Cannabis in the United States: Times They Are A-Changin’

In our last post, we discussed the illegalization of cannabis in the United States and how the mentality towards cannabis turned from a medicinal plant to a harmful drug used by the lower class. As we move throughout cannabis history in the United States, it’s time to focus on the 1940s through the 1970s. These are pivotal times in canna-culture for both pro-cannabis and anti-cannabis activists.

Very soon after the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, the Bureau of Narcotics arrested Moses Baca, a Mexican American, for marijuana possession and distribution. As they dug through his past, they found out that he was involved in domestic disturbances and tied his behavior to cannabis use. During court, the judge stated, “Marijuana destroys life. I have no sympathy for those who sell this weed.” The Tax Act that was enacted benefited the white cultivators that could afford to pay the added tax and put minorities at a disadvantage. If you were caught with hemp plants or cannabis, there were fines and potential imprisonment. Black Americans and Mexican Americans were more likely to get arrested than White Americans.

What changed after the Marijuana Tax Act passed?

In the 1940s cannabis testing and research began. While in past decades cannabis was used in medicine, as we said in our last post, Harry Anslinger was the leader of the anti-cannabis initiative and spent his 30-year political career pushing the narrative that cannabis was a harmful and dangerous drug. In the 1920s and ’30s, jazz musicians used cannabis regularly because of the creative stimulation. Anslinger used this to target musicians and created the “Marihuana and Musicians” dragnet. He compiled a list of musicians who had been caught smoking cannabis and tried to get them arrested and fined for their use.

In 1944, La Guardia Reports found that cannabis was not a harmful drug and did not have a foundation to claim that it was a gateway drug. While their findings showed the harmlessness of the plant, Anslinger continued to push the dangerous narrative that got him into politics and even threatened studies that were being done to show that his stance was scientifically incorrect. In the 1950s, Anslinger switched his anti-cannabis narrative. At this point, people knew that cannabis wasn’t addictive, but Anslinger pushed the narrative that it led to communism and a gateway drug to drugs like heroin. Anslinger was quoted saying, “Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.” and “The danger is this… Over 50 percent of these young addicts started on marijuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin. They took the needle when the thrill of marijuana was gone.” But he provided no evidence for either of these claims.

Because of the Marijuana Tax Act, it was incredibly hard to grow hemp. Any farmers that wanted to grow hemp or scientists that wanted to research hemp had to pay additional taxes to avoid being arrested or fined. During World War II, hemp became a necessity but only so many farmers could grow it due to the Tax Act. In 1942, the US Department of Agriculture created a short propaganda film called “Hemp for Victory” in hopes to increase the number of farms that could grow hemp. They even granted draft deferments to farmers that would stay home to grow hemp. In 1943, American farmers registered in the program harvested over 375,000 acres of hemp.

The 1950s started the enactment of federal laws and mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. The Boggs Act of 1951 increased the minimum sentence to 2-10 years and a fine up to $20,000 for first-time offenders. The Narcotics Control Act of 1956 states that second-time offenders have a minimum sentence of 5-10 years and third-time offenders have a minimum of 10-20 years in federal prison.

In 1954, the book The Doors of Perception influenced the perception of drug use. The primary demographic of the book was Beatniks. The term “Beatnik” became popular throughout the 1940s-1960s. Beatnik’s, or the Beat Generation, challenged the social norms and pushed against conventional societal standards, and to do this, they used literature, self-expression, and the use of cannabis. The Beatnik movement was one of the biggest influences of the hippie movement and throughout the 1960s the two groups influenced counterculture.

The impact of counterculture on cannabis

Counterculture, also known as the hippie movement, emerged in the 1960s to challenge social norms. Around this time were many major political events including the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War. To protest politics and cultural norms, people who were in the counterculture movement partook in the use of cannabis as a form of protest. The counterculture movement fought for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, BIPOC, women, and other minority groups. Since cannabis use spread to this younger generation, police added white-middle-class teenagers and young adults to their lists of targets.

The first legalization advocacy group called “LeMar” (Legalize Marijuana) was formed in 1964 by Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders. Ginsberg and Sanders bridged the gap between the Beat Generation and the hippie movement. The two held the first pro-cannabis march in January 1965. The group opened a chapter on the west coast and changed its name to Amophia. This group focused its efforts on raising money to fund legalization efforts. In the 1970s, Amophia merged with NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and continues to work and fight for cannabis reform in the United States.

While there was a societal push to change the stereotypes of cannabis users, and more research being discovered to prove how unharmful the drug was, only 15% of Americans favored the legalization of cannabis by the end of the ‘60s.

The start of the War on Drugs 

In 1970, the federal government created the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which categorized cannabis separately from other narcotics and disbanded most of the mandatory minimum sentences for small amounts of cannabis. There was no evidence to show that long, mandatory sentences did anything to eliminate cannabis use.

Also in 1970, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND) and Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) created scheduling for drugs and other substances. Cannabis was placed as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning that it has no medical benefit and has high addiction rates. In 1973, BNND and ODALE merged into the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) which was used according to President Nixon as “a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.” 

In 1971, President Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs in America. This increased federal funding for drug enforcement agencies to stop the cultivation, distribution, and use of illegal drugs and substances. President Jimmy Carter opposed the war on drugs and it took a slight hiatus in the mid-1970s. When Ronald Regan became president, he took the War on Drugs over and created policies that still impact people to this day.