The History of Cannabis in the U.S.

The History of Cannabis in the U.S.Cannabis has been in recorded history for 10,000+ years. Many people believe that we have evolved with this plant for hundreds of thousands of years and that is why it works so beautifully with our own Endocannabinoid system. Cannabis grows wild all over the world. It is found in ancient pharmacopeias dating back to 2900 B.C (the Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi listed cannabis in his pharmacopoeia) and moving around the world and through the ages until the present time.1

In North America cannabis was brought by the Jamestown settlers in 1611 in the form of hemp. While in the same genus of plants, hemp has much lower THC (the compound that produces psychoactive effects) and is used for the strong fibers in the stems for everything from rope to paper to cloth. Hemp fibers are anti-fungal and anti-microbial so they were very useful in the shipping industry. It was so important while the American colonies were being established that in1619 Virginia passed a law that it had to be grown on every farm. At the time the crop was also considered to be a proper form of currency. By the end of the Civil War hemp had fallen out of favor due to the increase in cotton production but a new form of the plant was on the rise in popularity.2

Varieties of cannabis (that are now commonly call marijuana) that have higher THC and are used primarily for their leaves and flowers (hemp plants used for industrial uses tend to have smaller leaves and flowers and more woody stems) became mainstream medicine in the west in 1840. Jacques-Joseph Moreau [a French psychiatrist] found that marijuana suppressed headaches, increased appetites, and aided sleep. By 1850 cannabis had been added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia [an official public standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the counter medicines]. Physicians prescribed cannabis preparations that were made by pharmaceutical companies still in business today and that were available in all pharmacies.3

Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics

In 1930 the U.S. government’s war on marijuana was started by Harry Anslinger when he was appointed commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics. There has been a long-standing conspiracy theory around the actions of Anslinger including William Randolph Hearst, the DuPont family and Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the nation’s richest man, who had significant investments in DuPont. You can find a nice synopsis of this theory HERE. Suffice it to say that this theory has been debunked by many researchers, but you never know (you can find another good article about the debunking HERE). We really don’t need a conspiracy theory to make this story any crazier. Harry Anslinger, Richard Nixon and a cast of legislative and judicial characters make this a page turner all by themselves.

To understand how Anslinger managed to create a hold on the country’s laws around cannabis, we have to go back a little bit in time. In the early 1900’s the Mexican Revolution was wreaking havoc in Mexico. Mexican refugees began flooding across the boarder to escape the war and they brought with them the “marihuana” plant (the Spanish spelling). Unlike the primarily medicinal use of cannabis by Americans, the Mexican immigrants used the plant for recreational use. There was increasingly racial distrust of the Mexican by white Americans. In some instances it might have been because of the loss of income and jobs as America moved into the Great Depression. It’s also fair to say that Americans were not the most racially tolerant of people. Eugenics was also becoming increasingly popular during this time so racism and elitism were wide-spread and any minority (including women) were fair game for attack. When black jazz musicians began using marijuana recreationally this added another racial log to the fire. Controlling, marginalizing, imprisoning and deporting immigrant populations through drug laws wasn’t the brain child of Harry Anslinger, however. San Fransisco started the trend by making opiates illegal to control the Chinese immigrant population years earlier. And it was still just as effective.

When Anslinger was appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he began his campaign against marijuana to classify it with heroin and cocaine which were already illegal and classified as addictive with no medical usage. Surprisingly he had help from the Mexican government. Mexico had started a campaign against the “evil weed” marihuana years before and that information had spread to American newspapers. Ansliger seems to have just taken a play from their book and intensified it.

During hearings before Congress in the 1930s, Anslinger portrayed marijuana as a drug that would cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women. He claimed that addicts persuaded others to become addicts (each addict made seven others in their career) so they were “infectious” in the community. There is also the famous letter he got from the city editor of the Alamosa Daily Courier in Colorado that he read before Congress. “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who [sic] are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.” 4 

During the hearings before Congress, the American Medical Association opposed the proposed Marijuana Tax Act. Their legal council was the last witness to be heard by the Committee on Ways and Means. “There is nothing in the medicinal use of Cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. I use the word ‘Cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana’ because Cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products. The term ‘marihuana’ is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of Cannabis preparations for smoking… To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis.”5 This was the beginning of a very long battle of medical doctors and researchers to make cannabis legally available for research and medical use.

