Blunt about it: Discussing the complex history of marijuana in the U.S.

Eliyana Abraham, Campus Life Editor

Marijuana is a Schedule I drug in the United States, and is used widely by Americans, from the youth to elderly. The substance has an extensive history of human use, having originated in Central Asia, and before being introduced in Africa, Europe, and eventually North and South America. There is some considerable evidence which suggests that some ancient civilizations may have been aware of and made us of the marijuana plant’s psychoactive qualities; some records suggest they may have cultivated varieties of the plant in order to increase the potency of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, for special ceremonies or healing practices.

The earliest recorded usage of marijuana in the United States dates to the colonial era. Early British colonists utilized hemp for textiles as well as ropes. Of course, these early plants had low levels of THC, the chemical which marijuana’s high-causing effects can be attributed to. The cultivation of the plant in America increased rapidly, as the plant grows quickly and can be fashioned to serve a variety of purposes—making clothing, parchment, and sails. Often, the seeds of the plant were used for sustenance. Through the 17th century, the colonies of Connecticut, Virginia, and Massachusetts even required many colonial farmers to grow hemp.

Although marijuana was not largely used for recreational purpose in the United States until the early 20th century, the plant was used initially in medical practice, beginning in the mid-19th century, when cannabis was used to ease the stomach pain and nausea which frequently resulted from cholera, a medical method introduced by Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. Because the use of cannabis in the medical field increased throughout the century, marijuana was widely sold throughout the United States in pharmaceutical shops, primarily for the purpose of treating stomach and digestive ailments. Cannabis’ stomach-easing properties, as later discovered by 19th century scientists, can be attributed to the presence of THC in the plant, which of course is known to ease nausea, as well increase hunger.

Thus, following the introduction of marijuana for medical purposes, the practice of smoking weed recreationally began largely in the early 20th century, during the presidency of William McKinley. The practice increased in fervor through the 1910’s, however, as other recreational substances used, declined relatively during the 1920’s prohibition era. During the 1930’s, the social upheaval brought upon by the economic downfall of the Great Depression, which spurred the issue of the immense unemployment rate in the United States during the decade, caused a general American distaste for recreational marijuana use. It can be noted that this distaste was largely race-driven, as many Americans believed that recreational marijuana use, and in turn, the effects of it on the nation, was attributable to Mexican-Americans who immigrated to the United States during the Mexican-American war. Distaste for the drug drove white americans’ racism during the era, and white americans’ racism during the era also developed their distaste for the drug.

By the end of the decade, the first law barring marijuana was passed in 1937 with the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. By imposing an excise tax on all hemp products, the federal act criminalized all possession and/or transfer or trade of the hemp products, except for industrial purposes. Therefore, hemp was in fact still grown in the United States for industrial use through World War II, into the 1950’s.  

After the United States entered the 1960’s and former president and criminal Richard Nixon officially declared the “War on Drugs,”declaring drugs to be “public enemy number one;” the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed, which repealed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and enlisted marijuana, alongside substances including heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and ecstasy, as a Schedule I drug, and was declared as serving no medical purpose and having a high potential for abuse. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug to this day.

The anti-drug campaign was also continued by the Reagan administration, with Nancy Reagan spurring the “Just Say No” campaign. Ronald Reagan’s focus on drugs in the United States led to a higher rate of incarceration for non-violent drug crimes. The passing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 instituted a minimum prison sentence for certain drug-related offenses.

With the “War on Drugs,” the illegality of marijuana in the United States and its position as a Schedule I is highly speculated to have originated from biases towards specific demographics in the United States.  Critics point to data showing that americans were targeted for and arrested on suspicions of drug crimes at a largely more frequent rate than that of white americans, leading to disproportionate incarceration rates among communities of color.

It is questionable as to whether or not marijuana should remain a Schedule I drug, in group with such narcotic substances as cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy. Being Schedule I deems the drug as having no medical purpose and being highly addictive, which contradicted by the fact that marijuana, in many states is legal for medical use, as well as, in some, recreational use. It is also notable that marijuana’s being listed as Schedule I deems its legalization and use more dangerous than such Schedule II drugs as crystal meth.

Thus, in the 21st century, the public support for the “War on Drugs” has arguably waned; many americans feel the campaign has not been effective in any results other than creating socioeconomic and racial divides among the United States, while other americans still wholeheartedly support the campaign. The recent legalization of marijuana in some states has led to a slightly more tolerant view of the substance’s use. Nonetheless, marijuana use has historically been stamped out by politicians and policy-makers, remains illegal in the state of Pennsylvania, and the “War on Drugs” will likely continue to technically exist, regardless both of its successes, as well as its detrimental effects.