Home Culture Part 3: A History of Cannabis and Prohibition

Part 3: A History of Cannabis and Prohibition

The Rise of Reefer Madness and Prohibition


It’s funny how when you tell someone they can’t do something, they almost always want to do it that much more. That reaction, that instinct within so many of us, is the reason that prohibition has failed so miserably. Alcohol prohibition lasted less than 15 years – yet here we are, decades into marijuana prohibition and people are still growing it in their basements and selling it on the black market.  

If regulation was the safe and smart approach for alcohol, why is it not the same for marijuana? It’s a question that many of us have asked at one point or another – but unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. Prohibition of cannabis has a much longer history and many different factors play into where we stand today. At one point, cannabis (generally in the form of edibles or hashish) was something used by the more affluent – but that all changed in a couple of decades.

At this point, in part 1 and part 2 of this history series, we’ve taken a look at cannabis’ journey around the globe and the role of cannabis in early American culture. Now it’s time to explore the Reefer Madness Era, when cannabis went from an accepted medicine to a substance that could cause men to lose their sanity in the eyes of the American people.

A quick mention, as with my previous articles – I will have sources linked throughout this article, but a lot of the information was obtained from the book Smoke Signals, by Martin A. Lee.

It started with the Mexican Revolution

During colonial times, hemp plants were planted from Chile to Alta California; these plants were eventually abandoned. Rather than dying off, the plants adapted, becoming hermaphroditic, allowing them to pollinate and continue to thrive. Eventually, these plants growing wild with the sun shining down became the potent THC producing plants we know today as marijuana.

It was because it was so plentiful and the high you got left you without a hangover, unlike alcohol, that it became such a popular intoxicant among the poorer class of Mexico. While the lower class would say that they smoked marijuana as a way to cope with the everyday hardships of living, the more affluent of the country would instead blame the plant for their situation. This was a trend that did not change years later when Mexican refugees crossed the border to America – but we’re getting to that.

Along with the lower class, the Mexican military also commonly used marijuana for the same reasons. During the revolution (1910-20), Pancho Villa’s guerrilla army, which was made up of mostly lower-class Mexicans and Indians, would smoke marijuana during their long marches from place to place – or after a successful campaign. It was this group that came up with the ever popular song “La Cucaracha” – which you’ve probably heard at least once in your life. The chorus of the song is about a soldier who cannot manage because he doesn’t have any marijuana to smoke. (A side note – this song is where the slang term “roach” came from, referring to the butt of a joint.)

At this point, the revolution was in full swing and American troops were stationed at the borders. Not surprisingly, it was during this time that many American soldiers tried smoking marijuana for the first time. The refugees who came to America brought with them, like so many before, their language, culture and customs – one of which was smoking marijuana (or mota).  

The First Attempts at Regulation in the States

Shortly before the Mexican Revolution got started, the United States Federal Government had decided to take their first crack at regulation of marijuana and other controlled substances. The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress in 1906 and was a landmark piece of legislation that created a list of intoxicating ingredients that were required to be mentioned on the label of the products they were in. The list included cannabis, alcohol, opiates, cocaine and chloral hydrate.

In essence, when this law passed, the government put themselves in charge of all drugs and medications for the very first time. It was this same law that prohibited the importation of cannabis – at least, for any reason other than medical purposes. Prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act, there had been no restriction whatsoever on intoxicating substances. At this point in history there was still cocaine in Coca-Cola and you could purchase heroin at Sears – everything was legal.

Less than 10 years later, the federal government introduced The Harrison Act of 1914, which gave them control over all narcotics. This was the first law that made it illegal for non-medical consumers to possess opiates and cocaine. For the first time, the United States government was putting a clear line between medicinal use and recreational use of drugs – luckily for cannabis, it managed to stay out of The Harrison Act as it was not widely used (except among minorities).

However, just because the federal government wasn’t seeing a problem, did not mean that individual states were not taking measures of their own. In 1913, California outlawed marijuana as a way to harass the Mexican population who had immigrated due to the revolution. This was a tactic that had been used around forty years prior in San Francisco as a way to try and control the Chinese population. A year later in 1914 El Paso, Texas passed the first city ordinance that banned the sale and possession of cannabis.

In 1920, cannabis manages to escape the Eighteenth Amendment, which outlawed alcohol and started the nearly 14 years of alcohol prohibition. During this time, practically everyone became an outlaw, either making alcohol illegally, running a speakeasy or visiting one to drink nightly – it was also during this period that the cheaper and still legal intoxicant marijuana started to gain popularity, especially among jazz musicians. Alcohol prohibition was repealed only three years before the propaganda film that would change the course of marijuana in the United States for many years to come.

