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The Strange History of Cannabis Laws in the U.S.

Few things have had a more controversial relationship than cannabis and the law. Beset with war, strained race relations, lies, and corruption, marijuana has been simultaneously loved hated, feared and celebrated by the same nation for nearly four hundred years.

Here we take a look at the legal milestones – from the 17th century all the way to the present day – of the cannabis plant in the United States.


The state of Virginia, England’s lone colony in the U.S. dictates that all farmers have to grow hemp.


George Washington grows hemp as one of three main crops at Mount Vernon. Hemp, at the time, was one of the most widely used plants for rope


Medicinal cannabis is first sold in pharmacies in the U.S. around the 1850s


With tightening regulation of pharmaceuticals, many cannabis-derived products are labeled “poisons” by law. By 1905, 29 states has laws restricting the use of cannabis.


Laws are tightened further in the U.S. due, in no small part, to race relations with Mexican immigrants. The Mexican revolution in 1910 saw an increase in migrants moving to North America to find work. Mexican workers would often smoke marijuana after work as a cheaper alternative to alcohol (which itself was facing an outright ban in the imminent Prohibition). Race relations are made more tense with the Depression, shortage of jobs and resources.


In the International Opium Convention, the U.S. supports the regulation of hashish. The convention bans exportation of hashish and its preparations to countries that had prohibited its use. Those countries who import it, have to issue paperwork approving the imports as being required “exclusively for medical or scientific purposes.”

1925 – 1932

With so many different states offering different levels of restrictions on cannabis products, it is agreed that regulation should be the same across the country in the form of the Uniform State Narcotic Act. Drafted by National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, this provides a more defined role for the police than ever before. All states have some form of cannabis regulation by the 1930s.



Harry J Anslinger

The formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) increases the push to outlaw cannabis and other recreational drugs. The FBN is headed by Harry J Anslinger, who promotes the idea that cannabis is responsible for crime and overly sexual behavior. He is a divisive figure and extremely vocal on cannabis’s supposed threat to society:

“Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death — the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”


The Marihuana Tax Act makes the possession or dealing of “marihuana” illegal under federal law throughout the United States. There are several dispensations for medical or industrial uses. Those who import or grow cannabis are subject to an excise tax and complicated sales paperwork for every transaction.


New York mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, publishes the La Guardia Committee report. Five years in the making, the paper is intended to give people the true extent of marijuana use in the United States.  It is drafted in response to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The main conclusions from the report are that marijuana does not lead to addiction, does not lead to the addiction to morphine, heroin or cocaine and is not a determining factor in major crimes.

Despite the report taking years to create by La Guardia, doctors and the New York Academy of Medicine, Harry J Anslinger of the FBN damns the report as “unscientific” and instructS that no other research into the effects of cannabis should take place without his prior permission.

1952 – 1956

The Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 sees sentencing for possession of cannabis mandatory. First-time possession could result in a sentence of two to ten years and a fine up to $20,000.


timothy_leary_comfytree.comAfter his arrest for possession of cannabis in 1965, activist Timothy Leary challenge the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 on the grounds that it was unconstitutional (Leary vs. United States, 1969). Leary’s conviction is overturned and the Marihuana Tax Act is replaced with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.


The State Office of Narcotics and Drug Abuse in California reduces the penalty for personal possession of an ounce or less of cannabis from a felony to a citable misdemeanor with a small fine attached. Anything more than an ounce comes with a maximum fine of $500 and/or six months in jail.


During Reagan’s administration, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act introduces the three strike law and established mandatory prison sentencing for repeated serious crimes including drug offenses. Major drug criminals are subject to the death penalty.


Proposition 215 is a vote passed by the state of California in 1996 which legalizes medical cannabis. The Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative is set up as a way of helping and providing people with “a safe and reliable source of medical cannabis, information and patient support”. Two years later, the Cooperative is sued by the U.S. government for breaking federal law under the Controlled Substances Act 1970. The United States Supreme Court rules that federal laws do not permit an exception for medical cannabis, as Congress had stated that cannabis had no currently accepted medical use when the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970.


Gonzales v Raich sees the Supreme Court rule against the legality of individuals or organizations taking part in medical cannabis programs – even those that are state-approved. The argument being that marijuana grown for medical uses is indistinguishable from that grown for illicit purposes.

Legalization in states

  • California’s proposition 19 in 1972 is the first ballot to legalize marijuana on a statewide level.
  • In 1975, Alaska Supreme Court hold their constitution’s right to privacy which protects an adult’s ability to use and possess a small amount of marijuana in their home for personal use.
  • In November 2012, Colorado and Washington become the first states to legalize the sale and possession of cannabis for recreational use for 75 years. Both states regulate cannabis by allowing possession of up to an ounce for adults over the age of 21 and over.
  • Portland, Maine is the first city on the east coast to allow the legalization of marijuana up to 2.5oz.
  • In November 2014, Alaska and Oregon legalize cannabis for recreational use.
  • Since 2014, 28 states have enacted medical marijuana laws, removed jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and/or have legalized the possession, distribution, and sale of marijuana completely.

The rise and fall and eventual rise again of marijuana is still not over. It is a story that continues to unfold. With more medical research into the health benefits of the plant, we will no doubt see continued overhauls of existing regulations and laws in the nest few years – opening up the possibilities it holds for the millions of people who could benefit from it.

Thanks to Whaxy, Orange Juice Blog and The Smoking Gun for images.



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