Reefer Madness: The U.S. War on Cannabis

April 20, 2022

The War on Cannabis

The so-called “war on drugs” in the U.S. that has been waged over the past 50 years has been largely a failure.  Despite billions of dollars spent on attempts to interdict illegal drugs and prevent them from reaching Americans, the country remains awash in these substances.  We have jailed hundreds of thousands of Americans for drug possession or sales.  This has come at a terrible cost in human lives, and in addition it has been incredibly expensive.  Efforts to stop the supply of drugs have raised the price of these drugs considerably.  Paradoxically, the fact that drugs are expensive creates a financial incentive for drug growers and suppliers.  In countries such as Mexico and Colombia, this has spurred the growth of drug cartels.  In several third-world countries, these organizations have been able to co-opt the political and military organizations of their countries, leading to massive corruption. 

For highly addictive drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl, this presents governments with cruel dilemmas.  Governments do not have the option of simply legalizing these substances.  For the U.S. government to “just say yes” to drugs that are highly addictive would have very serious public-health consequences, to say nothing of the political fallout that might follow rapid legalization of these substances.  Societies face a challenge to find an effective balance between continued criminalization of these drugs, and treating these as public-health issues with an emphasis on medical treatment. However, as we will show in this post, the situation is very different for cannabis.  Not only is cannabis much less addictive than, say, heroin (if pot is addictive at all), but there has never been a documented report of a death that was directly associated with using marijuana.   

In this post we will discuss the history of regulating cannabis sativa, also termed colloquially as marijuana, marihuana, hashish (in its potent extracted resin form), weed, pot, grass, reefer or dope (among a great many nicknames for the substance).  The plant grows in nearly every country in the world; in Africa it is called colloquially “dagga,” in China “ma” and in Europe “hemp.”  The stalks of the cannabis plant have been used for centuries to produce canvas, rope and paper.  Hemp was widely used in Colonial America: in fact, in 1619 the Virginia Assembly passed a law requiring every farmer to plant hemp; and three colonies (Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland) allowed hemp to be used as an alternative currency. 

Figure 1: A Cannabis plant.

Marijuana contains a number of psychoactive ingredients, but the main compound is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.  Different strains of marijuana can have very different levels of THC.  Analyses of marijuana confiscated from users shows that the level of THC in marijuana has risen steadily.  In the early 1990s the THC content of confiscated marijuana was about 4%, whereas in 2015 that level had risen to about 15%.  Hashish can contain anywhere from 20% to 60% THC. Commercial hemp contains almost no THC.  Many states, even those like Indiana where marijuana is still criminalized, allow the sale of cannabidiol oil or CBD oil.  CBD oil can legally contain up to 0.3% THC.    

When marijuana is ingested or smoked, the THC affects the area of the brain that is connected to pleasure.  This stimulates the release of dopamine, which produces a feeling of euphoria.  Many who ingest marijuana report feeling relaxed and happy.  Pot has mind-altering properties.  It may heighten your response to color and sound; it can also make you hungry.  The sense of time is also likely to be altered.  The feeling of euphoria is also associated with a loosening of inhibitions.  Polls of people who use marijuana show that two main reasons given for using pot are relief from pain and as a sleeping aid.  As many as 85% of people who use marijuana for pain relief report that it helps them sleep.  A third reported effect is that using pot may lead to increased pleasure in sexual activity. 

Figure 2: A supply of cannabis, alongside hand-rolled cigarettes or joints containing cannabis. 

Although for most people the use of limited quantities of marijuana produces positive sensations, it is also possible to experience negative reactions to the drug.  Some users become paranoid or may have panic attacks.  Pot should not be used by people with schizophrenia, and pregnant mothers should also abstain from this drug.  In addition, people should not operate vehicles when under the influence of marijuana.  People who begin using marijuana at a young age may experience various negative consequences: they are more likely to develop a dependence on marijuana; they are more likely to transition to other drugs; they are more likely to become depressed; and they may experience difficulties in making the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  If marijuana is legalized, there should be age limits on its use, just as one has for alcohol. 

There is considerable controversy over whether marijuana is addictive.  Because marijuana has been demonized over the years, it has been extremely difficult to carry out clinical trials on the drug.  It is certainly possible to become dependent on marijuana.  People who are chronic users of pot, particularly those who start at an early age, can become dependent on the drug.  If those people stop taking the drug, they can experience withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, cravings and loss of appetite.  These symptoms tend to peak a couple of weeks after stopping marijuana use.  It is possible that some people use marijuana dependence as a synonym for addiction.  Studies have shown that roughly 9% of marijuana users develop a dependence on pot.  

In addition to the commercial uses for hemp, the plant has widely been used for other purposes as well.  Over the years, many countries outlawed cannabis because of its use as a recreational drug.  In the U.S. in the mid-19th century, there was little recreational use of cannabis, except along the border with Mexico, and in port cities primarily in the Gulf of Mexico.  However, during the 1880s, “hashish houses” began to spring up along the East Coast.  Recreational use of marijuana became fashionable, and hashish houses were frequently found in close proximity to opium dens. 

In the U.S., individual states have the power to regulate drugs and other substances.  However, at the beginning of the 20th century the federal government became interested in regulating the sale and use of narcotic drugs.  At that time, many patent medicines contained narcotics such as opium, morphine and even heroin.  Patent medicines containing cannabis sativa were also sold as a tonic; a few examples are shown in Fig. 3.  The first step taken was to levy a federal tax on narcotics.  The Harrison Act of 1904 imposed a federal tax on persons “who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute or give away opium or coca” products.  Initially, cannabis was not included in the list of substances that were subject to this tax. 

Figure 3: Bottles of 19th century patent medicines that contained cannabis as an ingredient.

In 1906, the U.S. passed the Pure Food and Drug Act.  This required that all medicines containing a specified set of substances be accurately labeled to show their contents.  Then, in 1910 the law was revised to classify a set of narcotic substances as “poisons,” and to restrict their sale to pharmacies and only with a doctor’s prescription. 

In the early 20th century, various states took steps to regulate cannabis.  Some states passed laws that listed restricted drugs and included cannabis among them.  Other states (our own state of Indiana was one of these) passed legislation that forbade the sale of remedies containing “poisons,” but did not specifically list what those poisons were.  Other states did not consider cannabis a “poisonous substance,” but nevertheless required that potions label their ingredients.  And some states initially placed no restrictions on the use of cannabis. 

Significant changes occurred after the Mexican Revolution of 1910.  That event caused a notable wave of emigration from Mexico to the U.S.  This caused an uptick in smoking marijuana in the Southwest, where the weed was primarily brought by Mexican immigrants.  Many Mexican farm laborers smoked marijuana to relax after a hard day’s labor.  However, many Americans viewed the Mexican immigrants as an alien incursion of inferior people.  Others worried that Mexican laborers would take jobs away from Americans. And myths began to circulate about Mexican immigrants and their fondness for cannabis or “locoweed.”  Figure 4 shows a Sept. 1915 article from the Ogden, Utah Standard describing the fondness of Mexicans for “deadly marihuana.” 

