Marijuana in the U.S. has a rich and colorful history: From the plant’s beginnings on the continent as a staple colonial crop to its effective outlaw status in 1937, and now with its new resurgence, our relationship with the plant is everchanging. On Independence Day, we take a look at the United States’ relationship with marijuana—the good, the bad and everything in between.
Let’s start with some tidbits you may have picked up from your pro-marijuana uncle at Thanksgiving dinner: Hemp was a crucial part of the New World economy. So much so that Virginia passed a law in 1619 that required every farm in the colony grow hemp. The fibrous plant was used for the production of sails, clothing and rope.
Many of the founding fathers also grew the cash crop including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Contrary to popular myth, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence weren’t written on hemp paper; they were written on parchment, or animal skins. Though, it’s possible that drafts of the documents were written on hemp paper, as it was popular at the time.
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In 1842, Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy returned from his travels in India and brought cannabis to Britain, renewing interest in the plant’s medicinal properties among Westerners.
From the late 1800s to early 1900s, cannabis—often mixed with other drugs and in the form of tinctures—was a popular sight on pharmacy shelves across the U.S. Marijuana was used as a remedy for everything from pain and insomnia to muscle spasms and seizures.
In the 1910s, Mexican refugees, fleeing violence from the Mexican Revolution, brought cannabis with them to the U.S., particularly to Texas. Cannabis had been brought to Latin America multiple times in the 1700s and was often smoked; its use there was already well-established.
Around the same time, cannabis arrived in New Orleans and other coastal cities from the Caribbean. It was here that the plant began to take root in what would become jazz culture. Jazz musicians brought the plant with them to cities throughout the Midwest—including St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago.
The popularity of cannabis among Latinos and African Americans birthed the stereotype of the plant as a “colored people’s drug,” a notion that Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, would take advantage of in the years to come.
In 1920, the Volstead Act established alcohol prohibition in the U.S. Though there’s no direct evidence to point to, historian Barney Warf, who authored the paper High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis, theorizes that Prohibition may have contributed to the popularization of cannabis.
“Tea pads” began appearing in Harlem and soon spread across the country; they were often associated with the black “hepster” jazz scene. These pads, which often resembled speakeasies, were places where folks could go to purchase and consume marijuana in a peaceful, comfortable atmosphere. By the 1930s, it’s estimated that there were about 500 tea pads in New York City.
You can thank Henry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which would later become the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA), for promoting a negative image of marijuana.
In his 32-year career, Henry frequently dismissed scientific evidence, which stated that cannabis use didn’t lead to violent behavior or the use of addictive drugs. He manipulated public opinion, causing many to believe that cannabis use:
He also promoted the narrative that the plant was used by communities of color and linked this use to violence and crime. His efforts would ultimately culminate in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which didn’t distinguish hemp from marijuana and placed all production of cannabis under government control.
During World War II, industrial fibers that were often imported from overseas were in short supply, prompting the federal government to lift the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. To encourage farmers to grow hemp, and likely to explain the lifting of a ban of a substance that they’d recently promoted as extremely dangerous, the U.S. government released a film titled Hemp for Victory in 1942. The film goes through the history of hemp and how it was used for rope and cloth.
Shortly after the war, the DEA initiated a series of anti-hemp programs, and the plant was once again criminalized.
In the 1960s, use of cannabis among America’s white middle class began to expand. This phenomenon is credited to the Beatniks, who made a drug often associated with poor communities of color seem more approachable. The hippie counterculture movement would popularize the plant further, though it did little to change cannabis’s illegal status.
In fact, as most cannabis consumers know, the worst was yet to come: In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act would classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug, a substance with high abuse potential, no medical use and severe safety concerns. This classification, in combination with mandatory drug sentencing laws, would disproportionately affect men of color.
When the AIDS epidemic hit the U.S. in the 1980s, there was no medicine to combat the virus’s effects. Eventually, the FDA approved a drug called azidothymidine (AZT). While it was effective and manageable for some AIDS patients, for others its side effects only seemed to worsen the disease’s already debilitating symptoms, which included nausea, fatigue and cachexia.
Naturally, people with AIDS gravitated towards marijuana for its ability to relieve nausea and stimulate appetite, in spite of its contraband status. And so began the fight to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. This movement was led in part by activists Dennis Peron and Mary Jane Rathburn, whose work received much media attention. Dennis would go on to draft and pass Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California.
To date, there are 30 states plus Washington, D.C., where medical cannabis is legal and nine states plus Washington D.C., where adult-use cannabis is legal. Meanwhile, more than a dozen states allow very limited medical use of marijuana.
Public perception about the plant is changing: Major polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center indicate that the majority (over 60%) of Americans support marijuana legalization. It’s taken decades for the cannabis community to undo the misinformation spread by Henry Anslinger and like-minded officials. With marijuana still illegal at the federal level, time will tell whether this work has been enough to bring the plant into a new light.