If you’ve followed the topic at all, you know the federal government considers marijuana to be bad. Not just a little bad, very bad – it’s right up there with heroin and LSD. In fact, going solely by the laws that regulate them, marijuana would be considered more dangerous and subject to abuse than cocaine and methamphetamines.

But it wasn’t always this way. Back in the early 1900s, you could import marijuana. It wasn’t called marijuana back then – it was called cannabis – but it was perfectly legal. You could also buy a lot of now-illegal drugs rather freely. Heroin was available in medicine over the counter until the mid 1920s, and the original formula of Coca Cola contained cocaine. About 5 glasses of Coca Cola was equivalent to a line of cocaine.

As time went on, the government realized that some of these drugs were dangerous, so they began doing what they do – regulating. Cocaine was made prescription-only in 1914. Heroin was made illegal in 1924. And one by one, the formerly-available drugs became available either by prescription only, or not at all (legally, that is).

Some of these drugs were legitimately dangerous. Some were just poorly understood. It’s not hard to see why a reasonable person might target cocaine as a drug with both a high chance of abuse and a minimal medical benefit. But it’s only a Schedule II controlled substance, and marijuana is a Schedule I. What gives?

Marijuana’s crime was “guilt by association”, and was at least partially tied to something else that was a big deal in the mid-20th century – race and class relations.

There was a lot of concern back then about societal norms, and about those norms changing with the immigration of people from Mexico, India, and elsewhere in the world. There was also significant racial hostility (remember, “separate but equal” didn’t happen until 1954), and thus a general mistrust of people of color. And that’s the environment marijuana found itself in.

Marijuana was poorly understood, and thus became an easy scapegoat for many problems. There were numerous newspaper stories telling unbelievable stories about how marijuana not only made its users incredibly strong, but violent as well. Here’s an excerpt from a 1905 edition of the LA Times:

Not long ago a man who had smoken a marihuana cigarette attacked and killed a policeman and badly wounded three others; six policemen were needed to disarm him and march him to the police station where he had to be put into a straight jacket. Such occurrences are frequent.

Most of us now would read something like that and laugh it off. But this was the early 20th century, and marijuana wasn’t well-understood – so people became afraid. And to make matters worse, a film called “Reefer Madness” was released in 1936. This film informed viewers that marijuana was as dangerous as heroin and cocaine, and painted a picture of some high-school kids who are lured into trying marijuana and eventually spiral out of control.

Now remember that this is also happening in the middle of the Great Depression, when jobs were scarce and anti-immigrant sentiment ran even higher than normal. The fact that marijuana was strongly associated with Mexican immigrants made it easy for the government to criminalize marijuana in 1937, except for certain extremely limited purposes.

And it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from there until the late 1960s. Keep in mind that the hippie movement is exploding on college campuses, a number of people are protesting the Vietnam war, and groups like the Black Panthers are pushing hard for equal rights for blacks. In the middle of this President Nixon declared a “war on drugs”, and took notice of the fact that many of the people promoting civil disobedience and unrest were marijuana users. Therefore when the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, there was a strong political motivation for making marijuana a Schedule I controlled substance. This made it so that it not only couldn’t be purchased by the public, it was almost impossible to get it even for research purposes. And despite several reports issued less than a year later indicating that the classification was rash and extreme, that’s where it’s stayed ever since.

Of course the racial problems aren’t just in the origins of the laws – they’re still present, all the way up to the present day. Just ten short years ago the ACLU found that even though black people and white people used marijuana at about the same rate, black people were about four times as likely to be arrested. Yesterday’s problems continue to be today’s news.

This was a clear error in judgement back in 1970, and that error has been affecting people ever since. With the trend of states beginning to legalize marijuana for certain uses however, that error is beginning to be fixed. About 61% of the public would like to see some type of marijuana legalization. And yet we’ve barely seen any movement on the federal level.

If this topic is important to you, I encourage you to contact your state and federal legislators and make your voice heard. State by state and bit by bit we can work to undo this 50-year-old government blunder!

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