Figure 4: The first page of The Standard newspaper in Ogden, Utah. It suggests that Mexicans may be prone to smoking “locoweed,” described as a dangerous substance. 

At the 1925 International Opium Convention, the U.S. lobbied for ‘Indian hemp’ to be included in regulations of narcotic drugs.  That convention banned Indian hemp from countries that prohibited its use.  Furthermore, countries that did import hemp were required to issue certificates that the product was being used “exclusively for medical or scientific purposes.”  

In the years 1925 – 1932, the federal government passed a series of drafts of a Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act.  That act was meant to serve as a model that individual states were urged to adopt.  The aim was to produce uniform restrictions and penalties for narcotic drugs in the various states.  The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1904 had imposed federal tariffs on anyone who imported, produced or distributed opium and coca products.  Prior to the Harrison Act, the distribution and sale of cocaine was legal in most states.  Even after the Harrison Act, registered companies were allowed to produce and sell cocaine. 

For products such as opiates, the U.S. ended up with a paradoxical situation.  Unregistered individuals or groups who processed or distributed opiates were treated as dangerous criminals.  As we will see, draconian criminal penalties were levied against people who violated these laws.  On the other hand, Big Pharma companies could produce medicines that contained opiates, provided that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certified that the products contained safeguards supposed to guard against abuse of those drugs.  The FDA also specified that these meds could only be provided under the care of a physician. 

In theory, such a two-pronged system could work as long as people had confidence that the FDA maintained strict controls guaranteeing the safety of these medications.  Furthermore, these legally-regulated products had to be subject to stringent controls that would prevent their abuse.  Unfortunately, recent years have seen a terrible American epidemic of opiate addiction.  In the past decade, as many as 500,000 Americans have died as a direct result of opiate abuse.  And the “gateway drug” that spawned this catastrophe was oxycodone hydrochloride, which was manufactured and distributed as OxyContin by Purdue Pharma corporation, and which was approved for distribution by the FDA. 

Figure 5: U.S. national overdose deaths from Drugs, all ages, from 1999 – 2020

Figure 5 shows the national statistics for drug-involved deaths from 1999 – 2020.  From 1999 to about 2015, drug-induced deaths from prescription opioids rose sharply.  These numbers were dominated by deaths resulting from the use and/or abuse of OxyContin (oxycodone hydrochloride).  Many people who abused OxyContin made a transition to using heroin, which caused many fatalities.  However, from 2015 on the number of deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) have dominated.  The U.S. opioid crisis is continuing, and overdose deaths are occurring all over the country. 

We have published a blog post on the history of OxyContin.  This was a time-release pill that could distribute very large doses of the powerful opiate oxycodone.  Purdue Pharma claimed, and the FDA agreed, that the time-release method made it extremely difficult for the pill to be abused.  However, the time-release mechanism was extremely easy to bypass.  If one simply crushed the pill and ingested the contents, one would immediately get the entire dose of oxycodone.  And this was not a big secret – the package insert warned that the pills should not be crushed, lest one absorb the entire dose of opiates at once! 

The opiate epidemic in America is a great tragedy.  It will be interesting to see if and how this changes the way that narcotic drugs are approved and regulated by the FDA.  Pharmaceutical companies, drug manufacturers and major pharmacies wish to continue to reap vast profits from the sale of legalized narcotics.  So, it is possible that despite the opioid epidemic kick-started by the FDA-approved drug OxyContin, Big Pharma will continue with “business as usual” in their distribution of drugs. 

However, unlike the opiates, there is no convincing evidence that marijuana is an addictive drug.  Yet the U.S. federal government currently classifies marijuana as an extremely dangerous substance, despite the fact that numerous states have by now legalized marijuana for recreational as well as medicinal use.  The U.S. classifies active narcotics substances in “Schedules” according to their potential for abuse and approved medical uses in treatment.  “Schedule 1” drugs are those that have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical use in treatment. Schedule 1 drugs include cannabis, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), heroin, and psilocybin.  By comparison, Schedule 2 drugs have a high potential for abuse, but have currently accepted uses in treatment with severe restrictions.  Schedule 2 drugs include cocaine, methadone, methamphetamine, oxycodone, fentanyl and Dexedrine. 

So according to the U.S. government, cannabis is termed as having a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical uses, while cocaine, meth and fentanyl are listed as having legitimate medical uses.  While the abuse of ocycodone, meth and fentanyl are responsible for hundreds of thousands of American deaths cannabis, which has never been directly associated with a single death, is classified as a Schedule 1 drug.

As a consequence of the “War on Drugs,” the criminalization of drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other substances has resulted in a vast increase in the number of Americans incarcerated in state and federal prisons.  Figure 6 shows the U.S. state and federal prison population from 1925 to 2015.  From 1925 until about 1974, the prison population was relatively constant, and in per capita terms it was falling.  However, after 1974 this number increased greatly.  By 2015, nearly 8 times as many people were imprisoned as in 1974.  As we will see, this rapid rise in prisoners was directly connected with Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and the increase in criminal penalties and sentences that accompanied this “War.”  Many additional Americans are incarcerated in municipal or county jails. 

Figure 6: The U.S. State and Federal Prison Population from 1925 to 2015.    

The current numbers are such that the United States has the dubious distinction of having more of its citizens in prison than any other country (this is not a “per capita” number, it is an absolute number, as shown in Fig. 7).  Up to 20% of those prisoners were in jail for violations associated with marijuana.  Americans of color use and sell illegal drugs at about the same rate as white Americans; however, African-American and Hispanic citizens comprise a much higher fraction of the prison population than they do of the population at large.  This is shown in Fig. 8.  Although about 16% of the American population is people of color, they comprise nearly 40% of people in prison.

Figure 7: The number of citizens in prison for various countries, as of July 2021.  Note that the U.S. has more prisoners than China, despite the fact that China has over 4 times as many citizens as the U.S.

Figure 8: U.S. incarceration rates by race, as of 2018. Blue: fraction of U.S. population; green: percent of individuals in prison.

We will investigate how it could be that a drug like marijuana, which is not addictive in the technical sense of the word, is not deadly, and has directly accounted for zero deaths, could result in such draconian penalties, sending so many Americans to prison.  In an article in The Atlantic in 1994, Eric Schlosser discusses at great length the case of Indianapolis native Mark Young.  In 1988, Young met farmers Claude Atkinson and Ernest Montgomery, who had grown and harvested nearly 900 pounds of marijuana.  Atkinson and Montgomery offered a commission to Young for introducing them to people who wanted to purchase their crop.  Young found three people who subsequently purchased large quantities of marijuana, and he received his commission. 