On August 2, 1937, the National Tax Act was enacted against “marihuana.” Under this law it was required of anyone growing, distributing or in any way trying to acquire marijuana to purchase a tax stamp. Anyone purchasing a stamp would also have to give all of their personal information such as name, address, place of business, place for growing marijuana, etc. to the local district collector. Between 1911 to 1936, all 48 states also enacted prohibition laws against marijuana. In many states these laws were passed not due to any widespread use or concern about cannabis, but as regulatory initiatives to discourage future use.” In 1942, cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia.

For the next 30 years Anslinger would continue to pursue harsh laws and penalties against drug convictions (including marijuana, heroin and cocaine) both in the U.S. and abroad. In 1951, the Boggs Act was passed with strict minimum sentencing for first time offenders of simple possession after Anslinger went after state judges claiming that there was a drug problem because of lenient sentencing. Severe minimum sentences were put in place with 2, 5 and 10 year sentences for repeat offenders with no possibility of probation or parole. The Narcotics Bureau pressured states during the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s to enact Uniform State Laws with extremely severe punishments. Anslinger was also very involved in international laws working closely with the League of Nations and then the United Nations, even after his retirement from the Narcotics Bureau.6

The Two Faces of the U.S. Government Regarding Cannabis

From 1934 to the present day there has been significant debate and contradictions within U.S. government agencies, State Governments, the Medical community and opposition groups. In 1994 the LaGuardia Report (a 6 year study by the New York Academy of Medicine at the request of New York City Mayer Fiorello LaGuardia) announced that its findings showed that many claims about marijuana were exaggerated or untrue. This didn’t stop the government from passing the Boggs Act to increase federal sentences and fines for marijuana possession in 1951. In 1956, under the new Narcotics Control Act even stricter penalties for marijuana possession were voted in.

Just because cannabis was not available for research in the U.S. does not mean that the medical community lost interest in this plant. Research was just diverted to other countries – primarily Israel and Mexico. In 1964, TCH, the component in cannabis that produces psychoactive effects, was first identified and synthesized by Raphael Mechoulam in Jerusalem. He soon after discovered cannabidiol, the main non-psychoactive component of the plant with many medicinal qualities.7 He continues his research to this day and Israel has one of the largest medical cannabis studies and dispensary systems in the world.

In what would become its first of many contradictions to its stance that cannabis has no medical uses, in 1968 the U.S. government contracted with the University of Mississippi to become its official grower of marijuana. Even though the contract continues to be put out to bid every 3 – 5 years, the University of Mississippi had remained the sole grower and supplier of medical cannabis. The program is currently controlled by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Federally funded researchers are only allowed to receive cannabis through this program.8 Considering how few research projects are approved and how many hoops researchers have to jump through to get a supply, one might think that this program was put into place to impede research on cannabis.

Timothy Leary’s Run in with the Marijuana Tax Act

In what seems like a cosmic joke, the arrest that Timothy Leary (Harvard psychologist turned LSD guru) is most known for his arrest under the Marijuana Tax Act in 1965. Leary, his son, daughter and two friends were stopped at the Mexico/Texas border by a U.S. customs officer who discovered marijuana in the car and in his daughter’s possession. During his trial he testified that he had purchased the marijuana in New York and driven it to Texas then Mexico and back into the US again. Under the Marijuana Tax Act he was required to pay an occupational tax and give his name and place of business to the IRS. Leary contended that the Marijuana Tax Act denied him due process of law by compelling the petitioner to expose himself to a “real and appreciable” risk of self-incrimination under the state laws in effect at that time.9 He was convicted and received the maximum punishment. He also lost the appeal in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. His case eventually went to the Supreme Court and in 1969 the Marijuana Tax Act was struck down as unconstitutional.

This did not slow down the U.S. government much. In 1968, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs were combined to create the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In 1970, Congress repealed the Tax Act and replaced it with the more comprehensive Controlled Substances Act of 1970. In 1971, marijuana was placed on Schedule I of the of the Controlled Substance Act which only includes drugs that have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.

