Why Was Cannabis Made Illegal?

A comprehensive history of cannabis prohibition and the failed War on Drugs.

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The History of Cannabis Prohibition

Cannabis has been used for centuries for medicinal and recreational purposes. So why was it made illegal? Let’s take a look at the history of cannabis prohibition.

The early history of cannabis in America

Cannabis was introduced to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese settlers in the early 1600s. The plant was initially used for hemp fiber, but it wasn’t long before people began smoking it for recreational and medicinal purposes.

In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a law requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Cannabis was an important crop in America until the early 1900s, when it began to be replaced by other plants such as cotton.

Around this time, attitudes towards cannabis started to change. Some people began to see it as a dangerous drug, while others argued that it should be legalized. This debate continues today.

In 1937, the US government passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which placed strict regulations on the cultivation and sale of cannabis. This made it very difficult for farmers to grow hemp or sell marijuana.

The Marijuana Tax Act was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 1969, but by this time cannabis had already been illegal in most states for over 30 years. In 1970, the US government passed the Controlled Substances Act, which placed cannabis in the same category as drugs like heroin and LSD. This made it illegal to possess or sell cannabis across the country.

Today, there is growing support for legalizing cannabis again. Many states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and some have even legalized its use for medicinal purposes. But as long as cannabis remains illegal under federal law, its future in America remains uncertain.

The rise of cannabis prohibition

Cannabis prohibition began in the early 1900s in the United States. At the time, there was a growing fear of immigrants, particularly those from Mexico. Cannabis was seen as a drug used by these immigrants, and so it became associated with criminality. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established, and cannabis was categorized as a dangerous drug. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act made cannabis illegal to grow or sell. This law was not effectively enforced, however, and cannabis continued to be widely used.

In the 1960s, cannabis use began to increase among young people in the United States. This led to a renewed effort to enforce the existing laws against it. In 1971, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” and increased funding for law enforcement. In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created. Cannabis prohibition intensified in the 1980s under President Reagan’s administration. The government conducted extensive anti-drug campaigns and increased punishments for possession and use of cannabis.

Despite these efforts, cannabis use has continued to grow in recent years. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational use of cannabis. Since then, several other states have followed suit. The federal government has not changed its position on cannabis, however, and it remains illegal under federal law.

The Myths of Cannabis Prohibition

Every day, more and more states are taking steps to decriminalize or legalize cannabis. However, there are still many people who don’t understand why cannabis was made illegal in the first place. Let’s take a look at the myths of cannabis prohibition.

Cannabis is a gateway drug

The gateway drug theory posits that the use of less harmful drugs can lead to the use of more harmful drugs. The theory has been used to support policies like cannabis prohibition, which is based on the idea that prohibiting cannabis will prevent people from trying harder drugs.

However, there is no evidence that cannabis leads to the use of harder drugs. In fact, research suggests that cannabis may actually help people reduce their use of harder drugs. A study published in The Lancet found that among people who use both cannabis and hard drugs, those who consume cannabis first are less likely to progress to hard drug use than those who start with hard drugs.

It’s also worth noting that many of the most harmful drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, are legal, while some of the safest drugs, such as cannabis, are not. If the gateway theory were true, we would expect to see more young people using hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. But according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, rates of hard drug use among young people have declined since 2002.

The gateway theory is simply not supported by the evidence.

Cannabis is harmful to your health

For decades, cannabis was demonized by government propaganda and associated with all sorts of negative health effects, including insanity, violence and gateway drug use. However, as more states have legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational use, it has become increasingly clear that these claims were unfounded. In fact, numerous studies have shown that cannabis can actually provide a number of health benefits.

Cannabis is addictive

Cannabis is not physically addictive like alcohol, cigarettes, and many prescription drugs. In fact, it’s almost impossible to overdose on cannabis. The body does not build up a tolerance to cannabis like it does with other drugs, so you don’t need to take more and more to get the same effect.

The Real Reasons Cannabis Was Made Illegal

In the early 1900s, the U.S. federal government began a propaganda campaign against cannabis. They claimed that marijuana was a dangerous drug that would lead to violence and crime. This campaign was successful in making people afraid of cannabis. As a result, cannabis was made illegal in the United States in 1937.


Cannabis was made illegal in the United States in 1937 with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act. There are many theories as to why cannabis was made illegal, but one of the most prevalent is racism.

The anti-cannabis movement in the early 1900s was led by racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan who spread false information about cannabis in order to justify their own agendas. In reality, cannabis is a safe and non-addictive substance that has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that attitudes started to change, and today, majority of Americans believe that cannabis should be legal. Unfortunately, racism and discrimination continue to play a role in cannabis prohibition, as people of color are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for possession of marijuana.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of cannabis prohibition, check out this excellent article from Leafly.

The war on drugs

In the early 20th century, the United States saw a surge in immigration from countries where cannabis was widely used. This led to increased public concern about its potential effects, and by 1937, Congress had passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which placed strict regulations on its cultivation and sale.

One of the most significant supporters of this legislation was Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was a staunch opponent of cannabis, and he led a widespread campaign to demonize it and discourage its use.

Business interests

The first states to outlaw cannabis were Massachusetts and Maine in 1911, followed by New York in 1914. By the 1930s, 29 states had banned it. It’s important to understand that these early bans were not based on any scientific evidence about the plant’s risks or harms.

So why was cannabis made illegal? The answer has everything to do with race, politics, and business interests.

In the early 1900s, Mexicans were migrating to the southwestern United States in search of work. They brought with them a tradition of smoking cannabis, which they used for recreational and medicinal purposes. White Americans became alarmed by this “foreign” practice and began spreading false rumors that Mexicans were using cannabis to make white women sexually aroused (this was during the time of the Jim Crow laws, when white supremacy was rampant).

At the same time, there was a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. In 1929, the Great Depression began, and many Americans began looking for someone to blame. Mexicans became an easy target, and cannabis was seen as yet another “dangerous foreign influence” that was corrupting America.

Finally, large corporations saw an opportunity to make money by demonizing cannabis and lobbying for its prohibition. The most notorious example is William Randolph Hearst, who owned a newspaper empire. Hearst had extensive business interests in timber (for making paper) and petroleum (for making plastics). He knew that hemp could be used to make paper and plastic products more cheaply than his own products, so he used his newspapers to spread lies about cannabis, calling it a “dangerous drug” that would lead users to insanity and crime. Thanks to Hearst’s propaganda campaign, public opinion turned against cannabis, and it became illegal in most states by the end of the 1930s.

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