Reefer Politics: The History Behind the Illegalization of Marijuana

The following is something I wrote in 2007. It was actually a research paper/persuasive essay for someone who was too lazy to do their own work in college. But given how popular marijuana is these days, it seems relevant since most don’t know the history behind the law is (unsurprisingly) full of corruption and corporate interest. Anyway, enjoy.

Marijuana is one of the most commonly used illicit substances in the United States.  However, the history of the drug is ripe with controversy ranging from its use to its illegalization.  To truly understand the situation regarding marijuana it is only proper to look at the root of the controversy surrounding it.

Once the 1930s rolled around, and the prohibition of alcohol had failed tremendously, there was a feeling of failure in most prohibitionists’ minds.  One of the jaded prohibitionists, Harry J. Anslinger, soon found himself at the forefront of yet another prohibition movement in the United States.  During the latter years of alcohol prohibition many Southwestern states were pushing for a law against marijuana as a means to persecute the Mexican immigrants who offered cheap labor during the Depression.

In response to the public’s outcry for action, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was founded in 1930 as an agency of the United States Department of Treasury.  Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, felt his nephew-in-law, Harry J. Anslinger, was the perfect candidate for the job of FBN commissioner.  While Anslinger was upset over the failure of the prohibition of alcohol, the cries for action against marijuana enabled Anslinger to focus his attention on a new scapegoat substance: Marijuana.

At the time of the FBN’s campaign against marijuana, there were no accurate scientific studies yet conducted in regards to the drug; in fact, marijuana was not properly studied until the 1950s, long after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed.   Most of the evidence used to lead the Supreme Court in their decision to pass the Marihuana Tax Act was created and distributed by the FBN.

The evidence provided by the FBN has since then been proven to be completely false and entirely bias driven.  Anslinger was known to publish marijuana-related stories in American Magazine.  One such story claimed that a boy axe-murdered his family as the result of smoking marijuana one time.  What Anslinger neglected to mention was the fact that a year prior to the murder, the boy’s parents tried to have him institutionalized for mental insanity.  Many other stories were not only used to demonize marijuana, but were vehicles of racist inculcation.  A few of these accounts were of a Mexican woman who ingested cannabis leaves resulting in immediate insanity.  Another warped tale involved two black men who held a 14 year old girl hostage and forced her to smoke marijuana; upon her release she was found to be suffering from syphilis.  When asked to provide evidence for these stories Anslinger failed to do so, but insisted they had happened—they had not.

But why fabricate a slew of misinformation in order to make marijuana illegal?  According to information provided by former FBN employees, the reason for the war against marijuana was the result of growing demand for hemp—the male and non-euphoria producing version of the cannabis plant.  At the time hemp was on its way to becoming the nation’s biggest cash crop due to its ability to produce a variety of exportable goods such as: rope, paper, clothing, food and even fuel.  Since hemp can grow at a much faster rate and in larger quantities it was ideal for the production of paper, clothing, and rope.  However, Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, was a prime backer for the DuPont Petrochemical Company who had a lot to lose if hemp became the country’s number one cash crop.  It is believed that Mellon’s company, Mellon Financial Corporation, who was associated with DuPont, pushed the FBN to pursue legislation against marijuana.

The propaganda campaign led by Anslinger and encouraged by Mellon and DuPont succeeded in 1937 when the Marihuana Tax Act was passed.  While the act did not criminalize marijuana it made it extremely difficult and risky to deal with the substance.  In 1951 Anslinger openly admitted to having no solid evidence to back up his claims that led to the Tax Act, but by then there was a push for different legislation and by 1970 the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed.  During this time marijuana—among many other psychoactive substances—were being studied for their potential uses and dangers.  LSD was given out by the Federal government as a means to determine if it had any tactical usage.  At the same time, the use of marijuana was at an all-time high, and some believe the reason for the 1970 Controlled Substances Act was a legal tactic meant to enable police officers to arrest many of the people involved in the Consciousness Movement of the 1960s and 70s.

While the motives of the CSA vary based on who you talk to, there is one bit of information that has been conclusively proven to be true.  That of course is the fact that marijuana is not a dangerous substance—at least not as dangerous as American society is led to believe.  All unbiased studies from the 1950s to the present day have conclusively proven that marijuana is safer than most legal alternatives (i.e. alcohol, tobacco, prescription medications, etc.).  Not only have the studies produced similar results, but they have managed to shatter many of the ill-conceived social beliefs about the drug.

One of the most fear-invoking and commonly held beliefs is that marijuana kills brain cells.  Numerous studies have shown this to be entirely untrue.  THC is actually a neuroprotectant, which coats the cerebral cortex slowing down the communication between different regions in the brain.  This is why marijuana users often experience slow reaction time, paranoia, social anxiety, and temporary memory loss.  One study that puts the brain cell myth to bed is a six-month long study that was conducted using Rhesus monkeys.  Every day for the six-month period, the monkeys were exposed to excessive amounts of marijuana smoke, which concluded with the finding that the monkey’s brains were unharmed.  In all of the studies done regarding the issue of brain damage and marijuana use there has not been a single incident where permanent brain damage was found to be the result of marijuana.

Another study enacted to determine personality changes as the result of marijuana use, was conducted by the Harvard School of Mental Health in countries where marijuana use is socially accepted: Denmark, Jamaica and the Netherlands.  The tests were done using moderate to excessive users, and they found that none of the test subjects experienced personality changes over an extended period of marijuana use.  They then brought the study to three US cities and found that 7-out of-10 participants showed signs of laziness and loss of motivation.  The conclusion was made that the social conventions held about a drug are in turn transferred to a user in that society.  Since the United States has a long history of dishonest education and misinformation when it comes to marijuana, and drugs in general, it is no surprise that such findings were made.

