Close this search box.

Cannabis Prohibition

cannabis prohibitionMarijuana Prohibition History

Marijuana prohibition dates back to the 18th century. Napoleon Bonaparte issued the first formal prohibition of cannabis use in 1799 after his troops were introduced to the herb during their conquest of Egypt and brought it back to France as a spoil of war. Bonaparte worried cannabis would make his troops soft and banned them from consuming it, imposing a three-month prison sentence for those who violated his order.

In an attempt to control unrest in colonized India in the 1800s, the British began to restrict production and consumption of cannabis while discrediting its proponents with an inquiry that concluded the use of the herb led to insanity. This inquiry was later criticized for sloppy statistics and ultimately discredited, but its ill effects lingered.

In the early 1900s, the prevalent US attitude toward cannabis took a pointed turn toward marijuana illegalization thanks to a combination of political, cultural, and financial factors. Legislation prohibiting marijuana started popping up at the state level, beginning with a Massachusetts ban in 1911.

The first countries to issue outright bans on cannabis were South Africa and Jamaica in 1911, followed by increased restrictions in Canada, Britain, and New Zealand in 1913.

Cannabis consumers in the US in the early 20th century consisted mostly of Mexican immigrants who arrived during the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920, African-American jazz musicians in and around New Orleans, and Caribbean immigrants and bohemians north of New Orleans. The term Mexican immigrants used during this time was “marihuana,” a word propagandists would later use for racist purposes. The fact that cannabis’ major consumers were immigrants and Americans of color was used to encourage cannabis prohibition.

When was marijuana made illegal in the US?

While the laws have changed over the decades, marijuana has been illegal in the United States since the early 20th century. Numerous states passed laws in the 1920s prohibiting marijuana and regulating it as a poison, including Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Colorado. Thirty additional states had cannabis-prohibitive laws on the books by the time alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1933. But it became effectively illegal nationwide with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

The drafters and signers of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively prohibited cannabis nationwide, but the wedge between the reality and perception of cannabis was driven more deeply in the 1930s through a concerted effort by two men. Media magnate William Randolph Hearst and Harry Anslinger, dubbed “America’s first drug czar” for his role as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, worked to cast cannabis in a negative light. Hearst’s collection of widely circulated newspapers — then the largest media conglomerate in the world — made a powerful vehicle through which to spread Anslinger’s disinformation about cannabis.

Anslinger was known to publicly attack the character of cannabis consumers, including making racist remarks. He is widely cited as having said: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”

Hearst gave Anslinger’s positions front-page treatment in his newspapers, stoking fears of depravity, crime, and an influx of minorities threatening delicate American sensibilities.

By 1937, the American propaganda campaign had successfully woven disinformation and paranoia into the fabric of the cannabis conversation throughout the world. The 1933 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which depicted cannabis smokers as wild, uncontrollable, and almost animalistic in their behavior, illustrates the level of inaccuracies surrounding cannabis perception at the time.

Against the recommendation of the American Medical Association, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed into law on Oct. 2 of that year. The tax was so steep it effectively banned cannabis across the country. In the decades that followed, harsher legislation, like the Boggs Act of 1951, which set mandatory minimum sentences, resulted in stricter penalties for cannabis-related offenses.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was overturned in 1969, though in the following year, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA states cannabis has no accepted medical use and includes restrictions that classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug along with heroin, LSD, and peyote. Cannabis’ Schedule I classification virtually eliminated medical and scientific research and it is still in effect to this day. Following the passage of the CSA, President Nixon declared a formal war on drugs in 1971, appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse the following year, and established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973.

President Reagan renewed the call for a war on drugs in 1982, emphasizing a strict zero-tolerance policy that led to overcrowded prisons throughout the country and the creation of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Since its inception in 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States more than $1 trillion and it is widely considered to be an economic and criminal justice failure.

Despite the decades-long effort to disparage cannabis and its consumers, the perception of it continues to change, with two-thirds of US citizens supporting marijuana legalization, according to 2019 statistics from the Pew Research Center. While efforts to legalize cannabis have been successful in countries like Uruguay and Canada, as well as parts of the US and Australia, the plant remains illegal throughout most of the world.