Breaking the stigma: how cannabis got a bad reputation

There once was a time when cannabis was a popular medicinal substance carried in pharmacies across the U.S. and farmers were even given government incentives to grow hemp. Fast forward a few decades, marijuana drug became classified as a Schedule 1 substance. It is the most restrictive category for substances with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” (U.S. DEA). So what caused such a drastic and negative shift in society’s perception of cannabis? Read this article to find out the truth behind the criminalization of marijuana.

Growing up, you’ve probably been told by your parents, teachers, or other authoritative figures that weed is a drug. And drugs are addictive and bad for you so you should avoid it at all costs. I mean, it made sense for them to think that since weed was super illegal and you could go to jail just for possessing it. If the government made it illegal then it must be bad, right? Well, unfortunately, you and a large portion of society have been bamboozled.

Diving into history

For thousands of years, the cannabis plant has been used medicinally by cultures all over the world including Indians, Muslims, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and many others. Reports of cannabis use traced back to 2500 years ago in ancient China by Emperor Shen Nung. Marijuana was mainly used medicinally to treat problems like:

  • Inflammation
  • Malaria
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • And even as a libido suppressant

Some other cultures also used the THC in marijuana for rituals or religious purposes

marijuana as Chinese medicine
Cannabis plants found in a 2,700-year-old ancient Chinese grave

Around the 1500’s, cannabis was brought to North America by Spanish colonists. From then until the 1900’s, the cannabis plant was thriving in the U.S. and many other parts of the world like South America and Europe. Back then, the government encouraged farmers to grow hemp; in the 1600’s in Virginia, farmers were literally required to grow hemp to be used for producing rope, sails, clothes and a variety of other products. Hemp was even used as legal tender (basically money) in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. In the 1800’s, cannabis was also a popular ingredient used in many medicinal products in pharmacies all over the US. The cannabis plant had a glorious reputation. 

Starting the stigma

Beginning of the 20th century, when the opium crisis was going on around the world. The Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 made it a requirement to label over-the-counter medicines containing cannabis (and other substances such as heroin or cocaine). But these substances were all still legal at that point in time. 

A few years later, the Mexico Revolution in 1910 drove a large number of Latino immigrants into the southern states. The Mexican population used cannabis recreationally and referred to it as “marihuana.” Although the white American culture was already using cannabis medicinally. They were unfamiliar with the term “marihuana” nor the concept of using cannabis recreationally. Marijuana as a drug became associated with Spanish-speaking immigrants. 

Mexican Marihuana
Racist news coverage used to target immigrants and justify criminalizing marijuana

As the southern states grew concerned about the increasing immigrant population. Prejudice, fear and lack of knowledge became associated with both Mexican immigrants and marijuana. Newspapers were running headlines such as the “Mexican Menace” or “Marihuana Menace”. They claimed that Mexicans were turning crazy and killing people because of smoking marijuana. Rumours of Mexicans distributing this “killer weed” or “locoweed” that caused people to commit crimes and corrupted children’s behaviour started to spread across the states. 

The media was releasing propaganda by campaigning against marijuana and Mexicans. An excerpt from a New York Times articles reads: “A widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana plant, according to doctors, who say that there is no hope of saving the children’s lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life.” The racial tensions and stigma against people of colour lead the federal government to increase regulations on marijuana. 

Beginning the banning of marijuana

California became the first state to pass a cannabis prohibition law in 1913. And in 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed, the first sign of the beginning of the US drug war. El Paso, Texas was the first US city to ban marijuana in 1915 as local police started rounding up and deporting Mexicans who had smoked marijuana. 

The great depression during the 1930’s resulted in widespread poverty and unemployment throughout the US. Fear and confusion caused Americans to look for something to blame. Harry J. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), which was founded in 1930 to enforce provisions of the Harrisons Narcotics Act. Anslinger attacked drugs, race, and music. He claimed that cannabis led to “insanity, criminality, and death.”

Marijuana as illegal drug
A service announcement around the 1930’s from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics spreading anti-marijuana propaganda

Angslinger jump started a racially-targeted, nationwide hatred towards cannabis making statements like “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., 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 Negros, entertainers, and any others.” And by 1931, 29 states have outlawed marijuana. 