However, after Montgomery was pulled over for erratic driving and police found a significant amount of marijuana in his vehicle, the police were led to Atkinson.  Montgomery and Atkinson then informed on Young.  Although he played no role in growing or harvesting the marijuana, Mark Young was indicted on conspiracy to distribute pot.  And Young had two prior felony convictions – one for attempting to pass a fraudulent prescription, and a second for possession of a few amphetamines.  Although the first felony charge had occurred 17 years before Young’s arrest on the conspiracy charges, if convicted he would be subject to a federal “three strikes” law.  Under these laws, a person convicted of a third felony could receive a life sentence without possibility of parole. 

And this is what happened to Mark Young.  Although his only action was to introduce the marijuana dealers Atkinson and Montgomery to potential buyers, Young was found guilty of felony conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.  Young’s sentence was much higher than the average sentence for a murderer (eight years in prison). 

Earlier American anti-drug campaigns had been targeted at specific minority groups.  In the 1870s, anti-opium laws were enacted with an eye towards opium use by Chinese immigrants.  After 1910, anti-cannabis laws targeted Mexican immigrants.  Was Nixon’s War on Drugs, which began in fall 1971, aimed at specific groups? Top White House aide John Ehrlichman was refreshingly candid about the motivation behind Nixon’s War on Drugs. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.  We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news.  Did we know we were lying about the drugs?  Of course we did.” When the regulation of potentially dangerous substances is driven by political calculations and anti-drug hysteria, rather than by science, the policies seem bound to have disastrous consequences. So, how did we arrive at the current paradoxical state of U.S. policy toward cannabis?

Harry Anslinger and the War on Cannabis:

It would make no sense to provide a history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) without affording a central role to that agency’s long-time Director J. Edgar Hoover, who led the agency for a whopping 48 years.  For good and for ill, Hoover dominated the agency and set its tone during his directorship. 

In a similar fashion, Harry Anslinger was the dominant figure in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  He was the founding Director of the Bureau in 1930 and served as its head for 32 years.  Anslinger’s actions set the tone for America’s drug policy during his leadership of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  Here we will provide a brief review of his life and his leadership of the Bureau.  We will also discuss his position with regard to cannabis and his motivations for demonizing this drug. 

Harry Anslinger:

Harry Anslinger was born in May 1892.  His father was Swiss and his mother was German; they emigrated to the U.S. in 1881.  Anslinger’s parents ended up in Altoona, PA, a town that was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad.  Harry Anslinger went to school through the 8th grade, and then joined his father working for the Pennsylvania RR. 

Figure 9: Harry Anslinger, the Director of the Federal Bureau on Narcotics for 32 years.

Anslinger continued his enrollment in high school in the mornings, while working for the railroad afternoons and evenings.  He was soon promoted to captain of the railroad police.  After that, Anslinger worked for 11 years with both police and military organizations in efforts to combat international drug trafficking.  In 1929, Harry Anslinger was appointed an assistant commissioner in the U.S. Treasury Dept. Bureau of Prohibition; at that time, Prohibition included both alcohol and illegal drugs (Prohibition on alcohol would not end until Dec. 1933). 

The Prohibition era had a corrosive effect on the relations between citizens and government.  Although it was illegal to produce, transport or sell alcoholic beverages, it was an open secret that speakeasies were operating in defiance of the law.  This arrangement required that government administrations and the police turn a blind eye to these illegal enterprises.  During Prohibition, the alcohol industry became dominated by organized crime, which could make enormous amounts of money supplying and operating the speakeasies.  Prohibition officials were not immune to bribery, so that there was rampant corruption within state and federal prohibition agencies. 

This led to several scandals where federal prohibition agents were found to be on the take.  Here, Anslinger stood out as an honest and incorruptible figure.  He rose rapidly in the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition, and was named assistant commissioner of that agency in 1929.  Then in 1930 Anslinger was named the founding commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  Why was the Treasury Department in charge of narcotics policy?  As you recall, the government treated illegal substances such as alcohol (until the end of Prohibition) and narcotics by levying significant taxes on those substances.  When people were found to be producing or selling these substances, they were indicted for failure to pay the required tax on those items. 

An additional reason that the Treasury Department was tasked with illegal drug policies was that J. Edgar Hoover feared his agents might be corrupted by organized crime figures.  During Hoover’s long period of leadership, the FBI shied away from operations against organized crime.  This is the reason that Mob boss Al Capone was jailed not for transporting and selling alcohol or drugs, but for failure to pay taxes. With the FBI not targeting organized crime, by default that task fell to Treasury. 

There was a bit of nepotism involved in Anslinger’s appointment.  The Secretary of the Treasury in 1930 was Andrew Mellon, who was Anslinger’s wife’s uncle.  However, it seems that Anslinger’s unassailable probity and his devotion to fighting against illegal substances would have garnered him this appointment regardless of his family connections. 

As the long-time Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger had the power to create and enforce federal policies on drugs and crime.  He was particularly obsessed with criminalizing cannabis.  A review of his statements regarding marihuana and the people who use it gives a great deal of insight into Anslinger’s motives and his views. 

Harry Anslinger’s Personal Crusade Against Cannabis:

To Harry Anslinger, cannabis was a potentially deadly drug.  Anslinger referred to it as “marihuana,” perhaps to stigmatize it as a foreign substance, even though it grew wild all across the U.S.  Here is Anslinger’s description of marijuana: “By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms. … Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him.” 

As you can see, Anslinger claimed that marijuana was a “deadly, dreadful poison” that leads to insanity within a month of using it.  Anslinger also asserted that marijuana was likely to turn a “mild mannered man” into a murderer.  He further maintained that smoking a single joint might produce “homicidal mania” in the user. Where did Anslinger get these notions?  In part, he may have relied on urban legends shared by police in regions near the Mexican border.  Anslinger also kept files of cases of murder that he blamed on marijuana use by the perpetrator. 

One of Anslinger’s favorite stories was that of Victor Licata, a young man who killed his family.  In 1937 Anslinger wrote an article for The American Magazine called “Marihuana, Assassin of Youth.”  In that article he described Licata’s actions.  “An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze … He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called “muggles,” a childish name for marijuana.”

Figure 10: A poster for Harry Anslinger’s 1937 article Marihuana, Assassin of Youth.  The poster incorporates Anslinger’s purple prose regarding the evils of marijuana; also, it shows a white woman as a victim of this deadly drug.

Unfortunately for Anslinger, later research showed that Victor Licata suffered from severe mental illness, a condition which had been known since Licata’s childhood.  This is the reason that Licata murdered his family.  Anslinger compiled a set of similar violent incidents that he claimed were the result of insanity induced by smoking pot.  He called these his “Gore Files.”  Researchers have reviewed the 200 cases in Anslinger’s Gore Files.  Of these, 198 have been proved to be wrongly attributed to marijuana use, and the remaining “two cases could not be disproved because no records existed concerning the crimes.” 

In 1937, Harry Anslinger testified to Congress in an attempt to level severe criminal penalties for marijuana cultivation or use.  He referred to another of his stories from The American Magazine.  This concerned a woman whose suicide he attributed to her use of marijuana.  “Not long ago the body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk after a plunge from a Chicago apartment window. Everyone called it suicide, but actually it was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marijuana, and to history as hashish.” He also wrote of a “marijuana addict” hung for the “criminal assault” of a ten-year-old girl.

