Marijuana Legalization: A Look at the Past and the Future

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Two states have legalized marijuana for recreational use and support for national legalization has never been higher. Is full-scale, national legalization really in the cards?

For many decades, marijuana was publically condemned in the same way as the world's hardest and most dangerous drugs. Parents, politicians, law enforcers, and much of the public believed that marijuana contributed to the destruction of society. Most saw it as a gateway drug, and many believed it directly caused people to engage in violent and socially unacceptable behavior.

Consequently, marijuana punishments have been harsh for decades. Around 750,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana use or possession in 2012, or one every 42 seconds. Moreover, a marijuana arrest is no minor citation — it typically draws the same punishments as an arrest for cocaine, heroin, or amphetamines.

This seems counterintuitive to many because marijuana has never caused an overdose-related death, while alcohol and other drugs result in hundreds of thousands of deaths per year. Additionally, some early-stage studies indicate that marijuana has positive health benefits. Most believe that it reduces pain and increases appetite, while one study even showed that marijuana could shrink cancer tumors.

With all this in mind, the public is starting to change its opinion towards marijuana. Here is a chronological history of marijuana’s history, as well as an outlook on marijuana’s future in America.

1619: Mandatory Hemp Production. King James I orders every American colonist farmer to grow 100 hemp plants for export. There was growing demand in England and the colonies for hemp products like fabric, clothing, rope, and sails. Hemp was one of George Washington’s primary crops at Mount Vernon.

1839: Cannabis Introduced as Medicine. Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy introduces cannabis sativa as a potential medical therapy, quickly becoming a popular ingredient in many western medicines in the ensuing decades.

Mid-Late 19th Century: Pharmaceutical Restrictions. Regulations and restrictions on the pharmaceutical industry are implemented on a state-by-state basis. Restrictions on refills and sale to minors were almost unanimously adopted. Additionally, any medicines that were not issued by pharmacies and could possibly contain harmful substances were labeled “POISON” in all capital letters. Many cannabis products were forced to display this label.

1906: The Pure Food and Drug Act. Drug manufacturers were forced to properly label any cannabis contained in over-the-counter medications and remedies.

1900-1920s: Mexican Immigrants Introduce Recreational Marijuana. Mexican immigrants introduce the recreational use of marijuana. Mexican soldiers smoked marijuana cigarettes as early as the 1870s and were enjoyed by Mexican workers after a day’s work.

1930s: Great Depression. The Great Depression causes widespread poverty and unemployment. A fear of Mexican immigrant workers arises, and marijuana becomes a matter of public concern. By 1931, a majority of American states outlaw marijuana after a series of “reports” linked marijuana to violent crimes and socially unacceptable behavior.

1936: Reefer Madness. The short propaganda film Reefer Madness becomes a nationwide phenomenon. The film portrays high school students going insane and committing manslaughter, rape, and suicide as a result of their marijuana use.

1937: Marijuana Tax Act. With mounting opposition towards marijuana, Congress effectively criminalizes it. Marijuana becomes allowed only for individuals who pay a tax and have an authorized medical purpose for using the drug.

1950s: Harsher Penalties. The Boggs Act of 1952 and Narcotics Control Act of 1956 set mandatory sentences for drug offenses, and declared marijuana in the same drug category as cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines. A marijuana offense resulted in a big fine and a minimum 2-10 years in prison.

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1970: Repeal of Mandatory Sentences. Recreational marijuana becomes a nationwide phenomenon. Reports emerge that marijuana is not a gateway drug and does not compel one to commit violence. Congress acknowledges these facts and repeals some minimum sentences.

1986: Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Ronald Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, reinstating mandatory sentences on drug crimes. The act determined that drug punishments would be based on the weight of the drug possessed. For instance, a pound of heroin would fetch the same punishment as a pound of marijuana.

1989: War on Drugs. President George Bush declares a national war on drugs in a speech, ramping up law enforcement and high minimum sentences.

1996-2000s: Medical Marijuana. California becomes the first state to legalize marijuana for patients with serious ailments. Many other states take the same course of action in the ensuing years.

November 6, 2012: Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana. Recreational marijuana becomes legal and taxable, and is treated in a similar manner as alcohol.

The tide appears to be turning when it comes to marijuana legalization. Even President Obama has changed his attitude, calling marijuana less dangerous than alcohol. Despite a rumored history of recreational marijuana use, Obama has remained quiet about pot legislation until recently.

“My concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly and in some cases with racial disparity,” Obama told CNN. The President acknowledged that marijuana is frequently abused and, therefore, didn’t specifically encourage legalization.

However, Obama acknowledged that the U.S. government does not have the resources to police marijuana use nationwide. This implies that marijuana legislation could be left up to the states, perhaps clearing the way for federal decriminalization sometime in the future.

Even the NFL, one of the most anti-drug organizations on earth, may allow players to smoke marijuana. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll stated publicly that the NFL should consider allowing players to use medical marijuana to treat concussions and other sports-related injuries. “Regardless of what other stigmas might be involved, we have to do this because the world of medicine is doing this,” he said.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn’t commit to anything, but hasn’t ruled out marijuana from the sport. “We will follow medicine, and if they determine that this could be proper usage n any context, we will consider that.”

Even with all the hype surrounding the Super Bowl, Carroll and Goodell’s marijuana statements made national headlines. As concussions and concussion-related lawsuits continue to plague the NFL, this is definitely a story to watch.

There is a clear disconnect between marijuana’s potential dangers and its legal status in America. Federal law treats marijuana as bad or worse than cocaine, a drug that is far more addictive and dangerous to one’s health. But science and research dictate that marijuana simply isn't as harmful as politicians treat it. In fact, marijuana may present significant benefits to one's health.

Additionally, a huge majority of those arrested for marijuana offenses are minorities, while at least half of marijuana users are white. Thanks to books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, the public is now recognizing this injustice and understand why it is happening. Something will certainly done about this disparity and flaw in the legal system as more people begin to understand it.

Leaders in positions of power are starting to recognize this disconnect between marijuana criminilization and its effects. All indications are that marijuana is set for a slow, but seemingly inevitable legalization in America as science and data begin to coincide with the law.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:

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