History of Cannabis Prohibition


The United States played a major role in cannabis prohibition globally. Ironically, the country whose Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper became cannabis' worst enemy during the 20s and, taking advantage of its international hegemony, determined the prohibition of the plant globally.



For most of human history, marijuana has been completely legal. Documented uses of cannabis date back to 7000 BC and the plant has been widely used for textile, medicinal, recreational and religious purposes.
There is evidence that suggests cannabis originated in the Himalayas, from where it spread to the rest of the world. America was no exception and the first marijuana law, which ordered all farmers to grow the plant, was enacted in Jamestown Colony (Virginia) in 1619. In the next 200 years many similar laws came into force.

At the turn of the XX century, the influx of Mexican immigrants into western states resulted in severe tensions. The Mexican revolution of 1910 was felt throughout the border states, with altercations between the armies of General Pershing and Pancho Villa. Later on, the use of Mexicans as cheap labour by major agribusinesses led to conflicts with smaller farms. The situation escalated with the advent of the Great Depression.

Mexican immigrants introduced the custom of smoking cannabis, which was eventually linked to improper and even criminal conduct. This appears to be one of the reasons why California instituted its first prohibition law by including marijuana in the Poison Act in 1913 and thus banning the "preparations of herb or loco-weed".

This prohibition rush was soon joined by other states such as Wyoming (1915), Texas (1919), Iowa ( 1923), Nevada (1923), Oregon (1923), Washington (1923), Arkansas (1923) and Nebraska (1927).

In the 20s cannabis and jazz travelled together from New Orleans to Chicago, and then to Harlem, where marijuana became an indispensable part of the music scene. Society started to link cannabis to a disorderly lifestyle and a well-defined profile – black, musician, criminal – and racism and fear joined forces against the plant, which became "a negro and Mexican thing" and was regarded as a dangerous drug that spurred users to commit heinous crimes, including killing another person without batting an eyelid.


During this time, the United States was also dealing with alcohol prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933. Alcohol prohibition was implemented through an amendment to the constitution and even if many states had already outlawed cannabis, the substance could not be banned on the federal level irrespective of the fact that the Harrison Act (1914) had provided federal tax penalties for opiates and cocaine.

At the time, outlawing drugs on the federal level was somewhat complicated, so the decision was made to use federal taxes to reduce cannabis use. Those who didn't follow the law found themselves in trouble with the Treasury Department. In 1930, a new division of this organism was established – the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – and Harry J. Anslinger was named director, marking the beginning of the all-out war against cannabis.

Anslinger was an extremely ambitious man, and he recognized the Bureau of Narcotics as an amazing career opportunity. He set himself the target of illegalising cannabis and run a sensationalist campaign stirring up fear and racism and linking cannabis to criminal conduct.

Harry J. Anslinger got the valuable help of William Randolf Hearst, the owner of a financial empire that included a huge chain of newspapers and who had compelling reasons to support the cannabis prohibition. Thus, he used his newspapers as a sounding board of yellow headlines, creating what we now know as "social alarm".

Hearst hated Mexicans for racist preconceptions but also because he had lost 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa. He had also made heavy inversions in the timber industry to produce paper for his newspapers, which had turned hemp paper into a really dangerous threat to his interests. Last, the lurid stories about Mexicans driven crazy by a devilish plant sold newspapers and brought benefits. Here is an example of the rhetoric he used to frighten the population and warn it of the alleged dangers of cannabis use:

"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."

Aslinger and Hearst were joined by the chemical company DuPont, various pharmaceutical companies and the tobacco industry, each with their own private economic interests.

DuPont had patented, amongst others, neoprene (1930), nylon (1935), teflon (1937) and lycra (1959), all of them derived mainly from oil. It is no wonder why the company had little interest in developing the potential of cannabis, particularly as a clean and renewable source of natural, resistant, long-lasting fibre, a serious competitor to DuPont's petrochemical, synthetic fibres.


All this set the stage for Ansliger to bring his bill before the co

ngress committee in a remarkably short set of hearings. The only fly in Anslinger's and his allies' ointment was the appearance of Dr. William C. Woodward, who claimed that the American Medical Association (AMA) opposed to the legislation and complained about the lack of evidence supporting Anslinger's theories.

Even if Woodward was the only dissenting voice in the Congress hearings that resulted in the adoption of the MARIHUANA TAX ACT, there was significant amount of research that refuted the theories of the FBN, particularly a study conducted in 1934 by Walter Bromberg that concluded cannabis was not the main cause of crime, in clear contrast with the views of the FBN. The study was particularly troublesome for the bureau for its remarkable efforts to directly link cannabis and violent crime.

Also worth mentioning is the fact the FBN never showed a scientific study of any kind during the Congress hearings, an instead resorted to sensationalistic articles and editorials mainly taken from Hearst's newspapers.

In 1944, a few years after the adoption of the law, the mayor of New York city conducted the "La Guardia" report, which empirically disproved all the views of the FBN. The committee that instituted the study consisted of: three psychiatrists, two pharmacists, one public health expert, the Commissioner of Health, the Commissioner of Hospitals and the Director of the Division of Psychiatry of the Department of Hospitals. Although the La Guardia report was by far the most reliable study conducted to that point on cannabis, it was dismissed by Anslinger and the FBN.