Several doctors and scientists testified against Anslinger’s attempt to levy severe penalties on marijuana use.  Leading up to the Congressional hearings, the American Medical Association forwarded to him letters from 30 pharmacists and drug industry representatives.  Of that group, 29 of the 30 objected to Anslinger’s proposal to ban marijuana.  However, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics retained only the letter by the single dissenter in that group. 

In 1939, the first scientific study of marijuana smoking was carried out in New York City.  The La Guardia Committee found that smoking marijuana definitely did not lead to insanity.  Furthermore, they found that “the practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.”  Anslinger’s reaction to the 1944 report of the La Guardia Committee?  He insisted that it was “unscientific.”  This was ironic, as it was Anslinger’s own beliefs that were highly unscientific.

Figure 11: The 1944 report of the LaGuardia Committee on “The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York.”

The most potent psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol).  The La Guardia Committee was correct that marijuana does not create a physical dependence similar to addiction in users; however, some users develop a psychological dependence on pot.  When ingested, THC diffuses widely throughout the body, and it persists for some time.  A heavy user of marijuana can occasionally test positive for THC, even a month after they last ingested the drug.  I remember reading sensational stories about the deleterious effects of cannabis use during the 70s – particularly that pot use kills brain cells and damages chromosomes. It appears that these stories were just results of faulty research.  However, some teenagers who are frequent users of marijuana can develop serious side effects, and in that group of users chronic marijuana use may be linked to the development of schizophrenia. 

However, marijuana is nearly unique in that, 5,000 years after it began to be ingested, there are still zero deaths that have ever been shown to be a direct result of eating or smoking marijuana. There is no well-defined fatal dose of pot.  However, that did not stop Harry Anslinger from his successful quest to have marijuana criminalized. 

Harry Anslinger’s Pervasive Racism:

Harry Anslinger’s views towards marijuana, and his willingness to claim outlandish dangers from smoking weed, were influenced by two major factors.  The first was that marijuana was known to loosen the inhibitions of those who smoked it.  Therefore, Anslinger and like-minded zealots feared that the use of marijuana would cause young women to become sexually promiscuous when under its spell.  Even worse, white women might be inclined to have sexual relations with colored men under the influence of the drug.  One of Anslinger’s fables about marijuana went as follows: “Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”

A second issue that motivated Anslinger’s hostility to marijuana use was its association with musicians, and particularly with jazz musicians.  In his private notes, Anslinger complained that jazz music sounded “like the jungles in the dead of night.”  Anslinger connected his visceral hatred of jazz with fears that pot use would cause white women to become promiscuous.   “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

To Harry Anslinger, the rapid tempos of jazz were a direct result of marijuana use by the musicians.  “Those who first spread its use were musicians. They brought the habit northward with the surge of “hot” music demanding players of exceptional ability, especially in improvisation. Along the Mexican border and in southern seaport cities it had long been known that the drug has a strangely exhilarating effect upon the musical sensibilities. The musician who uses it finds that the musical beat seemingly comes to him quite slowly, thus allowing him to interpolate improvised notes with comparative ease. He does not realize that he is tapping the keys with a furious speed impossible for one in a normal state.”  To Anslinger, the performance of “hot” music was only possible when the performer was high on THC.  And he further believed that the “Satanic music” of jazz derived directly from marijuana use by jazz musicians. 

To be fair, Anslinger’s linking of cannabis use to jazz musicians was not entirely false.  For example, in the 1933 movie International House, bandleader Cab Calloway sang the song Reefer Man, about a friend who smokes marijuana, and who becomes incoherent (“I think he’s lost his mind”).  Also, Louis Armstrong mentioned that he found it relaxing to smoke marijuana (Armstrong was once arrested for possession of pot).  Here is the video of Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club Orchestra performing Reefer Man

Harry Anslinger wrote a 1937 book called The Protectors, about the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and his own attitudes towards drug use.  That book included a chapter titled “Jazz and Junk Don’t Mix.”   This included his comments on jazz musicians, whose lives according to Anslinger “reek of filth.” Anslinger testified at a Congressional hearing with the Ways and Means Committee, “I am not talking about the good musicians, but the Jazz type.”  He expanded on this in his book The Protectors: “Jazz entertainers are neither fish nor fowl. They do not get the million-dollar protection Hollywood and Broadway can afford for their stars who have become addicted – and there are many more than will ever be revealed. Perhaps this is because jazz, once considered a decadent kind of music, has only token respectability. Jazz grew up next door to crime, so to speak. Clubs of dubious reputation were, for a long time, the only places where it could be heard.”

Figure 12: An article describing the “Murder Weed;” it warns about the “Deadly Marihuana Dope Plant … means enslavement of California Children.” 

After initial criminal laws were levied against marijuana use, Anslinger mounted an attempt to block the union membership of those with drug convictions.  For musicians, this could effectively end their performing careers.  As we will see in the case of singer Billie Holiday, New York adopted laws that forbade musicians with drug or alcohol abuse convictions from performing in an establishment that served alcohol. 

Much like J. Edgar Hoover, Harry Anslinger kept detailed files on famous people and their drug habits.  And Anslinger shared his files with colleagues at the FBI.  It is interesting to compare Anslinger’s reaction to drug use by two noted entertainers. As a young actress, Judy Garland was gaining weight on the set of the movie The Wizard of Oz.  So her studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, put her on a regimen of Benzedrine and phenobarbital.  In the short run, this seemed to work wonders.  Garland stayed thin and she also remained peppy, even during long shoots.  However, she soon became dependent on the drugs.  From his extensive contacts, Anslinger knew that Garland was taking drugs and where she was getting them.   He approached the studio and urged them to put her in rehab.  “I believed her to be a fine woman caught in a situation that could only destroy her,” Anslinger explained.  Eventually, Judy Garland sought treatment, and Anslinger claimed credit for his intervention. 

Figure 13: Actress and Musician Judy Garland. 

Harry Anslinger had a very different reaction to jazz singer Billie Holiday.  Apparently he was enraged at her song Strange Fruit, which described the black victims of lynching in America.  In addition, Ms. Holiday was quite open about her struggles with alcohol and drug dependence.  Anslinger had agents from his Federal Bureau of Narcotics follow Holiday.   Ms. Holiday was arrested for drug possession and when she was convicted, she lost her New York City cabaret card.  This meant that she was unable to work at any NYC venue that sold alcohol. 

Figure 14: Musician Billie Holiday.

At the end of May 1959, Billie Holiday entered New York’s Metropolitan Hospital to get treatment for liver and heart disease.  Her abuse of alcohol had left her with cirrhosis of the liver.  However, narcotics agents entered her hospital room, claiming that drugs had been found in her hotel room.  Although she was near death, Holiday was initially handcuffed to her bed, and a police guard was stationed outside her hospital room, until a judge ordered the handcuffs removed.  Some reports claim that she was also refused methadone while in the hospital, and that the actions by the narcotics police led directly to Holiday’s death in July 1959 at the age of 44.   

