The History of Cannabis in the United States


1600-1890s – Domestic production of hemp encouraged

  • Encouraged by the government in the 17th century for production of rope, sails, and clothing
  • 1619 – Virginia passes legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp.
  • Hemp is allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland
  • Domestic production of hemp flourished until after the Civil War, when imports and other domestic materials replaced hemp for many purposes.
  • In late 19th century, cannabis became a popular ingredient in many medicinal products and was sold openly in public pharmacies.

1906 – Pure Food and Drug Act

  • Required labeling of any cannabis contained in over-the-counter remedies.

1900-20s – Mexican immigration and use of cannabis

  • After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigration to the US increased significantly. As use of cannabis also increased, the plant became associated with the immigrants.
  • Fear and prejudice about immigrants became associated with cannabis and crimes were attributed to the plant and the Mexicans who used it.
  • The term “Marijuana Menace” was coined.

1930s – Fear of “Marijuana”

  • During the Great Depression, massive unemployment increased public resentment and fear of Mexican immigrants, which escalated public and governmental concern about the problem of marijuana.
  • This instigated a boom in propaganda which linked the use of marijuana with violence, crime, and other "socially deviant" behaviors, primarily committed by people and communities that were referred to as “racially inferior”.
  • The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) is created in 1090. Harry J. Anslinger was the first Commissioner of the FBN.

1937 – Marijuana Tax Act

  • After effective national propaganda campaign against cannabis, Congress passed this act.
  • The statute effectively criminalized marijuana, restricting the possession of the drug to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses.

1944 – La Guardia Report finds marijuana less dangerous

  • New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report that stated the use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity, or sex crimes, or lead to an addiction of other drug use, contrary to earlier research and popular belief.

1940s – “Hemp for Victory”

  • During World War II, imports for hemp and other materials needed for producing supplies needed for the war decreased.
  • The U.S. Dept of Agriculture launched its “Hemp for Victory” program, which encouraged farmers to plant hemp by giving out seeds and granting draft deferments to those who would stay home and grow hemp.
  • By 1943 American farmers registered in the program harvested 375,000 acres of hemp.

1951-56 – Boggs Act (1952) and Narcotics Control Act (1956)

  • Set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses, including marijuana.
  • A first-offense marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2-10 years with a fine of up to $20,000

1968 – Nixon campaign and Nixon presidency

  • “Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people.” – John Ehrlichman

1970 – Controlled Substances Act

  • Designates marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.

1970 – NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) Founded   

  • A non-profit public-interest group whose mission is to end cannabis prohibition.

1971 – President Nixon Declares War on Drugs

1972 – Shafer Commission

  • Bipartisan commission, appointed by President Nixon at the direction of Congress, analyzed laws regarding marijuana. They determined that personal use of cannabis should be decriminalized.
  • Nixon rejected the recommendations – but over the course of the 1970s, 11 states decriminalized cannabis and most others reduced penalties.

1973 – Creation of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)

1983 – D.A.R.E program established

1986 – Anti-Drug Abuse Act – Mandatory Sentences

  • President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, instituting mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes.
  • In combination with the Comprehesive Crime Control Act of 1984, this raised penalties for marijuana possession and dealing, basing penalties on the amount of drug involved.

1996 – CA passes Prop 215 legalizing medical cannabis

2000-2011 – more than a dozen states vote to decriminalize cannabis for medical uses

2012 – Washington and Colorado become first two states to legalize recreational use for cannabis adults 21+.

2016 – Gallup Poll

  • Reports that 60% of U.S. citizens support legal adult use pot and 90% percent support medical uses.

As of 2021 –

  • Medical cannabis – legal in 36 states, 4/5 US territories, and Washington D.C.
  • Adult use cannabis – legal in 18 states, D.C., Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Decriminalization – 13 states in the US Virgin Islands have decriminalized cannabis use