crimes attributed to the drug and the Mexicans who used it.

"It was only referred to as marijuana "because anti-cannabis factions wanted to underscore the drug's 'Mexican-ness,'  meant to play off of anti-immigrant sentiments," noted Matt Thompson from NPR's Code Switch blog. (It's also the reason why some cannabis advocates today consider "marijuana" a derogatory term.)

Rumors quickly spread of Mexicans distributing this "demon weed," or "locoweed," to unsuspecting American schoolchildren, wrote author Eric Schlosser in his 1994 Atlantic article "Reefer Madness."

In port cities along the Gulf Coast, the drug also became associated with West Indian immigrants, a connection broadly extended to African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes and lower-class whites.

" 'The Marijuana Menace,' as sketched by anti-drug campaigners, was personified by inferior races and social deviants," Schlosser added.

In 1913, California (of all places) passed the first state cannabis prohibition law. The effort was sponsored by the state Board of Pharmacy as part of a larger anti-narcotics campaign (even though there was at the time still little public concern about cannabis). Proposed by Henry Finger, a powerful member of the board, the law was intended to supposedly prevent the spread of the drug's use by “Hindoo” immigrants.

"Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica," wrote Finger in a 1911 letter (page 18). "They are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit."

1930s: Reefer Madness

A poster from a later release of the 1936 film. (Wikipedia)

Widespread unemployment and poverty during the Great Depression furthered resentment and fear of immigrants and minorities, and fueled concerns about the perceived ills of the drug that had become associated with them. A flurry of pseudo-research linked the use of the drug to violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviors.

Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, insisted that marijuana led to “insanity, criminality, and death." By 1931, 29 states had outlawed it. 

The debut of "Reefer Madness" in 1936, one in a series of anti-marijuana propaganda films released at the time,  helped fuel hysteria about the drug. Originally titled "Tell Your Children," the film centers on a series of hyperbolic events that ensue when innocent high school students are lured into trying marijuana — from a hit-and-run accident to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, hallucinations and a rapid descent into madness. 

Following a lurid national propaganda campaign against the "evil weed," Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the first time the drug was regulated and taxed by the government. The statute effectively criminalized marijuana, outlawing its possession and sale and restricting it to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses.

1960s-1970s: The counterculture and the crackdown

A woman smokes a joint at the 1970 "Honor America Day" peace rally in Washington, D.C. (David Fenton/Getty Images)

Widespread adoption of marijuana by both young hippies in the anti-war movement and the white middle class briefly resulted in more relaxed attitudes and enforcement. Reports commissioned by Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson found that marijuana use did not induce violence or lead to use of heavier drugs.

But that high didn't last long.

As part of President Richard Nixon's anti-drug efforts, Congress in 1970 passed the Controlled Substances Act. It created various legal categories, or schedules, for different types of drugs, depending on their perceived public threat. Cannabis was placed alongside heroin and LSD into Schedule 1, the most restrictive category, reserved for drugs deemed to have no medical benefit and the highest potential for abuse.

Including cannabis in this category was more a reflection of "Nixon’s animus toward the counterculture with which he associated marijuana than scientific, medical, or legal opinion," Scott C. Martin, a history professor at Bowling Green State University, wrote in Time magazine.  The Schedule I designation, he said, made it difficult even for physicians or scientists to procure marijuana for research studies.

In fact, the bipartisan Shafer Commission, an investigative committee appointed by Nixon to study drug abuse in America, went on to recommend that possession of small amounts of marijuana be decriminalized. In 1972, a year after Nixon declared his "war on drugs," the commission presented its findings to Congress in a report titled:"Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding".

It noted that most marijuana users were not dangerous at all, but rather more "timid, drowsy and passive." It concluded that cannabis did not pose any widespread danger to society, and recommended using social measures other than criminalization to discourage its use.

In response to the nation' increasingly restrictive drug laws, the commission stated:

"Unless present policy is redirected, we will perpetuate the same problems, tolerate the same social costs, and find ourselves as we do now, no further along the road to a more rational legal and social approach than we were in 1914."

Not surprisingly, Nixon vehemently rejected his commission's findings, forging ahead with his anti-drug agenda, and the following year Congress created the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a merger of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE).

The report, though, did significantly influence state governments. A movement spearheaded by the newly established National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) resulted in Oregon passing the first decriminalization statute in 1973. Over the next five years, 10 other states followed suit, from California to (astoundingly) Mississippi.

1986: Mandatory minimum drug sentencing

President Reagan in 1986 signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, instituting mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. The legislation had actually been championed by Democrats, who saw a political opportunity to outdo Republicans by "getting tough on drugs." The shift was in part a response to the nation's shock over the death of Celtics star draft pick Len Bias from a cocaine overdose.

The astronomical surge in America's state and federal prison population was due in large part to increasingly strict drug laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s. (Courtesy of the Sentencing Project)

The law increased federal penalties for the sale and possession of an array of drugs, including marijuana, with the penalties based on the amount of the drug involved. Under the law, possession of 100 marijuana plants received the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. A later amendment established a "three strikes and you're out" policy, requiring life sentences for repeat drug offenders.

In the wake of the law, drug-related arrests soared, spurring a massive increase in the state and federal prison populations.  At the time of the law's enactment in1986, there were roughly 400,000 inmates in America's prison system. By 2015, the population had nearly quadrupled, to a peak of almost 1.5 million, giving the U.S. the dubious distinction as the largest jailer in the world.

Marijuana arrests factored heavily in this increase, accounting for more than half of all drug arrests, mostly for possession. African-Americans were, and still continue to be, arrested at dramatically higher rates than whites, despite similar rates of usage, according to the ACLU.

1996: Dawn of the medical movement 

Card-carrying medical marijuana patients at Los Angeles' first-ever cannabis farmers'market. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images))

With the passage of Proposition 215 by a solid majority of voters, California bypassed federal law and became the first state to legalize the sale and medical use of cannabis for patients with AIDS, cancer and other serious and painful diseases. Twenty-eight other states and Washington, D.C. have since passed legislation authorizing medical use of the drug. 

Despite the legalization of marijuana medical use in 29 states, it still remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, making it difficult for researchers to study its medical effects, as explained in this Above the Noise video.

2012 to now: Recreation time!

Colorado voters in 2012 passed the nation's first recreational marijuana law, which went into effect in 2014. Amendment 64 (apparently a popular number), regulates and taxes marijuana and allows adults to possess up to an ounce of the drug. Since then, five other states have followed suit. 


Massachusetts will also be joining the party in July 2018. And Maine is likely to eventually hop on board, too: In 2016, Maine voters approved recreational marijuana sales, but the statute was initially vetoed by the state's Republican governor.

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