In the 70s, the 1937 anti-marijuana film “Reefer Madness” became a cult classic.  Those of us who watched it were amused by the hysterical warnings against marijuana, and the absurd stereotypes of people who smoke it.  Here is the trailer for Reefer Madness

At the time we saw this film, we didn’t realize that the script precisely followed the myths propagated by Harry Anslinger.  The trailer warns of marijuana, a “deadly menace” that is “soul-destroying.”  The use of marijuana is claimed to lead to “debauchery, violence, murder, suicide” and the end result of smoking weed – “hopeless insanity.”  Various of Anslinger’s cautionary tales are also highlighted in the trailer: a woman smoking a joint is shown playing piano at breakneck speed; a young woman under the influence of pot is seen jumping to her death from a window; and a youth is driven crazy after his first reefer. 

Following Harry Anslinger’s over-heated arguments against marijuana, a coalition developed that was devoted to demonizing this substance.  The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was based in part on Anslinger’s grisly campaign against cannabis.  A staunch supporter of Anslinger was William Randolph Hearst, whose newspapers used Hearst’s ‘yellow journalism’ reporting in an effort to link cannabis use with violent crimes. 

The Struggle for Legalization of Cannabis:

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Marijuana Tax Act to be unconstitutional.  They argued that this act violated the Fifth Amendment right against incriminating oneself.  Congress then passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970.  The law prohibited the use of cannabis for any purposes; however, it removed minimum sentences and mandatory penalties for cannabis offenses, and it also reduced possession of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.  The Controlled Substances Act classified cannabis as a Schedule I Drug; this meant that it had high potential for abuse and no medical uses.  Under this classification, cannabis could not be prescribed for any medical uses.  Cannabis has remained a Schedule I drug to this day.  This is despite the fact that as of today, 37 states have approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and 17 states have legalized marijuana even for recreational use. 

The U.S. War on Drugs:

In June 1971, Richard Nixon announced the beginning of a “War on Drugs.”  He declared that illegal drugs were “public enemy Number One” in the U.S.  He included some support for public-health initiatives, stating that the U.S. would devote resources to “prevention of new addicts, and rehabilitation of those who are addicted.”  However, there was little follow-up to these issues and no new resources were devoted to the public-health side of the problem.  However, tremendous resources were devoted to the interdiction of drugs, and prosecution of both suppliers and users.  Over the years, the War on Drugs became a world-wide effort led by the U.S. to prevent cultivation of narcotic substances, intercept drugs at the U.S. borders, and to lead international alliances in drug-prevention efforts.  The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that the U.S. spends $51 billion annually on the war on drugs, and in 2021 after 50 years of this initiative, the U.S. has spent a total of $1 trillion on this effort. 

Figure 15: Richard Nixon Announcing his War on Drugs in 1971.

The counterculture that developed in the 60s included a dramatic increase in the number of users of marijuana, and in the availability of the drug.  A major event was the release in 1972 of the report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.  It concluded that “the drug was less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and recommended that its use and possession should be decriminalized nationwide.”  Although President Nixon disregarded the recommendations from that commission, this began a push to decriminalize cannabis in many states.  Between 1973 and 1978, several states passed laws decriminalizing marijuana possession.  States as varied as Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota and North Carolina passed laws where possession of up to an ounce of marijuana was a misdemeanor punishable by a fine.  A third of the U.S. population lived in states that had dramatically decreased penalties for pot possession. 

Figure 16: The book The War on Drugs, ed. By David Farber, NYU Press, 2021. 

The cannabis industry flourished under these more lenient regulations.  Annual sales of marijuana were estimated at $4 billion.  A symbol of the more relaxed regulations was the magazine High Times, which described various forms of marijuana that were being offered, provided profiles of pot users, and also advertised drug paraphernalia.  High Times also served as a mouthpiece for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML, which was founded in 1970 and lobbied for decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana.  The drug paraphernalia industry became big business.  “Head shops” opened in cities across the country, selling such items as bongs, pipes, roach clips and rolling papers. 

Figure 17: The June 1980 issue of High Times featuring the comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who starred in the stoner movie Up In Smoke.

As an integral part of the 60s counterculture, marijuana was viewed as hip and cool.  Movies about youth culture (for example, Cheech and Chong’s 1978 movie Up In Smoke) often presented pot smoking as fun, funny and safe.  In addition to their lobbying for changes in government regulation of marijuana, members of NORML also endeavored to change the public perception of cannabis and its effects. Marijuana use was viewed by many Americans as something that promoted passivity and escapism, characteristics that they identified with hippie culture.  Note that this was completely opposite to the view promulgated by Harry Anslinger, who viewed pot as something that caused insanity and triggered homicidal impulses among those who smoked marijuana. 

In the late 70s, it appeared that pro-marijuana activists might persuade a majority of Americans to support legalization of cannabis products.  However, beginning in 1976 groups of anti-marijuana activists were formed.  These groups became a powerful lobby that was motivated by the impulse to stop the use of marijuana by children and adolescents.  In particular, two groups emerged from the state of Georgia.  Marsha Keith Manatt was horrified to find that her 13-year-old daughter had hosted a “pot party” at a sleepover at her house.  Doing research on marijuana, Manatt found several things that worried her.  She read articles that claimed marijuana use could cause boys to develop breasts and girls to become infertile (many of these claims turned out to be false).  She also read a report from the American Medical Association warning that “the group most vulnerable to the hazardous effects of marijuana are children and adolescents.” 

This last report provided valid reasons for concern.  If one starts ingesting cannabis at an early age, the probability of developing a serious dependence on the drug is greatly increased.  In addition, the chances increase that they will move on to more dangerous drugs.  Also, heavy users of cannabis are more likely to develop “amotivational syndrome,” where “the user becomes apathetic, lethargic, passive and withdrawn.”  Ms. Manatt then wrote a book Parents, Peers and Pot, that was issued by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 1979.  In the book, she urged parents to band together to form groups that would educate their children about the dangers of drug abuse.  Manatt was further upset when she visited head shops, and found numerous items that were clearly targeted for adolescents. 

Figure 18: The book Parents, Peers and Pot by Marsha Manatt Schuchard. 

In 1978, Ms. Manatt joined with Georgia State University professor Thomas Gleaton to form the Parents’ Resource Institute for Drug Education, or PRIDE.  PRIDE was an activist organization that focused on educating parents to understand the dangers of drug use by their children, and also to lobby against the drug culture.  A second anti-drug group for parents was formed in Atlanta by Sue Rusche.  She had been stunned at the drug paraphernalia that she found in a local record store/head shop.  Like Manatt, Rusche formed parent activist groups that lobbied for anti-drug measures.  But where Manatt’s interests were primarily in educating parents about the dangers of drugs, Rusche focused on lobbying for laws that would close down shops that sold drug paraphernalia, and also that would lobby against the legalization of marijuana. 

