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Cannabis in the United States: Illegalization Begins

In our previous post, we discussed the history of cannabis in the United States pre-1900’s. The negative stigma surrounding cannabis started in the 1910s and States began the illegalization of the plant starting in 1911 until finally it was deemed illegal at the Federal level with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. In this post, we want to focus on the enhanced negative stigma associated with cannabis and how it led to illegalization.


From 1910 to 1920, almost 900,000 Mexicans immigrated to the U.S seeking refuge from the Mexican Revolution. Mexico primarily used peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, for their medicine, but as Spaniards came to Mexico, they started associating the drug with communion with the devil. As a result, peyote fell out of favor for medicinal use. However, Spaniards introduced the cannabis plant to Mexico to cultivate it for hemp and it was found to have strong medical uses. As a result, in Mexico, like the U.S., cannabis was used for medicine. 

Before 1910, the word “marijuana” didn’t exist in the U.S and was soon used to describe the plant. As more Mexicans immigrated, the more cannabis, now “marijuana”, became associated with them and created a prejudice against Spanish speakers. It was believed that people of color had higher usage of cannabis because it was seen as a “lower class” or “foreign” substance. This was a bit hypocritical given that usage was the same among races. Starting in 1911, States started to outlaw the plant. First, in Massachusetts and every year, more states joined, but that didn’t stop people from using it. 

Drug addiction, specifically opioid addiction, was a widespread issue during this time. Women were prescribed opioids to help with menstrual and emotional problems while men used them to help with pain during and after the Civil War. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which is known as the beginning of the oppressive and expensive drug war. Once this vaguely-worded bill passed it had major repercussions for many people and communities. Doctors weren’t allowed to prescribe opioids or other pain medication without going to prison. People of color, more specifically Black people and Mexicans were targets since it was believed that they had a higher usage. This bill set the path for the war on drugs that we know today.

Although this Bill was passed, cannabis was still being cultivated for medicine. During this decade, more and more States set to outlaw cannabis for all purposes, but in 1918 alone, US pharmaceutical farms grew 60,000 pounds of cannabis. By 1925, the only official use for cannabis was for medicinal purposes at the Federal level.

In 1920, alcohol was prohibited. Due to prohibition, people switched to cannabis. While we know that outlawing certain substances doesn’t stop people from obtaining them, the bootleg alcohol supply was dangerous, so the switch to cannabis seemed to be a safer option since it was still Federally legal at this point. With the influx of immigrants and suggestive jazz music by Black people, white Americans began to treat cannabis as a foreign substance to corrupt the minds of low-class individuals. It became popular in the music industry and was used for creative stimulation, music production, and performance. 


In 1930, while the U.S. entered into the Great Depression, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was created and more conversations about cannabis restriction started to happen. With alcohol prohibition being repealed in 1933, people switched back to alcohol. As the ‘30s continued, unemployment rose to the highest rate in the history of the U.S. and more Mexicans and South Americans came to the States. Public resentment increased which led to a rise in concern about cannabis. Studies were done to prove that there was a link between more violent crimes and cannabis use. The study focused on “racially inferior” underclass communities.

As more States outlawed cannabis, pressure was put on the Federal government. Rising crime, thought to be caused by an increase in cannabis use, was the main argument for the illegalization of cannabis. The Federal government was reluctant to promote legislation, instead, they put the responsibility of control to the States. In 1934, the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act was implemented. Many government officials weren’t satisfied with the 1914 Harrison Act due to its lack of restrictions. 

In 1936, the film ‘Reefer Madness’ was released and used to caution against cannabis use. The ultimate premise of the movie was teenagers who try weed for the first time and then commit violent crimes including, manslaughter, rape, a hit and run, etc. While the original version was in black and white, the colored version used green, purple, blue, and orange smoke to indicate cannabis so you could tell the difference between cannabis and tobacco cigarettes. 

The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. This bill drastically reduced cannabis use but allowed certain individuals who paid extra taxes to obtain and use cannabis for medicinal reasons. Research continued to support the use of medicinal cannabis. The day after the bill was passed, Samuel R. Caldwell was arrested for selling cannabis and was fined $1000, and received a four-year prison sentence. The leader of the Marijuana Tax Act was Harry Anslinger, the 1st Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His active campaign against cannabis held steady for three decades until he left office. Not only was he against cannabis, but he also used hate speech to perpetuate the use of cannabis and how it was linked to black and brown people. Some of his most famous quotes about cannabis use: 

  • “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
  • “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”

After the tax act was passed and the harmful narrative pushed by Anslinger, Black and Mexican people were significantly more likely to be arrested for a drug crime than their White counterparts. Black Americans were three times more likely to be arrested and Mexican Americans were nine times more likely to be arrested for cannabis use or possession.

The word “marijuana” gets popularized

As discussed, the term “marijuana” didn’t exist in the United States until the 1910s, but it is difficult to find the exact origin of the word. Before this, medical journals used the official term, “cannabis”, to describe the plant. Anti-cannabis factions started using “marijuana” so it would be attributed to the drug’s “Mexican-ness” and used it for both anti-cannabis and anti-immigrant propaganda. While the word is commonly used today, many people forget the history attached to it and ignore the oppression that Mexicans and Black people continue to face. While some choose to deny the importance of the word, it’s hard to deny the historic context.

Racism became the driving force behind the perception of cannabis as something “bad” or “dangerous”. Laws began using the term “marijuana” instead of “cannabis” and new laws against cannabis use were developed as more immigrants came to the U.S. These laws ignored research that continued to show the medicinal benefits of cannabis. This shows that even the slightest change in terminology promotes prejudice against people of color. 

As we work through the decades, our next post will focus on the 1940s-1970s and the impacts of the Marijuana Tax Act.