Yesterday Washington became the second state to legalize marijuana, following Colorado’s legalization of weed last month.  Under the new laws it is legal to possess up to an ounce of pot.  It’s still illegal to grow and sell it, but you won’t get busted for having it on you.  In the past decade several states have approved medical marijuana use.  Despite it’s illegal status, marijuana is the nation’s number one cash crop.  Advocates for weed legalization have proposed taxing pot as a way to pull our economy out of the gutters. 

To change the future we have to understand the past.  Why is weed illegal?  Studies have proven time and again that it is much less harmful than alcohol, which is legal.  Many support it’s medicinal use.  If you ask a random person on the street why marijuana is illegal, they most likely can’t tell you.  Let’s find out.

Marijuana became illegal in the United States in 1937.  When we start to dig into the history books, we quickly find that more than questionable motives and unethical avenues were used to make this happen.  The star of the show was Harry J. Anslinger, an ambitious man who was appointed as the first head of a new division of the treasury department, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  Thinking that a war against cocaine and opiates wouldn’t be enough to secure his job for the long run, Anslinger declared an all out war on marijuana.  He was responsible for outrageous anti-marijuana propaganda.  

One of Anslinger’s pals and supporters was newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.  His daughter Patty made her own headlines later after first being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and then appearing to join them.  Hearst was a racist who especially hated Mexicans.  He had invested heavily in the timber industry and saw hemp cultivation as dangerous competition.  A large area of land he intended to log had been lost to Pancho Villa, which further fueled his racist hatred.  When Hearst and Anslinger joined forces, newspapers were filled with outlandish tales of people trying marijuana, immediately becoming maddeningly addicted, and going on murderous rampages.  Big money further came into the picture when the DuPont company sided with Hearst and Anslinger.  They had recently patented nylon and wanted the hemp competition out of the way. 
Before we go on, let’s back up some more and look at marijuana further back in history.  It’s known use goes back 7,000 years.  Queen Victoria was prescribed tincture of cannabis for menstrual cramps.  Marijuana made it’s way to the New World when Christopher Columbus came over in 1492 and brought in along on his ships.  The first law here regarding marijuana was in stark contrast from the laws today.  It was mandated in the Jamestown colony that every farmer grow a certain amount of hemp, and they could be jailed for failing to comply. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew huge fields of the plants. Benjamin Franklin owned one of the first paper mills in the US, which produced hemp paper.  When Rudolph Diesel came up with the diesel engine we still use today, he originally intended it to run off hemp seed oil.  

Anslinger spent two years secretly drawing up his plan to outlaw marijuana.  He relied on newspaper stories like those Hearst was publishing to start a public outcry against the dangers of marijuana.  The popularity of weed among Mexicans and black jazz musicians fueled their fires.  Stories flew off the presses about the satanic jazz music of the devil, and how black men who smoked pot couldn’t help but to rape the first white woman they saw.  Countless stories were also printed about school children losing their minds and other users taking axes to their families after the first time they smoked.  Although there were no actual cases of any of these instances happening, Anslinger picked up speed and in 1937 brought his plan to Congress.
In an absurdly short hearing Anslinger came armed with editorials from Hearst’s newspapers and speeches in which the bulk was one long racial slur.  The one opponent Anslinger encountered was Dr. William C. Woodward, Legislative Council of the American Medical Association.  Woodward pointed out that Anslinger had distorted previous AMA information to support his stance.  He pointed out that the proposed legislation only referred to marijuana, which the common man didn’t realize was the same as hemp, which was a large industry, so that those who had reason to oppose the bill wasn’t even aware of it.  He outright stated that the AMA was opposed to the criminalization of marijuana and even accused Anslinger of misconduct and abuse of power.

Woodward was berated by the committee, who cited the outlandish newspaper articles with no factual basis as evidence that marijuana was the biggest danger to society.  When the bill went up for a vote, it was asked on the floor what the position of the AMA was.  Despite Woodward’s defiance of the movement, a congressman stood up and stated that the AMA had sent their representative there, and he had supported it 100%.  On the basis of that lie marijuana became illegal at the federal level on August 2, 1937.
In 1972 Richard Nixon commissioned a study on marijuana use.  The study found that the prohibition of cannabis was constitutionally questionable and should be subject to serious review.  The Nixon administration took no further action.  In 1973 Oregon reduced the penalties for marijuana related arrests, separating weed from other illicit drugs.  Alaska, Ohio, Colorado, and California followed suit in 1975.  By 1978 North Carolina, Mississippi, New York and Nebraska had taken action to decriminalize marijuana.  In recent years Massachusetts and Connecticut amended laws so that possession only results in a civil fine.
Here’s a few quick weed facts:

  • At one time in America you could pay your taxes with hemp.
  • The oldest relic in human history is a piece of hemp fabric from Mesopotamia dating back 8,000 years.
  • You’d have to smoke 15,000 joints in 20 minutes to get a lethal dose of THC.
  • The paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gough were on hemp canvases, with hemp seed based paint.
  • Hemp is 8 times stronger than cotton and more air-permeable.
  • One acre of hemp can produce as much raw fiber as 4.1 acres of trees, which take much longer to grow back.
  • Paper made from hemp lasts centuries longer and doesn’t yellow.
  • For thousands of years nearly all ships’ canvases and ropes were made from hemp.  The word canvas comes from the Dutch for cannabis.
  • Betsy Ross’s flag, and the first drafts of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were made of hemp.
  • Henry Ford’s Model T was built to run on hemp gasoline and used hemp plastic panels that were 10 times stronger than steel. 
Here's a short clip from the propaganda film "Reefer Madness":

Now that we know the history of the marijuana laws, why haven’t they been overturned?  The answer is much the same as it was when these shady goings-on were taking place.  Too many big industry companies have anti-marijuana interests and can afford to payroll lobbyists to ensure it stays illegal.  It has been proven that marijuana is not addictive and has medicinal uses, the two main reasons cited for it’s initial criminalization.  The potential profits from taxes imposed on legal pot could pull us out of the economic slump we’re languishing in, especially here in the hills of Kentucky where weed is a major industry despite the laws against it. Recent law changes show that the public's attitude toward marijuana is changing.  It has taken nearly a century, but it seems as though Anslinger's unbelievable smear campaign may have cracked enough for the truth to shine through.

For more information on the history of marijuana an it's legality see the following links:
Why Is Marijuana Illegal? 
NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) website 
Wikipedia page on legal history of cannabis in the US

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