In 1971, Richard Nixon declared his “War on Drugs.” In 1972, President Nixon convened The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (what became known as the Shafer Commission) to engineer scientific support for cannabis’s Schedule I placement. The Shafer Commission found that marijuana was as safe as alcohol and recommended decriminalizing marijuana. Despite this, Nixon worked through Attorney General John Mitchell (the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous drugs had recently been removed from the Treasury Department and merged into the U.S. Department of Justice) to permanently place marijuana on the Schedule I list. John Mitchell resigned later that year to head Nixon’s reelection Committee (in 1974 Mitchell stood trial over the Watergate scandal and served 19 months of a prison sentence before being released for medical reasons). In 1994, John Ehrlichman (Nixon’s domestic policy advisor) admitted to a journalist for Harper’s Bazaar “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 either against the war or blacks, 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.”10

Medicine or Addictive Gateway Drug?

In 1974, in another bizarre twist, NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) was formed under the NIH and almost immediately funded the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Research Project to grow 1.5 – 6 acres of marijuana for research. Since marijuana is illegal under Federal law, medical researchers can only obtain marijuana from this crop. In 1978, Robert Randall became the first person to receive a regular supply of marijuana joints from the federally sponsored crop under the Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) Program. The program wasn’t closed until 1992 but patients in the program that are still alive continue to receive their monthly supply of joints to this day.

Since 1972, special interest groups and medical groups have repeatedly petitioned the DEA to have marijuana reclassified or decriminalized. The DEA has consistently either ignored the petitions or denied them despite growing evidence of medicinal uses of marijuana. Appeals to district courts have also been consistently denied. This, however, did not stop the U.S. government from selling a patent to Unimed for Marinol (a synthetic version of a cannabinoid for the treatment of nausea in 1965 which was approved by the FDA. It also didn’t stop the U.S. government from taking out a patent in 2003 on cannabinoids (Patent No. 6,630,507).

Meanwhile, the evidence for the many medicinal uses of the cannabis plant (both marijuana plants with high THC levels and “Industrial hemp” plants with low THC and high CBD content) has been steadily growing both by researchers in the U.S and abroad. In the early 1940s, researcher Robert Adams was the first to extract both cannabinoids THC and CBD but he didn’t understand the mechanisms of how they worked. In 1963 Raphael Mechoulam began his research on cannabis and has since discovered the mechanisms by which THC, CBD and other cannabinoids work. In 1990, the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor was discovered in Brussels and in 1993 the cannabinoid 2 (CB2) receptor was discovered in Cambridge. These receptors are found in cells all over the body. In 1992, Mechoulam’s lab isolated the first endocannabinoid (cannabinoids produced by the body). Soon hundreds more would be isolated. The endocannabinoid system regulates balance, or homeostasis in the body. They help regulate, modulate and heal different systems in the body as needed. Since their discovery, endocannabinoids have been found to play a role in appetite and digestion metabolism, chronic pain, inflammation and other immune system responses, mood, learning and memory, motor control, sleep, cardiovascular system function, muscle formation, bone remodeling and growth, liver function, reproductive system function, stress, and skin and nerve function.11 How the compounds in cannabis work with the cannabinoid receptors is still unclear but researchers believe that THC binds directly the CBD1 and CBD2 receptors and other cannabinoids, such as CBD, influence the receptors in some way. CBD is also know to modulate the 5th serotonin receptor, which can treat psychotic disorders. It can also affect the TRPV1 receptor, which is responsible for pain and inflammation. Now if we could just get all of these compounds in the U.S.

  1. https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/historical-timeline/
  2. https://www.history.com/news/marijuana-criminalization-reefer-madness-history-flashback
  3. https://www.uclahealth.org/cannabis/history-of-cannabis
  4. https://time.com/5572691/420-marijuana-mexican-immigration/
  5. https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/historical-timeline/
  6. https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anslinger-harry-jacob-and-us-drug-policy
  7. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mvxde4/raphael-mechulam-father-cannabis-discover-thc
  8. https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/07/feds-keep-weed-monopoly-grow-record-2-ton-cannabis-crop-for-research/
  9. https://aclu.procon.org/background-resources/leary-v-united-states/
  10. https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/
  11. https://www.healthline.com/health/endocannabinoid-system#functions

Back to the Top