Have you ever tugged on a stray thread in a piece of cloth and been transfixed by its twisting course? Researchers studying the consequences of cannabis prohibition feel exactly the same way.
For nearly a century, cannabis has been the subject of shifting attitudes. While only 13% of the public approved of legalizing cannabis in 1969, that number has risen to nearly 70% in the following decades. Support increases to 92% when asked if cannabis should be legal for therapeutic uses.
The sudden momentum behind the idea of legalizing cannabis in the United States has caught everyone off guard. But as public opinion and state laws change, it's important to remember the speed at which cannabis was banned and weaponized; the remnants of this prohibition are still prevalent to this day.
Despite shifts in state policy and growing concern about cannabis's impact on public health, the federal government has not legalized the drug and instead maintains stringent guidelines for cannabis research.
Due to the lack of research on the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids, patients, medical professionals, and policymakers lack the information necessary to make informed choices about the use of cannabis products. The public is at risk due to the absence of data on the safety and efficacy of cannabis in treating medical conditions.
The Cannabis Industry Today
On January 1, 2014, Colorado became the first state to allow cannabis dispensaries to sell recreational goods. Since then, 39 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the sale of medical cannabis in various forms. Even New York, a state known for harsh drug regulations, has legalized the use of recreational cannabis in 2021.
Cannabis remains on the federal government's list of Schedule I drugs, considered the most dangerous of the restricted substances, and is characterized as carrying a severe risk of addiction, despite the fact that many physicians disagree.
As a Schedule I substance, cannabis is believed to have no medical value under federal law, despite the hundreds of patient testimonials to the contrary. How did this occur?
Cannabis Prohibition: A Rocky History
Cannabis is acknowledged as one of the five most sacred plants on Earth in the Atharva Veda, one of Hinduism's holy books. The text also refers to it as a "liberator" which, given its history with the federal government, is pretty ironic.
U.S. society has suffered greatly as a result of the failed War on Drugs. The policy of cannabis prohibition has led to the unnecessary incarceration of millions of people and the squandering of resources in the criminal justice system.
The first cannabis regulations in the United States were created before the country was even founded. In 1619, the colony of Virginia issued a law requiring every farm to grow cannabis and produce hemp for industrial purposes.
The cannabis plant began to be used for therapeutic purposes over time. Mexican immigrants were the first to promote its recreational use in the early 1900s.
At the time, cannabis use was utilized mostly in black and Mexican neighborhoods, and racist attitudes began to link cannabis with criminality, sexual immorality, and other negative social outcomes.
The War on Drugs was initiated in 1976 during Nixon’s presidency and continued throughout Reagan’s and Bush's administrations. Life in prison without the possibility of parole was the penalty for a third drug conviction under the "three strikes" regime.
Nonetheless, a significant shift in the public’s view of cannabis was taking place. California approved Proposition 215 (Compassionate Use Act) in 1996, enabling the sale and medical use of cannabis for people suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other serious painful conditions.
As a result, the conflict between federal laws criminalizing cannabis and state laws allowing cannabis in certain circumstances began, and it continues to this day.
The Effect On Cannabis Composition
Prior to the substantial nationwide spike in cannabis arrests in 1990, 84.4% of U.S. high school seniors indicated that obtaining marijuana was "pretty easy" or "very easy."
The percentage of high school seniors who said marijuana was freely available did not drop over the 1990s, despite the dramatic rise in cannabis-related charges.
Studies also show that between 1990 and 2000, the average potency of cannabis went up by 53%, even though the number of arrests went up. More potent types of cannabis were becoming more common, as people were starting to grow it at home (in response to increased efforts to stop people from crossing the border). Due to this, growers had found ways to make cannabis with more THC.
In the midst of condemnation, there was a simultaneous maneuver to increase potency and strengthen its reach. It didn’t take long for cannabis to be defined by its THC content, leading to somewhat nefarious tactics that exist to this day.
The cannabis industry has developed from reckless enthusiasm to a more sober and trustworthy approach that craves credibility. At the start, there were a couple of labs where you could pay one price for the genuine potency value and another price for anything over 20%.
As a result, the precedent that labs were shady was established quite early on, which may have sowed the seeds of suspicion in cannabis products and the substance itself.
Criminal justice reform and racial equity make an appearance as significant themes in the national debate over cannabis legislation. Given the history of cannabis, it’s not hard to draw a connection between cannabis and racial injustice.
Despite equal rates of use among white people and people of color, arrests for cannabis-related offenses are far more common among people of color. The likelihood of being arrested for a marijuana-related crime is 3.6 times higher for black Americans than for white Americans.
Though we’ve come a long way in recognizing our rights to consume and cultivate cannabis, this freedom isn’t accessible to everybody. FBI data suggests that there were more than 1.2 million cannabis arrests in the United States between 2018 and 2019.
For years, cannabis policy in the United States has been created and enforced to hurt communities of color. This has led to a decades-long effort to move away from cannabis prohibition and criminalization and develop policies for restorative justice.
The Vilification Of Cannabis
Most cannabis prohibitionists have abandoned the notion that cannabis is addictive.
Why? To make the allegation stick, they must broaden the definition of addiction to the point where it has little significance. Instead, they've coined a new term to vilify cannabis use: "Marijuana Use Disorder."
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), interviewees "were classed as having a Marijuana Use Disorder if they satisfied the DSM-IV criteria for either dependence or abuse of marijuana."
Cannabis "dependence" meets the same DSM-IV criteria as "Illicit Drug Use Disorder," which covers heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, hallucinogens, and prescription opioids.
What's going on here is obvious. Some licensed opportunists in the federal government and the psychiatric community are attempting to classify occasional or moderate cannabis usage, whether medical or not, as a mental disorder.
What Are The Laws Surrounding Cannabis Prohibition?
The campaign against cannabis in America began in the 1930s. Some of the most well-known prohibition statutes on cannabis are as follows:
The Marihuana Tax Act (1937)
In 1937, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. To put it simply, it rendered cannabis illegal on a federal level while leaving it legal for medical purposes. Before that, 29 states had already abolished cannabis of their own volition.
When the 1950s rolled around, however, a new generation of rebellious youth began to use cannabis for its recreational effects at far higher rates than prior generations.
The Boggs Act (1952) and The Narcotics Control Act (1956)
The counterculture was met by legislation such as the Boggs Act (1952) and the Narcotics Control Act (1956). Infractions involving any narcotic, including cannabis, are subject to these statutory minimum terms. First-time offenders caught possessing cannabis face mandatory minimum jail terms of two to ten years and fines of up to $20,000.
The Controlled Substances Act (1971)
By 1970, the Controlled Substances Act had placed cannabis in the same category as other dangerous drugs, known as Schedule I. The 1970s, however, also saw a countervailing trend, with several states beginning to decriminalize cannabis.
Yes, these are all unfortunate developments, but there is a potential silver lining.
The MORE Act (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act)
In April 2022, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act, which would decriminalize cannabis on a federal level.
If approved, the MORE Act would essentially:
- Remove cannabis from its classification as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act.
- Work towards the expungement of criminals who were charged with crimes related to cannabis.
- Eliminate criminal penalties for federal cannabis offenses.
- Ensure the federal government could not discriminate against people because of cannabis use.
- Protect consumers from losing benefits and protect immigrants at risk of deportation.
Most importantly, the bill would open the door to unbridled research on cannabis and its effects.
Summing It Up
Cannabis prohibition policies require substantial financial and organizational resources, which could be better used to further other urgent public safety objectives.
While the federal government in the United States has taken opposing stances on cannabis legalization in the past, it appears that in the 21st century, there is only one direction to go: toward federal legalization.