The Birth of Marijuana in the United States


The legalization of marijuana is a hot-button issue in the United States. As of this writing, marijuana is legal for purchase by adults over 21 in 11 states and legal for medical use in 33 states. Cannabis has become a multi-billion-dollar industry in the states that have legalized it, with sales figures expected to only continue increasing over time. At the same time, marijuana is the drug one is most likely to be arrested for possession of, with 663,367 arrests involving marijuana in 2018 alone.

While public opinion towards marijuana legalization has shifted favorably as of late, it is still considered an illegal narcotic substance in numerous places across the US. Georgia’s marijuana laws are especially strict, although limited use of cannabis and cannabinoid products is allowed under its medical marijuana and hemp laws. However, there was a time that cannabis was not considered a narcotic drug and was, in fact, perfectly legal. What happened to change its reputation?

The history of cannabis use and cultivation in North America dates back to the 1600s. Colonists were encouraged – and in Virginia, legally required– to grow cannabis plants, as hemp could be used to make a variety of different products. Hemp fell out of popularity as a material by the Civil War, but the cannabis sativa plant remained popular as an ingredient in various medicines and tinctures. From 1850 to 1937, cannabis-based medicines were a common sight in general stores and pharmacies, where they were used to treat everything from muscle spasms to the common cold.

IMG_3540-300x225Although hashish, a drug derived from the resin of the cannabis plant, was popular in parts of the United States in the 19th century, recreational use of cannabis was limited. This changed during 1910, as the Mexican Revolution occurred, and large numbers of Mexican immigrants crossed into the southwestern United States. These immigrants brought along their drug of choice: marijuana (a word with murky and unclear origins), a form of cannabis that was smoked for recreational purposes.

Pro-prohibition sentiments were already beginning to stir in the United States, causing the Mexican immigrants’ drug of choice to be looked at with suspicion. Anti-drug campaigners warned about the side effects of marijuana, claiming that the drug would incite bloodlust in and give super-human strength to its users, and terrible crimes were attributed to those who had smoked marijuana. From 1914 to 1929, twenty-six states passed laws prohibiting the sale of marijuana with little to no protest.

Marijuana remained relatively popular in the 1920s, as the Volstead Act raised the price of alcohol, making weed an attractive alternative and leading it to become a fixture in jazz culture. But as the 1930s rolled around, marijuana’s fortunes began to shift. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the DEA) was founded in 1930. At first, the commissioner of the FBN, Harry J. Anslinger, paid little attention to marijuana… until the repeal of Prohibition left his department with little to do.

The Great Depression had resulted in job loss for many Americans, and fear and resentment ran high. Public concern about the dangers of marijuana, a drug with an already shady reputation, began to grow, and the media began to report more news linking marijuana to violent crime. Harry Anslinger took advantage of this and launched a campaign to criminalize marijuana on a federal level. Anslinger cherry-picked news medical sources in search of proof that marijuana led to violent insanity, pointing specifically to one high-profile murder case as evidence of its malign influence.

Anslinger’s campaign worked. 1937 saw the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act, a piece of legislature drafted by Anslinger himself. Although the Marijuana Tax Act did not explicitly criminalize cannabis, it did restrict its use only to those who could afford to pay a heavy tax for specific industrial and medical uses. By 1942, cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, and doctors began to discredit the idea of it having any medical use. And when the La Guardia Committee Report, published in 1944, directly contradicted Anslinger’s findings, Anslinger worked to discredit it.

Although hemp was made legal to grow again for a limited time in World War II, Harry Anslinger’s campaign against marijuana had criminalized it across the United States. The Marijuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional in 1937, only to be replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This bill established “schedules” for drugs, according to their levels of danger and potential for abuse. Marijuana was classified as a Schedule I substance, the most dangerous class, a category it has remained in since.

However, marijuana’s fortunes in America are slowly beginning to shift again, even in states with draconian anti-cannabis policies like Georgia. HB 324, a bill legalizing medical marijuana in certain forms and HB 213, a bill allowing the sale of all cannabis products containing below 3% THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) both passed in 2019.  Proposals to legalize all forms of marijuana in Georgia are already in the works, and the Solicitor General of Gwinnett County has come out in favor of legalization. Perhaps one day, cannabis will be legal throughout the United States once more.

Until this day comes, be aware that there is still no part of Georgia where marijuana is legal. Being caught with a small amount of leafy green marijuana can land you in jail for up to a year in most counties, and possession of more than an ounce of marijuana is considered a felony. The penalties grow even harsher for cannabis products that no longer look like cannabis – one pot brownie could cost you up to fifteen years in prison. If you are in danger of being charged with a drug offense, contact the Don Turner Legal Team, and see how we can help you with your case.


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