100 Years Of Cannabis Laws

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Marijuana Legalization has continuously been a controversial topic throughout the 20th century. Some states have fully legalized the use and have booming cannabis industries, while in others it is fully illegal and people are imprisoned for it. In the 2016 election, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada legalized its recreational use contrary to an existing Federal ban.

Cannabis Laws: Prohibition

At the onset of the 20th century, moral issues with racetracks, prostitution, drinking, and prizefighting provoked states into prohibiting cannabis, often found alongside these events. The first ones were the District of Columbia in 1906 and Massachusetts in 1911. Other states followed the example until the late 1930s. The last state to fully ban cannabis, in 1939, was Wisconsin. Alaska remained a holdout throughout, where cannabis was only decriminalized.

H.J. Aslinger, the first commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, told his peers that he could “see the serious effects of marijuana on our youth. An alarming increase in the smoking of marijuana reefers in 1936 continued to spread at an accelerated pace in 1937”

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November 1938: A truck in Omaha, Nebraska, carrying a poster advertising ‘Assassin of Youth’, a film warning of the dangers of marijuana. (Photo by John Vachon/Library Of Congress/Getty Images; flashbak.com/reefer-madness-mid-century-anti-marijuana-propaganda-in-movies-and-books-35558/)

Aslinger played a crucial role in the final cannabis prohibition. He used the police reports of major crimes as anti-marijuana propaganda by associating it with crime and moral corruption. The most famous case was the “Dream Slayer”, Victor Licata, who chopped up his parents, two brothers, and sister with an ax after smoking marijuana. It was later shown that the youth actually had a severe mental illness, and his actions were not caused by cannabis. But the message had already been sent. Aslinger’s campaign was successful at using this story during the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act hearings.

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Poster from a 1942 movie, “Devil’s Harvest”

The Mexican Revolution caused a surge of immigration into the US that heightened xenophobia. There are views that this caused an alternative impetus for cannabis prohibition. These immigrants came with a new term for cannabis, “marijuana” and a new, unfamiliar custom of smoking it. At that time, cannabis was already present in most medical cabinets as a tincture to relieve various discomforts. These synonyms facilitated an unfair categorization, as Mexicans were deemed “disruptive” under the influence of “marijuana” but “cannabis” was a medicine. Rumors spread about marijuana-related violence and indecency, particularly regarding female behavior. Soon marijuana became a justification to detain and deport immigrants.


In 1970, Richard Nixon appointed the Shafer Commission to research and report on the issue of marijuana. The Shafer Commission issued a document in 1972, in which it advocated the decriminalization of marijuana possession. Concurrently, NORML, a nonprofit public interest advocacy group, petitioned the DEA to reschedule marijuana so that physicians could legally prescribe it. Nixon was strongly anti-marijuana and ignored both suggestions. The reports still managed to shift public opinion and a wave of marijuana decriminalization passed in six states.

Medical Marijuana Legalization

In 1974, the National Institute on Drug Abuse had continuously been growing cannabis for research. It was the only source of legal medical marijuana in the US.  A glaucoma patient, Robert Randall, was charged for growing his medical marijuana in 1976, which lead to the “US vs Randall” case, where a Superior Court Judge ruled that Mr. Randall “has established a defense of necessity. … The evil he sought to avert, blindness, is greater than that he performed.” Randall became the first American legal marijuana patient. Two years later, NIDA started supplying marijuana to patients whose physicians applied for and received an ID from the FDA.

Shortly after, New Mexico passed the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act. This was the first state law that recognized marijuana’s medical value. Over the next decade years, 30 more states followed suit, passing similar legislation.

The National Cancer Institute started testing Marinol, a formulation of an oral form of tetrahydrocannabinol. The results of the experimental distribution were positive. FDA and DEA approved the drug for the treatment of nausea.

In a report published in March 1990, Miles Herkenham, Senior Investigator and the NIMH, and his team described the cannabinoid receptors in the brain they had discovered. This further would help scientists better understand the pharmacological effects of cannabinoids.

In 1991, Proposition P was organized in San Francisco and passed with almost 80% of the vote. It did not have legal force but was a resolution that declared the support of the city for medical marijuana. Proposition P served as a premise for 1996 Proposition 215, which allowed patients from California, and their primary caregivers, to possess and cultivate marijuana, with a physician’s prescription for the treatment of a series of diseases. Thus, California becomes the first state to legalize medical marijuana. In 1998, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington follow California’s example and make medical cannabis legal. In 1999, 62% vote for legal medical cannabis in Maine. During the following years, several other states legalized medical cannabis.

In 2003, the US Government receives a patent for the therapeutic use of cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.

In 2011, DEA categorized five THC-like synthetic cannabinoids Spice, including into Schedule I of the CSA considering it  “necessary to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety”.





Nelly Botezatu


Nelly Botezatu is a doctoral student in Economics. She enjoys learning new subjects, discovering trends, insights and data relationships. After studying the fundamentals of graphic design, she now presents her data analysis via infographics. She strives to add to the body of online knowledge for our clients.


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