To deny any negative effects of marijuana would be as ignorant as most of the claims against it.  However, the negative effects are minimal when compared to the neutral or positive effects.  Studies have shown a decrease in cognitive growth when marijuana is used by people under the age of 18, which is to be expected, considering a child is still in the developmental stages during this time of their life.  Another negative effect is respiratory problems as the result of inhaling smoke, which is common among all carcinogens.

Nevertheless, most of the commonly held social beliefs in regards to marijuana are often extreme exaggerations that are meant to scare people away from use.  Ironically, the United States has reported more use among teens when compared to countries such as Denmark who have lax laws concerning the drug.  In a recent study 33% of American teens had reported using marijuana on a weekly basis while only 17% of Denmark teens exhibited similar use.  But shouldn’t the illegality of the drug lower use?  If we look at most instances of prohibition in America and around the world we can see that prohibition actually causes people to do whatever is prohibited, especially in regards to drugs.  Maybe it has to do with an innate tendency, which causes people to do things they are told not to do.  The story and idea of Original Sin is a perfect example of such a tendency.

So why is marijuana still illegal with all this scientific evidence proving marijuana is not the danger most believe it is?  There are a variety of reasons as to why it remains illegal and unsurprisingly they are economic just like the original reason for its criminalization.  The privatization of the prison industry has opened the doors for money to be made off of crime.  Considering that a large portion of United States’ inmates are non-violent offenders, often arrested for drugs such as marijuana, it makes sense to try and keep it illegal.  Not to mention the amount of money generated in fines and expenses as a result of drug charges is astronomical.  A 1st offense for someone arrested for minor possession of marijuana will often result in 1 year probation, 6 months loss of license, court fees and fines ranging from $500-$1000.  With probation comes drug testing and with drug testing comes lab fees.  Don’t forget about the employees needed to operate all the drug-related agencies.  In terms of legal economic reasons there are plenty of reasons why commonly used drugs such as marijuana remain illegal.

However, the influence of the Black Market, mainly drug cartels, plays a huge role in marijuana remaining illegal.  It has been reported that drug cartels have grown substantially in size and often have warehouses stacked to the ceiling with money because it can’t be laundered fast enough.  There have been numerous instances where our government has been caught selling weapons and technology to such groups.  To make the suggestion that our government keeps marijuana and drugs illegal as a means to remain in good standing with drug cartels is not as crazy as it sounds.  Drug cartels are just as powerful if not stronger than the governments in some countries.  In some cases, cartels are the government.

The most disturbing thing about marijuana remaining illegal is the fact that not a single death has resulted from the usage of marijuana while many have been caused by the War on Drugs (1971-present).  In fact, the only THC related death was during the testing of a synthetic THC pill, Marinol, in December 2003.  Strangely enough that pill is being considered as an alternative to medical marijuana, which has been well-received in states such as California, Alaska and Colorado.  The consideration of legalizing a prescription THC pharmaceutical only strengthens the argument that the reason for keeping marijuana illegal is strictly economic.  Some contend that by legalizing marijuana the government would be able to make just as much as they do by keeping it illegal; however, due to the simplicity of marijuana growth many people would simply grow their own.  Or would they?  Do people grow their own tobacco? Do people brew their own beer? Yes, but the majority of people has no problem paying for the convenience of walking into a store and getting their favorite brain candy nicely packaged and ready for their consumption.

The solution to the illegalization of marijuana is not simple, but to allow thousands of Americans to be incarcerated or put on probation every year for a substance that is less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes makes a mockery of the values America was founded on.  In the grand scheme of things the legalization of marijuana seems like a meaningless cause, but we must remember that in order to be able to solve the big problems we must first resolve the small ones; especially when the small problems are resulting in numerous injustices in our country everyday.  The War on Drugs continues to cost this country billions of dollars and is a war that cannot be won.  In order to take steps towards a country of rational human beings we must approach every bit of legislation rationally.  The drug control laws in the United States are about as rational as using a stick of butter for soap.   Our prisons are crowded, our tax money is being wasted, and our freedoms and liberties are under attack.  Act now or see the injustices of drug laws spread to other aspects of the American way of life.

2 thoughts on “Reefer Politics: The History Behind the Illegalization of Marijuana

  1. Google “Was there really an industrialist conspiracy to outlaw hemp?” The idea doesn’t explain why marijuana was already illegal in 30 states before Anslinger came to the FBN. It doesn’t explain why even the hemp farmers didn’t object to marijuana being outlawed, among a long list of other things wrong with the idea. See Historical Research on Drug Policy at

    And, just FYI, I knew the author of that idea and did a lot of public presentations with him. He was a better story teller than a historian. Start your reading on the history at

    1. Marijuana was very much used as the scapegoat to demonize hemp. That seems to be the prevailing reality here. Hemp was the target and by handcuffing it to marijuana, Anslinger/Mellon/DuPont were able to effectively banish hemp farming and capitalize on the void in textile and other markets, which hemp used to dominate.

      Fortunately, since I wrote this, new legislation has eased the restrictions on hemp farming essentially make it a state’s choice decision. I believe Maine is now pursuing industrial hemp as well as some other states. The hemp industry could have being doing wonders for our economy, but hopefully it will now have that opportunity.

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