Throughout much of the world, the United States Constitution is considered to be a model legal document that forms the foundation for governing a nation. Legal principles written into the groundbreaking American Constitution have become staples of pure democracies and representative democracies around the globe. Constitutional scholars point to a few flaws written into the Constitution, but one Amendment passed in 1920 represents the greatest flaw of the greatest living legal document.
Towards the end of the 19th century, prohibitionists began to assume more political power in the United States, especially at the state level. At the end of World War I, prohibitionists accumulated enough influence at the federal level to enact an Amendment to the American Constitution that banned the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol. The prohibition set the moral tone of the country, only to lose steam for many reasons 13 years after the original Amendment banned alcohol.
The rapid rise of organized crime during prohibition led to the most violent stretch in American history. Moonshine stills and underground bars became the norm in the United States, as organized crime families fought to control the illicit alcohol trade. The production of moonshine came at a healthcare cost, as countless Americans became ill or even died because of the illegal consumption of alcohol products. By 1933, pressure from the American people forced politicians to reverse the intent of the Prohibition Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Ironically, four years after the repeal of the prohibition of alcohol, the United States passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Intended to make marijuana cost-prohibitive for growing and consuming, the new law effectively made weed illegal in the United States. The answer to the question, “When did weed become illegal in the US?” is 1937. Since the enactment of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the issue of legalizing marijuana has mostly been decided at the state level.
The Road to Banning Weed
The increasing acceptance of legalizing marijuana, which also goes by the name Cannabis, might make it seem like the United States never accepted the legalization of the drug before banning it in 1937. However, the most liberal marijuana laws today resemble the marijuana laws passed in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. As with cocaine and opiates, drug stores throughout the United States carried cannabis in liquid form, as well as a highly refined product called hashish. Marijuana also became the primary ingredient in patent medicines and over-the-counter drugs
The prevalence of cannabis made it difficult to distinguish between medicinal and recreational use.
Although weed was available in liquid form and as a highly refined product called hashish, smoking the drug did not catch on until Mexican immigrants introduced the practice in the United States during the first decade of the 20th century. The predominant negative reaction from residents of the United States to smoking the drug was not based on the practice of smoking it. Instead, Anti-Mexican xenophobia, which was stronger back then than it is today, provided the momentum for banning the substance for consumption.
The first attempt to prohibit the consumption of weed occurred in 1906 when the United States Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act. At the heart of the new law was the requirement that the sellers of patented medicines have to include cannabis on the label of every bottle sold in the United States. Although the Act did not outlaw marijuana, it significantly increased the cost of consuming it by adding the labeling requirement.
Between 1914 and 1925, 26 states passed legislation that prohibited residents from growing, cultivating, and consuming weed. The anti-Cannabis laws received little opposition, which gave politicians at the national level the motivation to seek prohibition of the drug throughout the country. Although the answer to the question, “When did weed become legal at the federal level?” is 1937, the drug started to become unlawful when the first state banned it in 1914.
With the nation’s attention turned to alcohol prohibition in 1920, 17 years passed before federal lawmakers began the legal assault on weed.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and Other Federal Laws
During the 1930s, the nation’s most influential anti-narcotics official began the movement to ban marijuana from consumption. Initially, Harry J. Anslinger, who ran the United States Treasury Department’s Narcotics Bureau from 1930 to 1962, opposed passing federal laws that prohibited the production and consumption of cannabis. However, the politically motivated head of the Narcotics Bureau saw an opportunity to capitalize on the growing anti-marijuana sentiment that swept over the United States at the time.
First, Anslinger pushed for the passage of uniform anti-cannabis laws in each of the 48 states. Then, he became the principal proponent and lobbyist for passing the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The new anti-weed law, which regulated usage of the drug by requiring distributors to pay an exorbitant transfer tax, passed both chambers of Congress in fewer than 30 minutes and it received little attention from the national media. Much of the neglect to cover the story was due to the rapidly increasing focus on the developments leading to war in Europe.
