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Why Is Cannabis Illegal?

It wasn't so long ago that cannabis was readily available in general stores, prescribed by American doctors, and listed as an effective cure for a myriad of ailments in The U.S. Pharmacopoeia (it wasn't removed until 1941). Going a little further back in our country's history, we find a time when farmers from New York to California were encouraged and sometimes required to grow hemp plants for the production of paper, rope, clothing, sails and other textiles.

So how did cannabis go from one of man's oldest known agricultural crops to Schedule I drug?

At the turn of the 19th Century, after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the United States saw waves of refugees enter southern states to the dismay of some long-standing citizens. These Mexican immigrants introduced Americans to the practice of using “marihuana” as a relaxant, rather than just a medicine as they had for years. This foreign custom became demonized and synonymous with the worst stereotypes of Mexican immigrants, even though cannabis was in every corner drug store.

The passage of the Harrison Act in 1914 made the use of marijuana a crime, and border states embraced enforcement in what is now seen as a racially motivated effort to control, detain, monitor, and deport Mexican immigrants. By the 1930s, wild claims and sensational stories about the extreme effects caused by the “Mexican Menace” had soured public opinion of cannabis and paved the way for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which criminalized the plant and banned its possession, sale, and use without specific medical or industrial purpose. This Act was found unconstitutional and was replaced with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which is still in effect today.

There is a theory that the role cannabis played in making a wide variety of products was another factor that led to the plant's prohibition. Some scholars believe cannabis was targeted by wealthy businessmen, including newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst and the Du Pont family, which developed synthetic nylon, to push out competition to their products. It is in this vein we can argue that continued federal prohibition is partially motivated by large pharmaceutical companies, as these businesses would surely see diminished profits if cannabis were recognized as an alternative medicine

To conclude, the use of cannabis in its many forms has been documented for thousands of years and it is unfortunate how dramatic legislation was passed based on fear rather than sound science. However, as research moves forward and more states reverse laws against marijuana, hope remains that the widespread prohibition of cannabis will soon come to an end.


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