Under President Jimmy Carter, prosecutions for marijuana possession were not pursued with the same zeal that had been applied in previous administrations.  However, during the Reagan Administration the criminalization of cannabis was pursued with renewed vigor.  Furthermore, the lobbying efforts begun by Manatt and Rusche resonated with the Reagans.  Their anti-drug message was welcomed by the Reagan Administration, and it fit in with Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug initiative “Just say No” to drugs.  In May 1980, various anti-drug lobbyists formed a DC-based group the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth (NFP). At this point, the advocates of drug law reform and legalization of marijuana found that the political tide had turned against them.  They needed to find a new message that would counter the pressure from the anti-drug lobby. 

The pro-legalization group issued its messages through the editorial pages of High Times magazine.  At first, High Times attempted to brand the anti-drug lobby as essentially a new version of McCarthyism.  They claimed that these activists were a scary group of right-wing ideologues trying to restrict the freedoms of Americans.  Next, they tried ridiculing the NFP leaders; however, these efforts gained little traction.  But in the mid-1980s the editors of High Times began to take seriously the issue of marijuana use by adolescents.  This was partly because many from the first generation of pot smokers in the 60s now had children of their own, and were deeply ambivalent regarding the question of drug use by their children.

In 1986 the executive director of NORML, Jon Gettman, began issuing a series of booklets outlining the group’s stance on various issues with cannabis.  In 1987 he issued a pamphlet called Drugs and Children, where he announced that “NORML is strongly committed to the concept that growing up should be drug-free.”  This was a stunning reversal from the earlier arguments by marijuana advocates that no restrictions should be imposed on the use of pot.  However, Gettman continued by stating that the best way to keep marijuana from being abused by adolescents was — to legalize it! 

Here is Gettman’s argument: if marijuana was legalized, it could “eliminate the black market, reduce crime and most importantly reduce adolescents’ access to drugs.  A marijuana tax could raise up to $15 billion annually which could be used for credible education and discouragement programs.”  Furthermore, the tax revenues could be used “to devote more resources to recreation programs to interest children in life and to help parents, schools and communities provide a better environment for our children.”  Gettman also employed an analogy between the use of drugs and alcohol.  He claimed that because alcohol was legalized, society could more effectively attempt to keep children from drinking.  Even though alcohol was freely available in society, and could be obtained by children, the situation would be even worse under Prohibition, because then parents and authorities would have less control over the availability of alcoholic drinks.  

The arguments for legalizing marijuana, together with claims that marijuana could be effective in relieving pain and as a medical treatment, were effective in changing the perception of cannabis among the general public.  As shown in Fig. 19, more than two-thirds of Americans now believe that pot should be legalized.  Figure 20 shows some divisions in how marijuana is viewed. More younger Americans favor legalization of marijuana than older citizens; and Democrats are more likely to favor legalization than Republicans. By now, more than two-thirds of our states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and one-third of our states have now legalized recreational pot.  However, on the federal level cannabis is still regarded as a highly dangerous drug with no legitimate medical uses. Under the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, penalties for possession of pot were increased, a federal system of mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession and sale were introduced, and civil asset forfeiture methods were established. 

Figure 19: The percentage of Americans who support legalization of cannabis, as a function of time, from 1969 to 2019, from a Pew research poll. 

Figure 20: Support for legal marijuana use among Americans in 2020, divided among age groups and Democrats vs. Republicans.

The civil asset forfeiture penalties are particularly heinous, and violate our notions of justice. According to Eric Schlosser “Real estate, vehicles, cash, securities, jewelry, and any other property connected with a marijuana offense are subject to immediate seizure. The federal government need not prove that the property was bought with the proceeds of illegal drug sales, only that it was involved in the commission of a crime—that marijuana was grown on certain land or transported in a particular vehicle. Property may be forfeited even after a defendant has been found innocent of the offense, since the burden of proof that applies to people—”beyond a reasonable doubt”—does not apply in accusations against inanimate objects. Property can be forfeited without its owner’s ever being charged with a crime.”

During the Clinton Administration, drug policies and arrests continued at a rate similar to that in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.  But a dramatic new development in criminal penalties during the Clinton Administration was the implementation of habitual offender statutes, commonly known as “three-strikes laws.”  Under these laws, a person convicted of a serious violent felony, along with two prior convictions for violent felonies, is subject to a mandatory life prison sentence.  At present, 28 states have enacted some form of a “three-strikes” law.  And one of the crimes that California considers as eligible for the “three-strikes” mandatory sentence is drug possession. 

Most states allow judges to take into account prior convictions when imposing sentences, so the idea that prior convictions should influence a sentence is nothing new.  What is most significant about the “three-strikes” laws is that it removes the ability of a judge to take into account mitigating factors in assigning a sentence.  Earlier in this post we reviewed the case of Mark Young, who received a life sentence without possibility of parole for introducing buyers to two people who had grown a marijuana crop.  Young was sentenced on a “three-strikes” law in Indiana.  One of his two previous felony convictions was 17 years earlier than his third one, and Young had neither grown nor sold the pot – he had just introduced a buyer to the growers, who had avoided stiff sentences by informing on Young.  Neither of Young’s two previous felony convictions resulted in any jail time, and for each prior felony he was fined one dollar.  One criticism of three-strikes policies is that they focus much more on street crime than white-collar crime, for which these policies are rarely enforced. 

Medical Marijuana:

Over the past few decades there has been growing support for the use of cannabis for medical purposes.  “Medical marijuana” refers to cannabis that is prescribed by physicians to their patients for treatment for certain conditions.  Following the passage of Proposition 215 in California, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative was formed.  Its purpose was “to provide seriously ill patients with a safe and reliable source of medical cannabis, information and patient support.”  However, in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court “ruled that the federal government has the right to regulate and criminalize cannabis, even for medical purposes.”

The history of medical marijuana is rife with paradoxes.  At present, the most glaring “Catch-22” is the fact that medical marijuana is currently legal in 37 states, and in 17 of those states recreational pot has been legalized.  On the other hand, the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has a high potential for abuse and has no legitimate medical uses.  In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales v. Raich that “even in states where individuals or businesses in accordance with state-approved medical cannabis programs are lawfully cultivating, possessing, or distributing medical cannabis, such persons or businesses are violating federal marijuana laws.” 

So the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) continued to arrest medical marijuana patients and to seize medical cannabis, the business assets of growers and medical dispensaries.  In 2014, Congress passed the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment which stopped these practices during the Obama Administration. 

However, the Trump Administration took a much harder line against the use of marijuana either for medical or recreational purposes.  Trump’s Health and Human Services administrator Alex Azar claimed that “there is no such thing as medical marijuana.”  And in 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum, an Obama Administration policy that constrained U.S. attorneys from enforcing federal laws against cannabis-legalized laws in various states.  Furthermore, Sessions described marijuana as “only slightly less awful” than heroin. 