In response to the overwhelming support for the enactment of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the United States Congress began to pass a series of anti-weed laws that prohibited the possession of the drug. Anslinger continued his public crusade against cannabis by trying to prevent the publication of a study completed by the American Bar Association and American Medical Association that claimed the penalties for possessing weed were too harsh.
Many historians consider the 1970s to be the pivotal decade for creating a lasting legal status of cannabis in the United States. At first, the Nixon Administration reduced the penalties for possessing certain drugs, including marijuana. However, the Nixon Administration quickly reversed course and significantly broadened the powers law enforcement had in controlling the illicit marijuana trade. The new legal powers were especially expanded for federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI.
In 1970, the United States Congress enacted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which labeled cannabis as a drug that had no practical use in medical practices. The new law also placed weed in the most restrictive category for defining illicit drugs. The Assistant Secretary of Health recommended scheduling marijuana depending on the outcome of a report completed by the Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. Surprisingly, the report, which the commission released in 1973, suggested an end to criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana.
The recommendation for more leniency marked the end of the anti-marijuana era that started more than 50 years before.
The United States Changes Course on Marijuana
The question should no longer be, “When did weed become illegal in the US?” Instead, the new question should be, “When did the United States legalize cannabis?” Although the United States Congress has not passed a bill legalizing weed, the momentum to legalize the drug has picked up steam
Support for legalizing weed at the federal level has picked up considerable support among Democratic politicians, as well as a few moderate Republicans in both the House and Senate. The primary goal is to decriminalize weed at the federal level, but the question remains whether federal legal action usurps the laws passed at the state level concerning cannabis. Nonetheless, on April 1, 2022, the House passed a decriminalization law for marijuana that faces an uncertain future in the Senate. Part of the uncertainty stems from other issues consuming the time and energy of Senators. Congressman Chuck Schumer and Senator Cory Booker have co-sponsored the federal marijuana decriminalization law.
Why Has the Momentum Swung in Favor of Legalizing Weed?
Public perception has dramatically changed regarding marijuana for several reasons. Although studies confirmed its medicinal benefits for decades, marijuana could not overcome its stigmatization of the drug. Too many Americans believed the drug triggered erratic, even violent behavior from the users that consumed it. However, the advent of the Internet, which made accessing medical studies much easier to do, has helped alleviate the concern of many detractors of cannabis. The drug has proven to alleviate the symptoms of several types of diseases, with cancer patients particularly benefiting from the drug during chemotherapy.
Politicians also began to see the financial windfall generated by taxing marijuana as a legal drug. States that have legalized cannabis have generated record tax revenue to help pay for projects that enhance public infrastructure and the health of constituents. Marijuana has benefited from a significant decline in anti-weed propaganda in the media, as well as in the entertainment sector. Public service announcements demonizing the drug have all but vanished from the big and small screen.
Another reason cannabis is now seen in a more positive light is the growing opinion in the law enforcement community that smoking cannabis is a non-violent crime in states that still have outlawed the drug. This means incarceration of any length of time should be off the table when considering punishments for marijuana smokers in the states that have made the drug illegal.
Unlike the 1930s, the pharmaceutical industry has not vehemently opposed legalizing marijuana mostly because of the profits made by dispensing the drug as a prescription and over-the-counter medication that is heavily regulated by 19 states. In fact, states continue to set the tone for the marijuana laws that have stalled at the federal level.
State Rights Help Legalize Weed
On New Year’s Day 2014, Colorado became the first state to allow marijuana dispensaries to offer the drug for recreational use. Residents no longer need a prescription to buy cannabis as a strategy to mitigate the symptoms produced by adverse medical conditions. Since California became the first step to allow access to medical marijuana, the number of Americans that have access to cannabis has slowly increased every year for nearly the last three decades.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that permit the sale of marijuana as a recreational drug. Seeing how the 19 states and the District of Columbia have generated a healthy increase in tax revenue, as well as spending less money on the judicial system prosecuting marijuana users, a growing number of states are expected to change course and enact laws that legalize the use of weed.