After the adoption of the Marihuana Tax Act, the FBN became the only authority with powers to allow studies on cannabis. Needless to say, many potential studies were ignored. Other to being devoid of scientific basis, the views of the FBN were deeply racist. As stated earlier, the bureau associated the use of cannabis to racial minorities, particularly Mexicans and Afro-Americans. In addition, Anslinger constant attack on jazz musicians was regarded as an attack on black culture as a whole.


In the 1950s, however, the FBN changed his approach and replaced it with a new one that linked cannabis use to heroin use. Cannabis was no longer a malevolent plant that drove users crazy and made them commit terrible crimes, instead it became a stepping stone towards heroin use.

Even if the FBN itself had carried out a study contradicting this theory – out of a sample of 602 people that used opiates, only 7% had used cannabis beforehand –, it continued to support its view.

Moreover, during the 1950s, the United States was deeply marked by anti-communism. The Cold War profoundly affected the American society and cannabis legislation was no exception. The new stepping stone theory was backed by the fact that heroin was portrayed as a means of communist China to degenerate Americans. In a context of collective fear and paranoia, the theory that linked cannabis use to China and heroin was widely accepted.

This idea of the communists using drugs to control Americans may seem irrational today, but during this period it was played up by both the FBN and the mass media. Indeed, major news organizations drafted alarmist headlines, with The Los Angeles Times screaming: "Dope's Flow said to Have Red Backing".

Even if no factual evidence supported this theory, the American society regarded it as proven fact and Anslinger continuously argued that communist China was using heroin and other forms of opiates as a means of subverting free countries, a position he defended before the United Nations as delegate to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 1952.

In 1954, at another UN meeting, Anslinger accused communist China of being the primary source for illegal substances for the entire world, a statement supported by no evidence whatsoever.

The 1950s marked the beginning of the harsh drug laws we have today, a framework for stiffer penalties for cannabis use that categorized cannabis with other drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Two key pieces of legislation in the history of cannabis prohibition were the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956.

The Boggs Act represented the most punitive approach to cannabis in the plant's history and was the first time that cannabis was lumped together with other drugs such as heroin and cocaine. This meant that sentences for cannabis use, sale or possession would be as harsh as if cocaine or heroin were involved. Another significant turning point that the Boggs act introduced was the mandatory minimum sentences, which limited the discretion available to judges punishing cannabis possession with a minimum of two years' imprisonment and a 2,000 dollar fine. The new penalties introduced by the Boggs Act made no distinction between the user and the peddler or between possessing a gram of cannabis and a garage full of heroine.

After the adoption of the Boggs Act on 2nd November 1951, the FBN convinced many of the states to follow suit and expand their cannabis penalties. In fact, between 1953 and 1956, twenty-six states passed legislation raising drug penalties. Some states became so caught up that they soon had penalties stiffer than the ones passed by the Boggs Act. By 1956 Louisiana had the harshest drug penalties in the country with sentences from 5 to 99 years without the possibility of parole, probation or suspension of sentence for the sale, possession or administering of any drug.

This new legislative framework may seem too harsh today, but in the 1950s voices were raised to demand even harsher laws, leading to the adoption of the Narcotics Control Act, which made penalties for the possession, use or trafficking of drugs mandatory and eliminated parole.

In the early 70s, Richard Nixon declared war on drugs and identified them as public enemy number one. He adopted the Controlled Substances Act, which established the federal drug policy and regulated the manufacture, import, possession, use and distribution of certain substances, among which cannabis. Even now cannabis is still classified federally as Schedule I drug, it is considered to be as dangerous and as addictive as heroine and its medicinal use has not been accepted.


The United States played a major role in the control of drugs – including cannabis – prohibition eventually reaching the international arena. The current international drug control system is structured around three international treaties:

1. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961: this international treaty was signed by 185 countries, who committed to review their domestic legislative framework to comply with the provisions of the convention. All the parties undertook an obligation to limit the use, possession and trafficking of narcotic drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. Another major point was the increased control of raw materials such as the cannabis plant, the poppy plant and the coca bush. The convention included cannabis in Schedule IV, together with the most dangerous, less therapeutic substances.

2. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971: this convention has at its source the growing concern for the recreational use of synthetic psychoactive substances (LSD, MDMA, sedatives, anxiolytics and antidepressants). The signatory countries undertook to limit the use of these drugs exclusively to medical and scientific purposes and THC was classified as a Schedule I substance, considered to have little therapeutic value and subjected to the most stringent controls.

3. The United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988: this treaty was merely punitive. While the two previous conventions focused on prohibition, this one urged the signatory countries to review their domestic legislation by establishing penalties for the production and the trafficking of drugs, including the cultivation of the poppy plant, the cannabis plant and the coca rock for the production of narcotics.

In the last few decades, the United States has allocated more than 2.5 billion dollars to the implementation of its laws against drugs. As for cannabis, the restrictive policies appear to have had little effect. In fact, it is the world's most commonly used illegal drug and, according to the World Drug Report 2015, nearly 183 million people used cannabis in 2014. The figures and the results of the new regulatory models for cannabis control speak for themselves. It may well be time to leave the old legislation behind and remember it was the result of biased information, moral preconceptions and false precepts.

It's time to change!