Although there is some evidence that marijuana is helpful in relieving pain and nausea in patients, much of that information is more informal than scientific.  The medical-marijuana laws in 37 states are mainly a result of anecdotal reports from people who assert that pot was highly beneficial in relieving their pain, or treating various ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.  And here we venture into really crazy territory.  Critics of medical marijuana point to the absence of rigorous clinical trials of marijuana.  However, the fact that the federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug makes it extremely difficult to carry out such trials. 

In 1968, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) came to an agreement with the University of Mississippi.  For over 50 years, the only cannabis that could be used for research purposes in the U.S. came from Mississippi’s Cannabis Research center.  However, it was very difficult to obtain permission to do research, particularly on projects that attempted to find positive effects from marijuana use.  And when researchers finally obtained approval for a project and received cannabis samples from Ole Miss, they were in the form of a micronized greenish powder.  The powder contained much less THC than most marijuana products, so researchers using the Mississippi cannabis struggled to find signals in their data.  

Thus, paradoxically, although it is a common weed that grows freely in every state in America, cannabis ended up being the least researched Schedule I drug.  For example, there was significantly more research being done on heroin and MDMA (ecstasy) than marijuana.  And even if groups received approval to do research with cannabis, they were forbidden to carry out clinical trials because cannabis was still a Schedule I drug. For example, researchers in a state with licensed medical dispensaries for marijuana could not simply purchase cannabis at a dispensary and carry out clinical trials, because pot was illegal under federal law. In 2021, the U.S. government finally allowed other companies to provide cannabis for research purposes.  Dr. Igor Grant, Director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego described the situation for marijuana research: “It’s a big disconnect.”

In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report on the health effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids.  That committee found evidence that patients who were treated with cannabis were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms.  In adults experiencing nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy, the committee found conclusive evidence that oral cannabinoids were effective in combating these symptoms.  And the committee did not find that smoking cannabis increased the risk of lung or neck cancers. But they found that frequent pot smoking was likely to increase episodes of bronchitis and other respiratory symptoms. 


Figure 21: 2017 Report by National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on the Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids

The report found that use of cannabis before driving increases the risk of being involved in a motor vehicle accident.  In states where cannabis is legal, there is an increased risk of accidental cannabis overdose in children.  Cannabis use was found to be likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, social anxiety disorders and to some extent depression.  Heavy users of cannabis were found to report more suicidal thoughts than non-users.  For people with bipolar disorder, frequent cannabis users showed increased symptoms of bipolar disorder compared to non-users.  

Drug offenses are still the leading cause of arrest in the U.S. today. Police make about 1.15 million arrests on drug charges each year (see here, here and here).  Of these, about one-third are for marijuana offenses (a number roughly equal to the number of arrests on heroin or cocaine charges).  Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population but are charged with 24% of drug charges, despite the fact that whites and non-whites in America use and sell drugs at similar rates.   


The history of cannabis use in the United States has been marked by controversy, misinformation and paradox.  In the colonial period, hemp was widely used for canvas, paper, rope and other products.  Until the end of the 19th century, marijuana use in the U.S. was mainly confined to southern port cities.  But in the late 19th century, “hashish houses” began to proliferate on the East Coast.  Several states had prohibitions on cannabis, but these became more widespread following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which coincided with a large increase in emigration from Mexico to the U.S.  Mexican laborers brought cannabis with them. 

American prohibition of narcotic drugs began in the early 20th century, when the initial government action was to place high taxes on these drugs.  People who used the drugs could then be prosecuted for non-payment of taxes.  Criminalization of cannabis began in earnest with the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930.  The founding director, Harry Anslinger, made a number of shocking (and largely false) claims about cannabis: he claimed that cannabis use frequently led to insanity; he also asserted that marijuana use often turned users into homicidal maniacs; and he also maintained that pot often led its users to commit suicide.  Anslinger’s claims about marijuana were related to his deeply racist views; he believed that the use of cannabis would decrease inhibitions and might induce white women to have sexual relations with black men.  He also believed that cannabis was associated with jazz music, which he felt had “Satanic” origins. 

These sensational claims about the evils of cannabis led it to be classified as a “Schedule 1” drug in the U.S.  That category is limited to illegal drugs that have high potential for abuse and that have no legitimate medical uses.  Cannabis shares that category with drugs such as heroin, MDMA (ecstasy), LSD and psilocybin.  Note that “Schedule 2” drugs, which are held to have medical applications under severe restrictions, include cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl. 

The classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug has made it extremely difficult to carry out research.  This has led to a “Catch-22” situation where opponents of legalization point to the lack of clinical research on cannabis; but the fact that cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug has made it extremely difficult to perform the necessary research.  From 1968 to 2021, the only facility in the U.S. that was licensed to grow and research marijuana was at the University of Mississippi.  Scientists wanting to perform research on marijuana had to obtain permission from that facility.  It was extremely difficult to obtain permission, and the samples sent for research purposes obtained a micronized powder that contained very low amounts of the psychoactive ingredient THC.  The current situation is so bad that marijuana is now the least studied of all Schedule 1 drugs: for example, there are recent studies showing that both MDMA and psilocybin may have significant medical uses.   

As early as 1972, a National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse found that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol, and recommended that the drug be decriminalized nationwide.  Fifty years after that commission report, 37 states now allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for various medical conditions.  And 17 states have now legalized recreational marijuana for adults.  And a 2017 study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found significant evidence that cannabis was useful in relieving pain.

However, the federal government continues to maintain that cannabis has no legitimate medical uses.  This paradoxical situation means that individual federal administrations can treat marijuana possession as either a minor issue involving a fine (in states where marijuana is still illegal), or as a serious drug offense that may receive harsh punishment and possible imprisonment.  For example, the Carter and Obama administrations tended to downplay federal interdiction (except at the borders where people risked imprisonment if caught smuggling pot) and harsh sentencing, while the Nixon, Reagan and Trump administrations treated cannabis as an extremely dangerous drug. 

Clearly, a first step towards a rational policy regarding marijuana is to remove it from its Schedule 1 classification.  This may be possible because in 2021, the U.S. allowed laboratories other than the University of Mississippi site to provide marijuana for research purposes.  It is likely that much better research on marijuana will soon be forthcoming, and it may become clear that marijuana has some legitimate medical applications.  However, even then cannabis may continue to be a political football, as Democrats are much more likely to favor legalization than Republicans, as shown in Fig. 20. 

Support among Americans for legalizing marijuana has increased steadily over the years.  Figure 19 shows the percentage of Americans who support legalizing pot.  In 1969, only 12% of Americans supported legalizing marijuana.  That number has increased dramatically.  There was a brief decrease in the percentage of Americans who supported legalization during the Reagan years; however, since 1993 that number has risen sharply.  As of Nov. 2021, more than two-thirds of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana.  Subgroups of Americans by gender, age, income and education all show solid majorities supporting legalization of marijuana.  However, there are still significant differences based on political party and religion.  Democrats currently approve of legalization by 83% and independents by 71%, while Republicans are evenly split on this issue with 50% approving of legalization.  Those who attend religious services seldom or never are strongly supportive of legalization, while regular attendees of religious services are roughly equally split on this issue. 

