The history of cannabis in the United States
The history of cannabis in the United States has been a long and strange story involving lobbyists, scientists, and counterculture enthusiasts. When the country was first founded, hemp was a cash crop, and marijuana was a home remedy for a host of ailments. Later, cannabis became an ingredient in patent medicines as well as sold alongside opium as hashish. This led to a ban on cannabis sale and use entirely in the 20th century. After decades of a complete ban on marijuana, some states are beginning to legalize cannabis use for medical purposes. Later, more states legalize marijuana for recreational use as well. Cannabis laws still vary widely, however, as lawmakers and citizens wrestle with questions of medicinal or recreational uses of the plant.
Before the 1900s
When this country was first colonized, hemp was a cash crop and a useful crop for colonists too because the fibers were made into rope, cloth, and paper. The medical uses of cannabis weren’t widely known in the Western world, though it had been used as an herbal remedy in India for centuries. In the mid-1800s, some Western scholars discovered cannabis after travels to South Asia. Some brought back cannabis plants and began experimenting with the plant’s therapeutic effects. Though it had yet to be widely adopted, many scholarly papers mention cannabis and its medicinal uses.
Cannabis As Medicine in the Early 20th Century
As the 20th century dawned, cannabis was gaining popularity as an herbal remedy, and Queen Victoria herself was given a cannabis tea to ease menstrual cramps. In the United States, hemp was still a profitable crop, and cannabis was being smoked recreationally as well as used in medicines. Marijuana was a popular ingredient in patent medicines (along with more unsavory ingredients like alcohol and opium). During the early 20th century, the US government began looking into “poisons” in food and patent medicines, and early efforts at regulating medicine began. Cannabis was examined as an ingredient and found to be safe, and it was mentioned in the laws but not classified as a “poison.” Some opium parlors began selling hashish as well, and some patent medicines containing cannabis caused deaths. These factors spurred a tightening of restrictions on cannabis until it was only available with a doctor’s prescription.
Cannabis Prohibition 1937 – to the Present Day
In 1930, the US government formed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and then in 1937, the US Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. This legislation effectively banned the cultivation and sale of cannabis for medical use by imposing a tax on its sale. This meant that anyone who wanted to sell marijuana needed a stamp proving that they’d paid a tax. Applying to get the stamp, however, incriminated the dealer, so no one applied for the stamps. The pattern of arrest for cannabis sale, cultivation and possession began. During WWII, some stamps were issued so that farmers could grow hemp for the war effort, but hemp production was short lived. During the late 1960s, the marijuana tax stamp was removed from the books, and cannabis was simply classified as a drug and prosecuted under criminal law as such.
The Path to Legalization of Cannabis for Medical Use
Beginning in the 1970s, scientists began examining cannabis and its effects, while the government began decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis for personal use. These efforts continued, and certain types of marijuana laws loosened as time went on. In 1996, a new act was passed called the Compassionate Use Act which let chronically ill patients in California purchase and use marijuana for medical use. This act opened the door for more decriminalization efforts and established “medical marijuana” as a class of cannabis.
Recreational vs. Medical Marijuana in the 21st Century
Though many states have begun legalizing cannabis for both medical and recreational use within the state, federal laws still list marijuana as a Schedule I drug alongside cocaine and heroin. Federal laws still Most that cannabis has no medicinal value, despite study after study and even legal cannabis-derived pharmaceutical drugs on the market. The laws make some concessions for medical use, but recreational decriminalization usually follows.
Medical Marijuana Legalization
California was the first state to decriminalize marijuana for medicinal use, and it was prescribed for patients with incurable cancers, HIV and AIDS, as the first medical benefits that were known were anti-nausea. Following California, several more states legalized marijuana for medical use. This meant that a patient seeking to use marijuana for conditions ranging from cancer to epilepsy to glaucoma would need to obtain a prescription from a doctor as well as permission from the government in the form of a card declaring the holder an approved medical marijuana patient. Cannabis farmers and cannabis product manufacturers have to pay taxes and obtain permits to operate. Businesses selling medical cannabis products are called dispensaries.
Recreational Marijuana Legalization
Efforts to completely decriminalize cannabis in the US have been largely unsuccessful, though certain states have made inroads to legalized recreational marijuana. Mostly states that decriminalize medical marijuana follow by allowing citizens also to use cannabis recreationally. The usual way legal recreational cannabis purchases work is that individuals can purchase in approved medical dispensaries without a card or a prescription. Often, the government allows a citizen to possess a small amount of marijuana (usually under an ounce), and smoking or vaporizing of cannabis is allowed in the same instances as tobacco smoking.
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- A Brief History of Marijuana Law in America
- Marijuana Timeline | Busted: America’s War On Marijuana | FRONTLINE | PBS
- Historical Timeline: Medical Marijuana – ProCon.org
- What is the future of recreational marijuana in Trump’s America?