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A Brief History of Cannabis Prohibition in the United States

It has only been since 1937 that the plant has been illegal here at home. In this article, we do our best to distill the complex history of cannabis prohibition down into a consumable portion for you.

Jason SanderJason Sander · Jun. 19, 2020 · 6 min read
A Brief History of Cannabis Prohibition in the United States

Humans have both consumed cannabis and utilized its sibling hemp for centuries. It has only been since 1937 that the plant has been illegal here at home. In this article, we do our best to distill the complex history of cannabis prohibition down into a consumable portion for you, dear reader.

Hemp VS Cannabis - What’s the Difference?

We certainly wouldn’t want to insult your intelligence, but we always want our information to be as thorough and clear as possible. Although cannabis and hemp both come from basically the same plant, there are distinct differences between the two. Cannabis is the flower of the female cannabis plant and it contains over 100 active compounds known as cannabinoids. Read more about cannabinoids right here. These flowers are dried and cured, giving us the delicious buds we all know and love. Cannabis can be either Sativa or Indica, also sometimes the rarely known ruderalis.

Hemp looks different when it grows, but the most important fact is that hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC legally. At this point, we are assuming that you understand what THC is but refer back to our article on cannabinoids if you don’t. As we progress through the article, keep in mind that the timeline here isn’t exactly chronological, but we are doing our best to be brief and informative.


Before it was outlawed, hemp was a big part of American agriculture because of its myriad of uses. Believe it or not, the first cannabis law actually ordered farmers to grow hemp. In fact, Popular Mechanics called hemp a “billion-dollar cash crop” in the 1930s. The government produced a film called Hemp for Victory in the 1940s encouraging farmers to grow as much as possible in order to help win World War II. Just take a look at some of these U.S. location names - Hempstead, Long Island; Hempstead County, Arkansas; Hempstead, Texas; Hemphill, North Carolina, Hempfield, Pennsylvania, just to name a few. So, why was cannabis/ hemp made illegal? Keep reading.

The History of the DEA

In 1931, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon appointed Harry Anslinger the head of the newly reorganized Federal Bureau of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs (FBNDD). Mellon would eventually become Ansligner’s father-in-law, with nepotism in politics clearly out in the open - even back then. The FBNDD would eventually get even more power and morph into the DEA. The main target of the FBNDD was cannabis-hemp, and its main delivery method was shady businessmen.

Harry_Anslinger Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee in 1955. Image credit: ohiomarijuanacard.com

Shady Businessmen Demonize Hemp

We could do an entire article on this, but in the interest of brevity, there are a few key facts you need to know in order to understand why cannabis was made illegal in the first place. Basically, they break down into “isms” and three names. The two isms are racism and cronyism, and the two names are William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Melon, and Harry Anslinger. If you are a journalist or a film buff, you’ll no doubt recognize Hearst from the depiction of him in the classic movie Citizen Kane. Orson Welles delivers the classic line “rosebud”, which describes Hearst’s snowglobe or his childhood sled.

In the last days of legal cannabis, Heart’s paper manufacturing business, Kimberly Clark, saw the writing on the wall. Once the state of the art hemp fiber stripping machines were invented in the 1930s, hemp paper could have become the norm. If hemp was grown for use with paper, Kimberly Clark, Dupont, and other companies with timber, paper, and newspaper holding divisions could have lost billions of dollars. Then-Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon was heavily invested in DuPont and was also said to have been the wealthiest man in the U.S. Hearst and his cronies knew this, and therefore Hearst media was arguably the largest driving force behind confusing the American public into thinking cannabis and hemp were two different things. The smear campaign against cannabis and hemp was so effective, that when the law was passed in 1937, hemp and cannabis were outlawed at the same time - with few people noticing. In short, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was eventually passed, and we have been basically living under its grasp ever since.

