Is This The End of The War on Drugs?

Cannabis legalization is beginning to take place on a global scale, with new countries or states loosening their laws on the plant every week. But how did we get here? Let's take a look at the past few decades of cannabis legislation.

A recent study by Pew Research found that 67% Of Americans favored marijuana legalization in 2020, which is an almost two-fold increase from the 37% that supported legalization in 2000.

This increased acceptance of cannabis is occurring against a backdrop of growing legislative efforts in support of the plant, such as New Zealand's upcoming cannabis referendum, the "essential" designation of the U.S. and Canadian cannabis industries amid COVID-19, Lebanon's legalization of medical cannabis cultivation and legalization ballots scheduled to appear in several U.S. states at the end of the year.

Additionally, the reduced stigma surrounding cannabis has likely been aided by the growing array of celebrities that have entered the cannabis industry in the past few years, such as Dan Bilzerian, Whoopi Goldberg, Kristen Bell, Mike Tyson, Seth Rogen, Xzibit, and Snoop Dogg, who have each helped to shine a light on an industry that was once relegated to the shadows.

Evidently, the momentum behind cannabis legalization is growing, and cannabis culture is moving further into the mainstream with each passing day. But this wasn't always the case.

So what's changed? Why is cannabis acceptance growing? Let's find out.

Before the War on Drugs

While cannabis is finally emerging from the depths of illegality, the plant was once very common, with evidence of its use stretching back up to 6,000 years ago throughout Asia. Hemp was used as both a food source and for its capacity to produce fibers that would make shoes, clothing, rope, and one of the earliest forms of paper.

You then had evidence of cannabis use in the form of hashish occurring in India, the Middle East, and throughout parts of Africa from 1,000 B.C. onwards.

By the 1600s, cannabis had made its way to the United States of America, once more in the form of hemp to be used for industrial purposes. In fact, not only did cannabis make it to the Americas but the Founding Fathers themselves helped to cultivate it.

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison each cultivated hemp plants, however, this wasn't entirely out of the ordinary, as some Americans were encouraged to grow hemp during the early Republic due to the plants' bountiful industrial value in constructing clothing and fabrics.

Though the Founding Fathers did certainly appreciate the benefits that hemp had to offer, as Thomas Jefferson received the United States' first patent for a hemp threshing machine, and in 1794, George Washington wrote in his diary: "I am very glad to hear that the Gardener has saved so much of the St. foin seed, and that of the India Hemp."

By the 1800s, the medicinal uses of the plant became more widely known in the West, and cannabis started to be prescribed for conditions such as nausea, cholera and stomach pain. That is, until the 20th century, which would prove to be the most anti-cannabis century in human history.

The Early Stages of the War on Drugs

The earliest hues of the War on Drugs can be seen in the 1930s with the establishment of the Federal Bureau for Narcotics, led at the time by a man named Harry J. Anslinger.

With the end of alcohol prohibition and Anslinger being the head of the Department of Prohibition, rumor has it that Anslinger was looking for the next substance to target to maintain his drug-hunting relevancy. At the time, reports of cannabis consumption were on the rise, with a lot of marijuana flowing from the Mexican border.

At the time, Anslinger said 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."

Then, with the help of a newspaper tycoon named William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger was able to popularize several anecdotes and police reports involving crimes and the consumption of cannabis. This allegiance between politicians and the press, combined with propaganda like 'Reefer Madness,' helped to shape the negative public perception of the plant that would carry on for decades afterward.

Similarly to Anslinger, Hearst is believed to have had his own personal reasons for pushing the anti-cannabis narrative, as the potential for hemp paper could have negatively affected the value of Hearst's acreage and paper mill.

Once the seeds of distrust in cannabis were planted, Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics were able to draft and introduce the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which placed some of the first restrictions on cannabis, allowing those who possessed the plant without paying taxes on it to be imprisoned.

The War on Drugs

Following years of U.S. occupation during the Vietnam War in the '50s, alongside the growing Civil Rights movement that was developing at the time, a growing sentiment of distrust in the government began to fester, and a countercultural movement emerged throughout the '60s. The countercultural movement of the 1960s involved hedonism, sexual liberation, and copious amounts of drug use. Amid this era, it would seem that all of Harry Anslinger's and William Randolph Hearst's efforts to dissuade the public from using drugs had failed.

Psychedelia began to permeate through the culture via events such as Woodstock, musicians like Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, and icons such as Timothy Leary.

