A History of Cannabis in America (from 1600 to 2000)*

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1600-1900:  From early colonization through the Civil War, American production of hemp was actively encouraged by government for the production of rope, sails, and clothing. In the late 1800s, cannabis became a popular ingredient in many medicinal products and was sold openly in pharmacies.   

1906: The Pure Food and Drug Act required labeling of any cannabis contained in over-the-counter remedies.   

1910-1930:  After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants entering the U.S. Introduced the recreational use of cannabis into American culture, using the term “marijuana.” The “new” drug became linked to the fear and prejudice many Americans felt toward Mexican immigrants, and their anxiety fueled concerns that use of the drug was associated with criminal behavior.   

1930-1932:  Creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and passage of the Uniform State Narcotic Act encouraged states to accept responsibility for controlling the problem.   

1936:  The film “Reefer Madness” was produced, stoking fear about the evils of marijuana.   

1937:  The Marijuana Tax Act effectively criminalized marijuana, restricting possession of the drug to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses.   

1951-1956: Additional federal laws set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses.

1960-1970:  Marijuana became popular in counterculture society, reflecting a changing political and cultural climate that was more accepting of its use.   

1970: Congress repealed most of the mandatory penalties for drug-related offenses and categorized marijuana separately from other narcotics with respect to federal sentencing requirements for possession.

1972: The bipartisan Schafer Commission, appointed by President Nixon at the direction of Congress, considered laws regarding marijuana and determined that personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized. Nixon rejected the recommendation.   

1973: The Controlled Substances Act created the DEA and established the Schedule for ranking substances according to their degree of danger and potential for addiction. Marijuana was classified as Schedule 1, the most restrictive.   

1976-1986:  A nationwide movement of conservative groups lobbied for stricter regulation of marijuana. Their efforts eventually led to the introduction of new federal penalties for marijuana possession and the creation of mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes.   

1996: California voters passed Proposition 215, allowing for the sale and medical use of marijuana in people, and opened a new avenue for discussion of Cannabis use and regulation.   

*Adapted from material contained in the PBS Frontline documentary “Busted–America’s War on Marijuana”

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