Updated on December 20, 2018. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
The first marijuana possession law enacted in the North American continent was written during the colonization of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The law actually stated that citizens were required to grow cannabis on their land, and could be fined if they didn’t. This was because hemp was invaluable to the first American settlers. They used hemp to create rope, clothes, paper, and other essential items.
The legal condition of cannabis has an interesting history in the United States. In the 1900’s there was a significant increase in the number of Mexicans that immigrated into the United States. The friction between Mexicans and Americans also increased when the Mexican revolution started to flow over and affect the bordering states. One of the main societal differences between Mexicans and Americans was that many Mexicans smoked marihuana. Legislators took advantage of this and decided to outlaw marijuana possession This effectively gave them legal backing to deport Mexicans back to their homeland. Nevertheless, the racism that fueled the anti-Mexican mentality is no different than what is seen in the United States today.
On the east coast of the United States the situation was similar. Racism against African-Americans and Latin Americans was shrouded under the speculation of being ethnic groups that smoked marijuana. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created under the Treasury Department, and Harry J. Anslinger was appointed as the director. He had planned to capitalize on his newly appointed government position by using racism and violence to create an imaginary problem, also known as “reefer madness”. One of his infamous comments stated, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Anslinger also reported that marijuana made its users violent, one time stating that if “you smoke a joint then you’re likely to kill your brother.” Anslinger’s appointment as the director of the Bureau of Narcotics set the stage for the legal war on marijuana possession in the United States.
Marijuana was an influential force in jazz music industry around the same time, and the vigilant director of the federal organization sought to target jazz entertainers, Latin and African-Americans by focusing on marijuana. Anslinger realized that focusing solely on cocaine and opiates would not help the bureau or aggrandize his position. By making the possession of marijuana a federal crime he made the first major step towards squashing the future of the marijuana and hemp industry, but he didn’t do it single handedly.
Henry Anslinger enlisted the help of William Randolph Hearst to help turn the public against marijuana. Hearst was the owner of numerous newspaper and publishing companies, and his ability to control the media was vast. Hearst was also involved with the timber industry, which is where a lot of his animosity towards Mexicans developed. During the Mexican revolution, Hearst had lost approximately 800,000 acres of timberland. Hearst also knew the potential influence that hemp could have on the paper industry, which could possibly greatly undermine his own business. As a result, Hearst and Anslinger use their ability to control the masses and the deep-seated racism that people had towards people that are different from them to propagate their own agendas. Hearst used “yellow journalism” to influence people, which was none other than publishing false outlandish claims in the newspaper.
One of his newspapers, The San Francisco Examiner, stated the following about marijuana: “By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….”
In addition, the Dupont pharmaceutical company also funded Hearst and Anslinger. They focused primarily on the manufacturing of nylon which they had patented. Making marijuana possession illegal would undermine the hemp industry, therefore removing a key competitor from their market.
Henry Anslinger started to collect articles written in Hearst’s newspapers and covertly started to build a case to federally ban marijuana. What finally ended up solidifying the collapse of the marijuana industry was the decision of Congress to pass the Marijuana Act of 1937, despite the fact that the the representative from the American Medical Association did not agree with the legislation. In addition to the Marijuana Act of 1937, several decades later, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed which categorized marijuana as a Schedule I drug. A Schedule I drug is defined as a “substance has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”