Creating misconceptions against cannabis

As anti-marijuana laws spread across the country, things were made even worse with the release of “Reefer Madness” in 1936, an anti-marijuana propaganda film. The film spread fear that devious marijuana dealers would lead the youth of America to a life of crime, drugs, and sex– continuing to fuel the stigma surrounding marijuana. These misconceptions and negative ideologies permeated deeply into our society and still exists even to this day. 

Reefer madness
The original movie poster of the anti-marijuana propaganda film “Reefer Madness” in 1936

In 1937, the first federal law to criminalize cannabis– the Marihuana Tax Act– was passed. This act imposed heavy, unrealistic taxes on possession, sale, and transportation of the plant, beginning the era of cannabis prohibition

A board-certified General Neurology & Neuro-Psychiatry practitioner, Dr. Aung Din, has been a proponent of medicinal cannabis use for treating a variety of ailments such as epilepsy and even cancer. In an interview with TheStreet, he describes the effects of the government’s actions in the early 1900’s on cannabis. “The Marijuana Tax Act … levied a huge tax so that people would [be] dissuaded from buying cannabis. So, 1941, cannabis was removed from all pharmacopeias — you couldn’t get it in stores and couldn’t find any evidence of it. … And since then, there has been stigma and I was even subject to that in medical school.” Propaganda and misconceptions of marijuana have been deeply rooted even in the education system. Marijuana’s reputation had been completely demonized. 

Commencing the war on drugs

A few years later, the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 were passed. The act made prison sentences a requirement for drug crimes, such as possession of marijuana. During the 1960s, there was a change in political and cultural climate as more white upper-middle-class Americans started using drugs recreationally. President John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson commissioned the Warren Commission Report. And the report found that marijuana did not cause violent behaviours nor lead to the use of heavier drugs. 

Fast forward to 1969, the Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional as it violated the 5th amendment. However, President Richard Nixon responded by passing the Controlled Substance Act in 1970 and classifying cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug reserved for substances that are highly addictive with no medical use. The bipartisan Schafer Commission, formerly known as the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, declared that marijuana should not be a Schedule 1 substance in a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” Nixon disregarded the commission and ignored their recommendations. Drugs became the “public’s number one enemy” according to the administration; and thus began the War on Drugs.

Marijuana as controlled substance
President Richard M. Nixon turning towards the attorney general after signing the Controlled Substance Act in October 27, 1970

Moving into the ’80s, President Ronald Reagan escalated the drug war by creating mandatory prison sentences and even the death penalty for repeat drug offenders. The drug war caused the US to go from 150 to over 700 people in prison per 100,000 people. The war on drugs started on a racist and propagandized basis as a method to target minority communities. Fortunately, many people didn’t give up trying to make progress.

Leading into legalization 

Medical marijuana became first legalized in California in 1996 through the Compassionate Use Act which allowed patients with chronic illnesses to use medical marijuana. Four more states and Washington D.C. tagged along in the late 90’s; and by 2010, medical use of marijuana had been legalized in 16 states. 

cannabis illegalisation protests

With more and more research being done on cannabis, the public’s perception of cannabis was slowly shifting. The turning point was in 2013 when the chief medical correspondent for CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, made a critical announcement. “We have been terribly and systematically misled for 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that,”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta wrote on CNN’s website. A physician once famous for his outspoken opposing views of cannabis was now saying that cannabis has “very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes [cannabis] is the only thing that works.”

As of 2019, medical cannabis is legal in 33 states, 10 of those states have also legalized cannabis for recreation use. The negative stigma attached to marijuana is finally being broken, restoring marijuana’s once glorious reputation.  

Medical cannabis is legal

Now you understand why your parents think weed is so bad; but you know they’re wrong because you are now aware of the truth. Unfortunately, it may be a tough challenge to convince them that the government and media have been lying to them their whole lives. But, hey, at least the next generation will have the right idea. 

Did you know the true origins of the criminalization of cannabis? Let us know in the comments and follow us @cannalifenet to get educated on everything cannabis.