The History of Cannabis Part 3: Modern American Cannabis

August 13, 2022

Narcotic Use of Cannabis in the Americas

In its early days, cannabis as a narcotic in the Americas was used in Brazil and Jamaica by the Portuguese and British to subdue their enslaved populations. At the 1876 World’s Exposition in Philadelphia, the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid II gifted Americans with cannabis smoking. Turkish smoking parlors opened throughout the northeastern states where patrons could smoke hash or consume hash edibles and were able to hold some semblance of popularity until the end of prohibition. The recreational use of cannabis, however, didn’t take off in much of the United States until the early 1910s, when refugees of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1911 introduced early cannabis culture. While spreading across the southwestern United States, Texas had a large influx of these refugees, and the city of El Paso became the first US city to restrict cannabis. Another point of entry into the United States at the time was in port cities located predominantly on the coast along the Gulf of Mexico, such as New Orleans, with sailors and immigrants from the Caribbean. Given these early progenitors of American cannabis culture, the plant was seen as a drug for people of color well into the 1960s.

American Cannabis Culture

Consumption of cannabis, colloquially marijuana, was popular among the musicians, artists, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. These creatives played a huge role in the early creation of the American cannabis culture. The Beat movement took heavily from the cultural development provided by the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance and expanded further into the exploration of spiritualism, the human condition, sexual freedom, and psychedelic drug use. America’s culture was shifting rapidly during the first half of the 20th century, and just as quickly, the beatniks became the hippies. Interest in the ideals and concepts folks like Jack Kerouac had been developing for the previous decade and a half took charge in the youth of the 1960s. Musical experimentation and conceptual depth in art and writing were moving to the forefront across the world as we were becoming more connected. This era in popular culture culminated with the Summer of Love in 1967. Psychedelic drug use became common across the United States and other Western nations like Britain, with substances such as cannabis, LSD, and psilocybin mushrooms in high popularity. Cannabis has held its prominence among the average person in the West since and has made major strides in the medical field. Due to its numerous beneficial aspects, legality around the plant has changed immensely in a large portion of the world where it has been vilified for centuries.

The Role of Cannabis in Legislation and the War On Drugs

With the negative connotations of cannabis in the United States at the start of the 20th century and with unemployment on the rise during the Great Depression, communities became fearful of Mexican immigrants. This instigated a flurry of research that linked marijuana use with socially deviant behaviors and criminal actions. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed cannabis. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930 to consolidate resources and more efficiently enforce prior legislation that regulated opiates and coca product importation and distribution. Under the FBN’s purview was the enforcement of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 played a major role in the current criminalized status of cannabis in the United States. New York Academy of Medicine’s 1944 La Guardia Report found, despite prior research and popular belief, that the use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity, sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use. During the United States’ time in World War II, the “Hemp for Victory” program was launched to combat expensive import charges and aid in the production of parachutes and other military necessities. As cannabis use among white, upper-middle class Americans continued to rise in the 1960s, reports commissioned during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson reaffirmed the findings of the prior La Guardia Report. In response to growing disillusionment with the mandatory minimum sentences of the 1950s, Congress repealed most of them and recognized that they had done nothing to eliminate the drug culture that embraced marijuana use throughout the 1960s and they were often seen as too harsh, ultimately having The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act classify marijuana separately from other narcotics, eliminating mandatory federal sentences for possession of small amounts. In 1972, the bipartisan National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (better known as the Shafer Commission), appointed by President Nixon at the direction of Congress, recommended laws regarding marijuana be liberalized; this included decriminalizing its use. Nixon, however, rejected the recommendation. Over the course of the 1970s, eleven states decriminalized marijuana, and most others reduced their penalties for possession. In 1976, a nationwide movement emerged of conservative parent groups lobbying for stricter regulation of marijuana and the prevention of drug use by teenagers. These groups included some powerful organized efforts, with the support of the NIDA and the DEA, which led to a change in public attitudes that culminated in the War on Drugs beginning in the 1980s. Ten years after the parents made their ripples throughout the political landscape, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, sentencing drug offenders to mandatory prison terms. In conjunction with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the new law increased federal penalties for dealing and possessing cannabis by basing the offense level on the amount involved. Possession of 100 cannabis plants received an equal penalty as that for the possession of 100 grams of heroin. A later amendment to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act established a “three strikes” policy, requiring life sentences for repeat drug offenders and providing the death penalty for “drug kingpins.” The California Compassionate Use Act, better known under its ballot initiative number Proposition 215, passed in 1996 and allowed for the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients with AIDS, cancer, and other serious diseases. This law stands in tension with federal laws prohibiting the possession of marijuana. After decades of back and forth within the federal government and national decriminalization far over the horizon, U.S. state governments began to take the matter into their own jurisdictions. Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize cannabis for recreational use in 2012. In November of 2014, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington D.C. were added to the list of refuges for legal cannabis. In the years following, there has been a nominal amount of states added to that list. Those states are California (2016), Nevada (2016), Massachusetts (2016), Maine (2016), Vermont (2018), Michigan (2018), Illinois (2019), Arizona (2020), Montana (2020), New Jersey (2020), South Dakota (2020), New York (2021), New Mexico (2021), Connecticut (2021), and Virginia (2021). There are bills in rotation throughout much of the rest of the U.S.’s state legislatures, and the federal government passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, more commonly known as the 2018 Farm Bill. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 creates a federal hemp regulatory system under the US Department of Agriculture. This aims to provide farmers with potential financial incentives and remove roadblocks that can inhibit the growth of this industry. Under this bill, hemp and hemp seeds were removed from the statutory definition of marijuana and the DEA schedule of Controlled Substances. This bill allowed for a burgeoning market to explode across the country, especially with the introduction of Delta-8 THC, a hemp-derived alternative to Delta-9 THC with similar effects. This type of THC is federally protected under the 2018 Farm Bill and became popular in states without recreational cannabis legalization.

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