Almost a decade after the introduction of alcohol prohibition, Congress passed another law in 1929 called the Narcotic Farm Act. The NFA wrongly classified “Indian hemp” as a “habit-forming narcotic” and also authorized two hospitals in the federal prison system to treat drug addicts. This contributed to the supposed difference between the “well-off and hardworking” and the “lazy marijuana-smokers”.

From Common Medicine to Schedule I Controlled Substance

Around late 1933, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed and alcohol prohibition was a thing of the past – the government had finally admitted that they were not going to be able to outlaw alcohol entirely, so it was better to try and regulate it instead. It was around this same time, however, that the negative reputation surrounding marijuana use started to grow – and it grew rapidly due to the over-exaggerated horrors that were being spread around the country.

It was during this timeframe that things took the biggest downturn – during public hearings people would make claims that those who used marijuana became extremely violent and that its use made minorities seek sexual encounters with white women. In 1936, the famous propaganda film Reefer Madness was released, instilling fear in those who had no idea that marijuana was the same as the cannabis tincture in their medicine cabinets.

The Reefer Madness film depicted what could happen when high school students are pushed to try their first marijuana cigarettes. It opens with claims that all events are fictional, but based on real events (though what they describe sounds more like a hardcore hallucinogen than the effects of marijuana) and continues to show people smoking “marijuana cigarettes” who start laughing uncontrollably before committing acts of violence including rape and murder, as well as hallucinations and suicide – laying the claim that this is what will happen if your child smokes reefer.

Just a year after this film was introduced to the public, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed by Congress. The Act created a tax that was equivalent to around one dollar to anyone who dealt commercially with cannabis, hemp or marijuana. While the law did not directly outlaw cannabis, it did enforce a penalty and provisions for those who were found in possession of the plant – violation of the provisions or failure to pay the tax could result in a $2,000 fine and five years’ imprisonment.

Clearly this law was meant to discourage the use and sale of cannabis without having to criminalize it directly. Unfortunately, by taxing every form of the plant, physicians ended up being forced to pay the tax as well – which created a problem for the medical industry. The American Medical Association suggested that perhaps cannabis should be scheduled under The Harrison Act instead – but that suggestion was overlooked and the Marihuana Tax Act was passed regardless of the AMAs protest.

The Marihuana Tax Act remained in place for many years – until years passed and hemp and medical cannabis became used less and less. They had implemented tax stamps for the cultivation of these products, however, it was determined in 1967 by President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration that the Act had become inefficient as it made little revenue and very few were registered.

Two years later, a Supreme Court case ruled that the Act was unconstitutional and went against the 5th amendment because in order to purchase a tax stamp, one would have to incriminate oneself of marijuana possession. Just one year after that, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was repealed and very quickly was replaced by the Controlled Substances Act, which was introduced the same year (1969) by President Nixon and Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and was enacted as law in 1970.

Originally, cannabis’ place as a Schedule I controlled substance was supposed to be a temporary place holder while Nixon issued a report to give the plant a proper classification. However, the findings of The Schafer Commission was that marijuana should not be Schedule I – they actually doubted whether or not it should be a part of the Controlled Substances Act at all!

Unfortunately, as I’m sure you can guess, Nixon ignored their report and left cannabis in the CSA under the classification for the most dangerous and addictive of drugs. All these years and cannabis wasn’t even supposed to stay at Schedule I in the first place – and the findings of The Schafer Commission prove that even in the 60s we knew cannabis wasn’t as dangerous as the 1930s propaganda would have us think.

It took 25 years after the Controlled Substances Act was introduced before California voted to legalize the use of medical marijuana. It took another 16 years after that before Colorado and Washington were able to vote on the legalization of recreational marijuana. It’s been 46 years since the CSA was put into place – and nearly 80 years since the introduction of the Marihuana Tax Act and the release of Reefer Madness – and we’re still only part of the way there when it comes to reversing the damage that was caused so quickly.

Once one of the most commonly used medicines around, with a centuries old reputation, was made to look demonic to outsiders in less than twenty years. It’s amazing how quickly damage can take hold and just how long you can spend trying to repair it.

Things are finally gaining momentum in recent years and it’s definitely not poised to stop anytime soon. It’s time to dispel the lies that Reefer Madness started and the ones that have evolved since then – in the end, the truth will prevail.