The Real Reason Marijuana Is Illegal Is Worse Than You Think

So just how did marijuana end up in the category of drugs described as the most dangerous by the federal government? Listed as a Schedule I Controlled Substance alongside heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), peyote, methaqualone, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine ("Ecstasy"), marijuana (cannabis) is believed, by the federal government, to have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse. While these reasons are likely not surprising to most people, the reason marijuana became illegal back in the early 1900s will leave you speechless.

 

 

Just after the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. saw an increase in immigration from Mexico. Bringing with them their culture, language, and customs, Mexican immigrants began to settle in places such as Texas and Louisiana. Although cannabis had long been present in tinctures and medicines in the U.S. back then, Mexican immigrants’ customary use of “marihuana” as a relaxant and treatment struck fear in the hearts of a disturbingly uninformed public. This fear was fueled by the media.

 

According to Dr. Malik Burnett, executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization and resident physician at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Amanda Reiman, PhD and drug policy professor at the University of California-Berkeley, the media began to play on the [irrational] fears that the public had about these new citizens by falsely spreading claims about the “disruptive Mexicans” with their dangerous native behaviors, including marihuana use. Unfamiliar with the term “marihuana,” the rest of the nation did not know that it was a plant they already had in their medicine cabinets. “The demonization of the cannabis plant was an extension of the demonization of the Mexican immigrants,” writes Burnett and Reiman.

 

What happened next was simply Deja vu for Chinese immigrants as San Francisco had outlawed opium decades earlier in an effort to control them. To control and keep tabs on Mexican immigrants, El Paso, Texas decided to do the same. “The idea was to have an excuse to search, detain, and deport Mexican immigrants,” writes Burnett and Reiman. This method of controlling entire ethnic groups by controlling their customs was so successful at the state level that it became a “national strategy for keeping certain populations under the watch and control of the government.”

 

During a series of hearings on marijuana law in the 1930s, unsubstantiated claims were made about how marijuana was responsible for provoking violence in men of color and its ability to cause them to solicit sex from white women. According to Burnett and Reiman, this became the backdrop for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The Act levied a tax equaling roughly one dollar on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis, hemp, or marijuana. The Act did not itself criminalize the possession or usage of hemp, marijuana, or cannabis. It did include penalty and enforcement provisions to which marijuana, cannabis, or hemp handlers were subject. Violation of these procedures could result in a fine of up to $2,000 and five years' imprisonment.

 

While the Act was ruled unconstitutional years later, it was replaced by the Controlled Substances Act, which became effective on October 27, 1970. The Act established Schedules for ranking substances according to their dangerousness and potential for addiction. Cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, “supposedly as a placeholder while then President Nixon commissioned a report to give a final recommendation. The Schafer Commission, as it was called, declared that marijuana should not be in Schedule I and even doubted its designation as an illicit substance. However, Nixon discounted the recommendations of the commission, and marijuana remains a Schedule I substance,” writes Burnett and Reiman.

 

Fast forward to 1996 when California became the first state to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes. This historic move ended marijuana’s nearly 60-year reign as an illegal substance with no medical significance. “Prior to 1937,” says Burnett and Reiman “cannabis had enjoyed a 5,000 year history as a therapeutic agent across many cultures. In this context, its blip as an illicit and dangerous drug was dwarfed by its role as a medicine.”

 

Today, 23 states allow the use of medical marijuana in some form and Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington State, and D.C., have legalized recreational use of marijuana. On December 18, 2015, Delaware passed legislation that decriminalizes recreational use of up to one ounce of marijuana, replacing penalties with a fine, and on March 23, 2016, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed an ordinance that decriminalizes marijuana. It will become effective on June 21, 2016.

 

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