Yellow Journalism

Hearst is credited for developing one of history’s largest media conglomerates and newspaper chains, Hearst media. Hearst and his companies are thought of as developing “yellow journalism”, which describes news stories containing wild claims and sensationalist scare tactics to get the reader to believe blatant falsehoods. In his papers, Hearst would continuously publish the term “marijuana” - which up until that point, wasn’t really even used in the U.S. Most people used hemp, or some more scientifically minded folks said cannabis. For example, headlines about a “marijuana cigarette” would dominate Hearst’s papers for weeks, while very little, if anything was mentioned about alcohol. Alcohol has always caused more accidents and crashes on the roadways, and this will likely never change. This is eventually where the Reefer Madness craze got its ugly start.

Reefer Madness and Blatant Bigotry

You’ve probably heard of the insane black and white films like Reefer Madness that came out around these times. However, Reefer Madness was just one of the dozens of such ridiculous films to come out around this time. Mainly people were terrified of the “weed with its roots in hell”, and production companies jumped at the chance to make a buck off of this hysteria. The hysteria, of course, is mostly thanks to Heart’s newspapers constantly repeating falsehoods and demonizing “marijuana” while separating it from its sibling hemp. Almost every single American who would watch a movie like Reefer Madness would probably laugh at its absurdity, but people actually believed this nonsense back then. Not exactly surprisingly, a lot of these production studios got their funding from companies who made alcoholic beverages and probably wanted to reduce the competition from “hemp smoking”, after the prohibition of alcohol had been lifted in the early 1930s.

"...racism was basically targeted against black men and Mexicans. The racist statements were made against jazz musicians and immigrants."

Along with sensationalist claims that people were causing car crashes due to “smoking marihuana causes deadly car crashes” racism and bigotry was blatant. It wasn’t hidden in the shadows, it was right out in the open. We weren’t going to repeat a lot of shameful stuff that was said back then, but the racism was basically targeted against black men and Mexicans. The racist statements were made against jazz musicians and immigrants. You can read all you want about that shameful part of cannabis’ history, as it’s important that it be known. We just don’t want to repeat it.

Jack Herer - One of the Most Important Cannabis Activists Ever

If you’ve read any of our other articles, you know we are big on sourcing everything - often painstakingly so. However, for this article, we are writing it almost entirely on memory and knowledge - not to brag, of course. Other than the references to shady business and Reefer Madness, there’s really only once source you need to know. And one source that we must mention is Jack Herer and his crucially important, epic book the Emperor Wears No Clothes. A surprising number of people have of course heard of the cultivar (incorrectly called strain) that goes by his name, but know little about the man himself.

The late great Herer, aka the Hemperor, first published “The Original Hemp Bible” back in 1985. Since then, there have been over a dozen editions published and translated into different languages. We have purchased several different copies of this book, but Jack wanted to make it free online, so everyone had access to it. The bibliography of the Emperor is close to 100 pages, and Jack put out a $100,000 reward for anyone who could prove any of the information wrong published in the book. In fairness, the information regarding hemp that Herer published 35 years ago has been questioned and criticized. The main part of the information that has been questioned is in regards to that hemp produces higher yields than other crops and that hemp hurds, contain 77 % cellulose. Critics speculate that Herer might have confused hemp hurds with the bark. However, none of these critics have ever come forward to challenge the $100k reward, but we always want to provide the most accurate information.

HashDash: Focusing on Cultivating Cannabis Community

We did our best to keep this as brief as possible, but there is just a ton of information out there on cannabis prohibition. It’s important to understand how we got here and where we are going as a community of cannabis advocates. We stand against the cronyism, shady business, and bigotry discussed above. It is kind of crazy to think that that was going on just 100 years ago, but together we will dispel myths, break down barriers and unite by providing accurate information and cultivating the cannabis community.

Jason Sander
Jason SanderJason is a versatile writer and marketer with over ten combined years of experience working with clients in various industries. He couples this expertise with six years of writing for the cannabis sector as well as a passion for the business side, and the science behind the plant medicine.




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