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A Brief History of Cannabis

Many scholars support the theory that marijuana was cultivated for rope textiles, pottery, food, and medicine during the stone age. Ancient Chinese medical texts indicate that the plant was used to treat gout, rheumatism, and malaria, as well as an anesthetic during surgeries. There’s evidence of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans using marijuana in a variety of ways, and the popularity of cannabis gradually spread across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and India.

The Importance of Hemp Usage

In the 1600’s and 1700’s, British colonies throughout Europe and North America used hemp in the production of textiles and as medicine. In the late 1700’s, Napoleon brought marijuana from Egypt to France. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp on their plantations, and by the 1840’s, marijuana had become a mainstream remedy.

Prohibition of Cannabis

The prohibition of cannabis stems from racism, cultural warfare, and political greed. The Great Depression, in 1929, bred fear and resentment of foreigners, and stories appeared in newspapers, blaming marijuana for Mexican men going crazy and killing people. Similar stories spread across the Eastern states, linking marijuana to men of color becoming violent.

In 1930, when Congress established and placed Harry Anslinger in charge of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he looked for a new adversary. Building on currents of racism and fear, Harry Anslinger is quoted as saying, “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.”

By 1936, laws regulating marijuana were in full affect across the country. Medicines such as aspirin, morphine, and other opioids became the Western medicine painkillers of choice. In 1937, Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act, permitting physicians and pharmacist to prescribe marijuana but taxing it so heavily as to make it cost-prohibitive.

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), establishing a single classification system for all narcotic and psychotropic drugs. Each drug was to be assigned to one of five schedules based on safety and medical efficacy. Congress appointed a commission to determine how to schedule marijuana, later known as the Shafer Commission, and in the meantime, marijuana was temporarily placed in the most restrictive classification, indicating a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.” The final report, which President Nixon rejected, called for decriminalizing marijuana and removing it from the scheduling system altogether.

A Revisitation of Marijuana Laws

In the late 1980’s, gay men in San Francisco were dying in droves from AIDS-related complications. Many found relief in the form of cannabis. A series of police raids and arrests focused on this vulnerable population inspired local outrage and helped stimulate public support for a revisiting of the state’s marijuana laws.

In 1996, voters in California approved the Compassionate Use Act, exempting medical marijuana patients and caregivers from criminal prosecution. Over the next fifteen years, 16 more states also passed medical marijuana legislation. Colorado and Washington voted to become the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Currently, 29 states (as well as the District of Columbia) have passed medical marijuana legislation, with eight allowing recreational use and 15 more allowing only the use of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid, Cannabidiol (CBD).

The Progress of Cannabis Legalization Today

At the federal level, cannabis continues to be classified as a Schedule I drug. Cannabis has never in recorded history caused a single overdose-related death. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated marijuana as a safe and effective medicine. Cocaine and prescription opiates are widely abused and combine to kill more than 25,000 people in the U.S. each year, yet remain listed under the less restrictive Schedule II classification.

Progress, however, continues. In August of 2013, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole released The Cole Memo, calling for an end to federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) so long as state and local laws are being observed. The following May, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to prohibit the Department of Justice from using federal funds to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana patients or providers who comply with their state’s laws. We now look forward to the day when Congress takes the final necessary steps to end the federal prohibition of cannabis.


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