Marijuana was first brought to America by settlers at Jamestown in 1611, and its use increased for centuries. By 1850, marijuana was added to the United States Pharmacopeia, an official recognition of its medicinal properties. But the turn of the 20th century brought with it a wave of prohibition.
In 1906 a federal law required marijuana to be labeled, the first major regulation on the plant. Only five years later, Massachusetts became the first state to outlaw it. In the following few years, all other states followed suit.
Even though states were cracking down, the federal government continued to grow marijuana for various scientific and medical uses. By 1918 the Department of Agriculture was growing and harvesting over 60,000 pounds per year. Demand for marijuana-based medications increased up through the 1930s, when marijuana extract was sold for use as an analgesic, an antispasmodic, a sedative, and even a remedy for asthma.
With marijuana use persisting despite universal prohibition, public outcry reached a fever pitch in 1936 with the release of the major Hollywood film “Reefer Madness,” dramatizing the commonly perceived horrors of marijuana.
The next step in regulating marijuana was through the enactment of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The law imposed registration, reporting, and tax requirements on marijuana production, and levied criminal penalties for violators. The acceptable use of marijuana continued to decline and in 1942 it was removed from the United States pharmacopeia.
The biggest scientific breakthrough regarding marijuana came in 1964. That is when tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC, was first synthesized and identified as the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. With this innovation, the scientific study of marijuana increased, albeit with stringent government oversight. In 1968, the University of Mississippi became the exclusive grower of marijuana for the federal government. Ole Miss cultivates up to 6.5 acres of marijuana plants for study and research.
The so-called War on Drugs began in 1970, when Congress introduced the Controlled Substance Act, the comprehensive federal anti-drug law. The Supreme Court determined that this law does not violate the Constitution in the case of Gonzales v. Raich. The Drug Enforcement Administration was established three years later. Although penalties for drug violators had never been higher, mandatory sentences for drug crimes, including marijuana, increased under the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act.
After decades of stricter marijuana laws, the nation began to take a different approach. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana when it did so in 1996. Currently, 18 different states and the District of Columbia permit the use of medical marijuana. Most recently, citizens in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. This is undoubtedly one of the most significant legal developments in marijuana’s tumultuous history and signals America’s increasing understanding and acceptance of marijuana.