Marijuana has long been valued for both its medicinal and mystical properties- until the US government prohibited its use in the 20th century. So, when did cannabis become illegal... and why? It wasn’t because the substance was assessed and considered harmful to users. Nor did any scientific authority research the therapeutic efficacy to determine its worth. No, there are far more sinister reasons behind the “war on drugs” and it has more to do with the “Who” than the “Why”.
CONDEMNATION THROUGH ASSOCIATION
The first anti-marijuana legislation dates back to the 1910s, following the Mexican Revolution. Mexican immigrants and refugees poured across the border, introducing their recreational use of marijuana to American culture. Smoking weed became associated with American prejudice and fear of immigrants. The scope of this intolerance spread over time to include any Spanish-speaking individual. Anti-drug campaigners attributed terrible crimes to Mexicans. Law enforcement officers in Texas aggravated the situation by claiming that marijuana incited violent crimes, sparked a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength’. They circulated rumors to make the public believe that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to innocent American school children. The criminalization of marijuana resulted in distrust and even fear of Mexican immigrants-and Hispanics in general for that matter.
MARIJUANA MEETS POLITICS
The situation further deteriorated in the 1960s, when marijuana became the symbol of the hippy generation. President Nixon was the first to declare a “war on drugs”. He began by stepping up the size of federal drug control in response to civil unrest and protest movements that were spreading nationwide. Anti-marijuana laws became a convenient means for controlling the troublesome segments of the population: Hippies, African American and anti-war protesters.
They couldn’t arrest people for protesting or for being Black, so they arrested them for smoking marijuana. Rebellion and political dissent were greeted by widespread arrests, no-knock warrants, and outrageously disproportionate sentencing.
John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon aide, later revealed in an interview:
“You want to know what this was really all about? The
Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies:
the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we
couldn’t make it illegal to be black or against the war, but by getting the
public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then
criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest
their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night
after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of
course we did.”
In 1971, Nixon moved marijuana to Schedule One level, the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer. The commission recommended that federal and state governments
decriminalize the personal use of marijuana, but continue to declare it an illegal substance.
“We feel that placed in proper perspective with other social problems, citizens should not be criminalized or jailed merely for private possession or use,” Shafer said. Nixon rejected the proposal, saying he would not follow any recommendation to legalize marijuana. Research has shown alcohol to be far more dangerous than marijuana. It also showed that cannabis has never caused ‘superhuman strength’ or violent behavior, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s fact sheet on the drug admits that “No death from an overdose of marijuana has been reported.” Despite the evidence, 29 states still outlawed marijuana between 1916 and 1931. The measures generated a demonization of cannabis. Through the 1960s, Federal and state laws created starker punishments for possession of marijuana, clinging to a policy that draws its origins from racism and injustice. The propositions to decriminalize marijuana were rejected and America’s apprehensions regarding teenage marijuana use grew. Drug abuse was viewed as the nation’s “number one problem”, as the repressive policies pursued with increased arrests and incarceration.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency brought on an unparalleled expansion of the drug war and an explosion in the rate of incarceration. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses went from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. During his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton advocated for treating drug abusers instead of jailing them. Once in the White House, he expanded the drug war instead. One month before leaving office, President Clinton announced in a Rolling Stone interview that “we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment of people who use drugs” and said that “marijuana use should be decriminalized.”
When George W. Bush landed in the White House, the drug war was running out of steam. This didn’t prevent him from allocating more funds than ever to enforcing drug laws. His focus on marijuana engendered a major operation promoting student drug testing. President Bush also initiated domestic law enforcement by military forces. By the end of his term, 40,000 paramilitary-style units made SWAT raids on Americans each year. They arrested 700,000 marijuana and other nonviolent drug law offenders.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE
During his administration, President Obama made a few successful policy changes. They included minimizing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, closing the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, and ending federal interference with state medical marijuana laws. He failed, however, to swing the major drug funding to a health-based approach.
Along with other racist policies, the Trump administration moved to introduce harsher sentences on drug law violations. They even advocate the death penalty for people who sell drugs. President Trump claims that building a wall will keep drugs out of the country and accuses Mexican immigrants of being the source of the problem.
Meanwhile, public support for legalizing marijuana has pursued a steady upward trend since 2000 They reached a majority approval in 2013. And, for the first time in 2017, Democrats and liberals weren’t the only defenders; a slim majority of Republicans also support legalizing marijuana.
Despite these shifts in public opinion and state legislation, the government continues to prohibit cannabis on a national level. However, Recreational marijuana use has immense support in the U.S. Currently, 11 states have made recreational cannabis legal. They are as follows: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont... and the District of Columbia.
MARIJUANA LEGISLATION IN MONTANA
In Montana, activists successfully collected the required signatures to submit its recreational use proposal on the November 2020 ballot. Whereas the proposal required just 25,000 valid signatures, activists submitted 52,000 raw signatures. The state had a second proposal for a constitutional amendment that specifies only individuals 21 years and older may use marijuana. Activists submitted 80,000 raw signatures for that proposal. Polls show that 54% of Montanans support legalization, while 37% are opposed.
Although some other states had recreational cannabis proposals for 2020, the coronavirus pandemic made signature gatherings difficult. As a result, these states had to suspend their campaigns. If voters approve the proposals, Americans could see a few more states added to the recreational cannabis list in 2020. Meanwhile, marijuana is still illegal federally under the Controlled Substances Act.
The disparity between State and Federal governments has caused tension. To resolve it, congress needs to address two crucial points.
First: On a realistic level, cannabis prevention is not enforceable; the black market is just too huge to contain.
Second: States with tighter controls and/or higher taxes will be swamped with products moving from states with fewer restrictions and lower taxes, because cannabis is easy to traffic. For those
reasons a state-by-state solution is impractical.
The question is not whether to decriminalize, but how.
Illegal sales of cannabis are nearing $50 billion per year. However, unsettling for Congress, the only solution is to legalize the sale of cannabis-at least for the states where it has already been legalized.
Today, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, in addition to the 11 that permit it for recreational use.
It looks likely that Federal legalization—or rather, re-legalization—may well be in America’s future.