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The History of Federal Cannabis Laws

What is the history of cannabis prohibition by the U. S. Federal Government? This chapter covers the crusade against cannabis and the failed war on drugs.

Chapter 1 · 8 min read
The History of Federal Cannabis Laws

Cannabis has been illegal in the United States since 1937. Since then, there has been much hypocrisy and atrocities committed in the name of the war on drugs, which is on cannabis and the American people. Here’s a brief history of America’s federal cannabis laws.

Hemp VS Cannabis: What’s the Difference?

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 these incredible compounds in our Cannabinoids Guide.

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.

Before it was outlawed, hemp was a big part of American agriculture because of its myriad 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 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, and Hempfield, Pennsylvania, just to name a few. The history of the federal crusade against cannabis runs deep. And its roots start with the formation of the original DEA, whose sole mission at the time was to ‘eradicate marihuana.’

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.

Shady Businessmen Demonize Hemp

The history of cannabis prohibition breaks 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.

Film buffs will 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 Hearst's 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 cannabis has been illegal in the United States 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 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.

Jack Herer: Top Cannabis Activist and Historian

There are hundreds of books on cannabis, but there is a single book we must mention. We believe that Jack Herer is crucially important, and so is his epic book the Emperor Wears No Clothes. A surprising number of cannabis consumers 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 that hemp produces higher yields than other crops and that hemp hurds, contains 77 % cellulose. Critics speculate that Herer might have confused hemp hurds with the bark. Still, to this day none of these critics have ever come forward to successfully challenge the $100k reward.

If you read no other cannabis historian, make it Jack Herer. There are dozens of top-shelf cannabis products bearing the late-great Jack Herer's name, and for good reason – he educated a new generation of cannabis writers and historians – including some of those right here at HashDash.

Nixon’s War on Drugs Over 50 Years Later

As legislation towards cannabis changes, so do attitudes towards the seemingly endless war on drugs. It’s been over 50 years since former President Richard Nixon called “illegal drug abusers public enemy number one”. Not terrorists, rapists, or murderers. People who use drugs that the government deems illegal.


A large majority of these so-called drug abusers simply possess cannabis. Between 2001 and 2010, nearly 9 million Americans were arrested for cannabis offenses, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. (ACLU). 88% of drug arrests were for simple possession, debunking the claim that cannabis laws still exist in certain states to “combat drug trafficking and gang activity.”

Here's a closer look at the Drug War, by the numbers.

The U.S. Government’s Drug War By The Numbers

  • Every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession.
  • 456,000 people are currently serving jail time or long-term prison sentences for drug arrests. This is one-fifth of the population of incarcerated people in America.
  • The Drug War has cost American taxpayers $1 trillion since Nixon's infamous speech.
  • The U.S. Government spends roughly $9 million daily to keep drug offenders incarcerated.
  • State governments spend an estimated $7 billion collectively, on top of the federal cost.

These are just a few examples of the numbers. There's an extensive list we’ve linked in our sources section if you care to dive deeper into the drug war numbers.

The Drug War’s Racial Bias is Hard to Ignore

The war on drugs is a burden on taxpayers, criminalizes otherwise law-abiding citizens, makes neighbors fear neighbors, and militarized police.

The racial bias associated with the unjust war on drugs and cannabis medicine is hard to ignore. Although both use cannabis about equally, people of color are 3 times more likely to be arrested for simple cannabis possession than whites, according to arrest records compiled by the ACLU.

Smart Companies & Retired Cops Support Cannabis

The sensible thing is to end the drug war. It's time to put an end to federal prohibition. How doing so looks is difficult to tell precisely, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. And smart companies agree. Case in point: Amazon is no longer testing employees for cannabis and will be lobbying for the MORE act.

Additionally, many retired law enforcement officers and agents agree. Thousands of people now support LEAP, which is the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Formerly Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, these retired cops understand how harmful the drug war has been and continues to be – and most seem remorseful for their part in it.

The War on Drugs is destructive to American People, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and ruining the lives of otherwise law-abiding citizens. It’s beyond time for a change.

When Will Federal Cannabis Prohibition End?

It has become abundantly clear: the will of the American people is to usher in the long-overdue end of federal cannabis prohibition and the drug war. Two-thirds of Americans now favor legalization according to a Gallup poll. 36 states have now legalized cannabis for medical purposes, and 11 states have done so for adult use.

If legalization does happen, the process will be a long one. Many issues still plague the legal cannabis industry: including lack of access to capital, supply problems, lack of quality testing, and a fundamental lack of banking services to the industry issues with banking services.

While humans have been consuming cannabis for centuries, it has only been since 1937 that the plant medicine has been prohibited here in the U.S. While we might be closer than ever to federal legalization, it likely will not happen at least until the next presidential election cycle.

What We Learned: History of Federal Cannabis Laws

There is a lot of information to absorb when learning about the History of Cannabis Prohibition in the U.S. Here are a few key takeaways from this chapter:

  • The history of cannabis prohibition breaks 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.
  • Cannabis Federally Prohibited Since 1937.
  • Harry Anslinger formed the DEA around that time.
  • DEA’s original purpose was to eradicate marihuana’.
  • Reefer Madness is absurdly hilarious today, but people believed the propaganda at that time.
  • Racism and Corporatism are two driving forces behind cannabis prohibition.
  • Jack Herer is a top cannabis activist and historian.
  • Nixon’s 50+ year war on drugs has cost the U.S. taxpayers billions, perhaps trillions of dollars, unnecessarily arresting millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens in the process.
  • Two-thirds of Americans favor legalizing cannabis. It could happen in the next election cycle, circa 2025.

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What year was cannabis outlawed?

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Cannabis has been illegal in the U.S. since 1937. Polls show two-thirds of the American people are ready for that to officially change.




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