That is, until the '70s, under the Presidency of Richard Nixon. Nixon, who was vehemently opposed to drug use and who saw the hippie movement of the '60s as something which mustn't continue throughout the '70s, declared drugs "public enemy number one" and proclaimed the beginning of the infamous 'War on Drugs.'

Nixon, along with his Attorney General, John N. Mitchell, worked together to form the Controlled Substances Act, which would then federally categorize and criminalize drugs based on their perceived danger or risk to society.

The "worst" drugs were thrown into the Schedule I camp, creating a motley assembly of different substances such as DMT, LSD, Psilocybin, Heroin, MDMA, Peyote and Cannabis.

In order to enforce the newfound criminality of these substances, Nixon also expanded upon Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics to form the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973, which still exists to this day.

From that moment forth, cannabis would become illegal to possess, cultivate and distribute not just in the United States, but all throughout the globe, continued by the efforts of President Ronald Reagan, who helped lead the 'Just Say No' campaign to discourage drug use.

The End of the War on Drugs

Despite the U.S. Government's ardent opposition to most drugs in the 70s and 80s, there were still a handful of doctors and advocates pushing for medical marijuana to be made legal upon prescription.

One such man was Dr. Tod Hiro Mikuriya, who was the director of marijuana research for the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Narcotics and Drug Abuse Studies.

In 1972, Dr. Mikuriya released a book entitled 'Marijuana Medical Papers 1839–1972', which outlined many of the medical uses of the plant, as well as "introspective accounts" made by practitioners and scientists personal use of cannabis. In the abstract of the book, Dr. Mikuriya stated:

Despite the advent of technology, these intelligent observations articulately described in the past must not be forgotten. Failure to heed previous insights results in superfluous repetition, stupidity through ignorance and resultant failure.

Dr. Mikuriya led the charge to allow doctors and medical practitioners to prescribe cannabis, in concert with activists who had used cannabis for their own medical conditions, to introduce California Proposition 215 in 1996.

The Proposition passed by means of the initiative process, with 5,382,915 (55.6%) votes in favor and 4,301,960 (44.4%) against. As a result, patients with a valid doctor's recommendation could now possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use.

While there had been other legislative efforts to push for medical cannabis use throughout the 80s, it wasn't until proposition 215 and a similar effort entitled Proposition P in San Francisco in 1991, that real change would occur.

Following these two propositions, early versions of cannabis dispensaries began to pop up throughout the States, and medical cannabis ballot initiatives began to be introduced in almost every U.S. state over the next few decades.

This legalization and legitimization of the medical benefits of cannabis stood in contrast to the growing number of prosecutions and arrests occurring nationwide, which revealed that the billions spent on the War on Drugs was doing little to dissuade people from consuming cannabis. Moreover, as people began to realize much of the propaganda surrounding cannabis was false, drug addiction began to be viewed through the lens of mental health and treated as a health issue rather than one of law enforcement.

As such, during the Obama Administration in 2009, the term 'War on Drugs' was no longer used, and instead, drug addiction was viewed as a disease – one that wouldn't be helped through prison time and a criminal record. Obama's changed stance on drugs was backed up by the Global Commission on Drug Policy in 2011, when they released a report stating that the War on Drugs "has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world."

This represented a complete departure from the portrayal of cannabis users as "murderers" during Anslinger's tenure, to one of compassion and empathy for those caught up in the drug war.

The Future of Cannabis

After 2011, cannabis was not only seen as a health issue rather than a legislative one, but it was also seen as a relatively benign drug. This allowed for the plant's eventual legalization the following year through Proposition 64 in Colorado, which made the state the first in the U.S. to legalize the plant for recreational purposes.

Since then, ten other states have followed, with Illinois most recently becoming the 11th state to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes. Additionally, the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes has proven even more successful, with 33 U.S. states now allowing for the plant to be prescribed.

And it looks like the marijuana momentum is set to continue, with the industry deemed "essential" amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while also showing strong sales during a period of economic downturn.

It isn't just the U.S. that's making waves when it comes to cannabis legislation reform, either. Uruguay and Canada have federally legalized the plant for recreational consumption, Lebanon has legalized medical cannabis cultivation, and both New Zealand and Mexico look poised to legalize the plant later this year.

If you'd have told Harry Anslinger or Richard Nixon what the cannabis industry would look like in fifty years, they'd likely have told you you were on drugs.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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