There is a glimmer of hope on this issue.  On Mar. 31, 2022 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, with two Democratic representatives voting against it and three Republicans voting for it.  This act would “remove marijuana from the federal government’s list of controlled substances, impose an 8 percent tax on cannabis products, allow some convictions on cannabis charges to be expunged and press for sentencing reviews at the federal and state levels.  It would also make Small Business Administration loans and services available to cannabis businesses while setting standards for them.”    

In the unlikely event that the U.S. Senate approves this act, it would have major consequences for the status of cannabis and its current criminalization on the federal level.  The availability of Small Business Administration funds would remove a major hurdle now faced by businesses in states that have legalized medical recreational marijuana.  Such businesses are legal in those states, but because cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, banks are unwilling to provide loans or even bank accounts for these businesses.  This makes cannabis a cash-only product and makes businesses highly vulnerable to theft. 

This Act would also have many other benefits.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the act would reduce the federal deficit by nearly $3 billion over the next decade.  The CBO also estimates that “the bill’s provision to expunge marijuana convictions and lower sentences would reduce time served by current and future inmates by 37,000 years.”   

However, as long as federal authorities view marijuana as a dangerous drug with no legitimate uses, then the huge disconnect between the federal government and individual states will continue.  Americans will continue to be arrested for possession of pot in states that criminalize marijuana, and citizens will continue to be jailed for selling the product.  

Once marijuana is no longer classified as a Schedule 1 drug, presumably a great deal of research will be carried out on the effects of this drug.  What are now largely anecdotal testimonies about the effectiveness of marijuana can be replaced by solid research on this substance.  It is not clear whether more research will lead to FDA approval of cannabis for various medical conditions.  The normal process for FDA approval is a series of clinical trials of a particular medication, capped off by phase III clinical trials.  However, a typical study that leads to FDA approval is done using a single chemical.  Cannabis contains hundreds of different active substances, and it may be difficult to isolate a single active ingredient that can successfully undergo clinical trials. 

But even if cannabis never succeeds in gaining FDA approval for treatment of various conditions, the increasing number of states that allow the recreational use of cannabis means that more Americans would have access to marijuana.  Citizens would be able to self-medicate with marijuana if research shows that it is effective against certain medical conditions. 

Another advantage of legalization of marijuana is that it should remove the influence of drug cartels in producing and distributing this substance.  The availability of marijuana on the free market should lower the price of the substance and thus remove the financial incentives for drug dealers (provided that taxes on marijuana are not so high that illegal pot is cheaper than the legal drug).  At least as far as marijuana is concerned, legalization should remove some of the corruption engendered by the illegal drug trade.  Another benefit of legalization is that users will know exactly what they are purchasing.  The amount of THC can be specified at the point of purchase.  In addition, the product will not be adulterated.  Currently, illegal drugs may be contaminated with deadly substances.  In Central and South America, areas with fields of cannabis or opium poppies are often sprayed with a chemical herbicide such as paraquat.  Drug dealers are increasingly adding fentanyl to supplies of cocaine or heroin.  The presence of fentanyl may result in a fatal overdose to the user. 

At present, people on chemotherapy will often be prescribed opioids to relieve the pain they experience.  In some cases, patients wish to switch from opioids to cannabis; however, their doctors may refuse to prescribe marijuana for their pain.  There are few definitive studies showing that marijuana is effective in relieving pain, and in addition doctors may be reluctant to prescribe a substance that is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government.  Research shows that in states that have legalized marijuana, the number of prescriptions for opioids has decreased.  Studies found decreases in opioid prescriptions in states that legalized medical marijuana, and even greater decreases in states that legalized both medical and recreational pot. This is a correlation and not necessarily causation; however, it does suggest that people may be substituting marijuana for opioids in treating pain.  It is also the case that the number of overall medical prescriptions has decreased in states where marijuana has been legalized. 

One should not minimize the negative effects of cannabis.  Approximately 9% of cannabis users become dependent on the drug.  So legalization should be accompanied with information regarding negative aspects of cannabis use, and with medical intervention for users who experience adverse psychological effects.  Taxes on cannabis should be used to set up treatment facilities for the drug, and for education about potential negative effects of pot.  In addition, strong efforts should be made to keep the drug out of the hands of children and adolescents.  Although cannabis use has its downside, it is considerably less harmful than substances such as alcohol and opioids.  There is evidence that some users will substitute cannabis for opioids for relief of pain; and states that have legalized cannabis find that a decrease in the number of prescription drugs that are issued.  This suggests that individuals might be substituting cannabis use for more dangerous and potentially addictive substances. 

We will see if reason prevails, whether cannabis is removed from the list of Schedule 1 drugs, and if cannabis eventually becomes legal for adults throughout the United States.  But it’s been decades since cannabis has been demonized, so don’t hold your breath regarding legalization of this substance. 

Source Material:

Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic, Aug. 1994

Using Marijuana as a Sleep Aid, Sleep Foundation 

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Is Marijuana Addictive?

Prison Policy Initiative

Debunking Denial, Purdue Pharma and America’s Opioid Epidemic

Jamila Hodge, Fifty Years Ago Today, President Nixon Declared the War on Drugs,

Dan Baum, Legalize It All, Harper’s Magazine, April 2016

Drug War Statistics, Drug Policy Alliance

The Laguardia Committee Report on the Marihuana Problem in the City of New York, 1944

Cannabis Culture Wars, Emily Dufton, Chap. 6 of The War on Drugs, ed. David Farber, NYU Press, 2021.

Report of National Committee on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1972

Marsha Manatt, Parents, Peers and Pot, National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1979

David Shichor, Three Strikes as a Public Policy: The Convergence of the New Penology and the McDonaldization of Punishment Crime & Delinquency. 43, 470 (1997). 

After 50 Years, U.S. Opens the Door To More Cannabis Crops For Scientists Will Stone, NPR, May 30, 2021

The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2017

Health Effects of Marijuana and Cannabis-Derived Products Presented in New Report, National Academies Publicity Release 2017

Drug War Statistics,

Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Data Explorer

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Overdose Death Rates

Multiple Studies Look at Medical Uses of Ecstasy, Partnership to End Addiction,

The Therapeutic Potential of Psilocybin, Henry Lowe etal, Molecules 26, 2948 (2021)

House Votes to Decriminalize Cannabis, Jonathan Weisman, New York Times Apr. 1, 2022

Legalized Marijuana Linked to Decline in Opioid Emergencies, Univ. of Pittsburgh Health Sciences

Is There Less Opioid Abuse in States Where Marijuana Has Been Decriminalized, Either for Medicinal or Recreational Use? A Clin-IQ, A.M. Weldelboe etal, J. Patient-Centered Res & Reviews

Legal Marijuana and the Decrease in Opioid Use, AAACEUs