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History of Marijuana Prohibition

The marijuana industry has a long and torrid history in America. While today the legalization movement is making new ground as it pushes for acceptance of marijuana use, not too long ago marijuana was legal in the United States. A brief history of marijuana prohibition in America highlights the real reasons that weed was made illegal.

Colonial Era: Freedom, Hemp, and the American Way

In 1607, Jamestown, America’s first permanent colony was established. A 1619 law declared that all colonists would be required to grow hemp. It was illegal NOT to grow hemp ( Hemp was valuable for a number of sources throughout the colonial era, including for rope and fabric. Even America’s first president, George Washington, actively grew hemp.

Marijuana use and hemp production continued for over two centuries. But with the rise of industrialization, everything was about to change.

Industrial and Progressive Eras (1890s-1930s): Big Business and Marijuana Prohibition

During the Progressive Era, the federal government increased its power to regulate consumer products, businesses, and morality. This was the era of big business and bigger government, as the two often worked hand in hand to promote special interests.

Yellow Journalism” began in the 1890s as part of a newspaper circulation competition between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. “Yellow Journalism” created sensational stories supported by very few facts in order to attract the attention of readers and sell more papers. “Yellow Journalism” helped get Americans involved in the Spanish-American War of 1898, after newspapers without evidence blamed Spain for an explosion on an American ship.



William Randolph Hearst used these tried and true tactics of yellow journalism to demonize marijuana and the hemp industry. As a successful businessman, Hearst had a number of investments, including extensive timber holdings. Hearst realized that hemp paper posed a threat to the importance of his timber holdings, so he did all he could to increase his profits by eliminating his competition (

This led to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which levied a tax on the sale of cannabis. While it did not make marijuana illegal, it was a stepping stone towards criminalization. As Chief Justice John Marshall once said, “The Power to tax is the power to destroy”, and destroy they did.

At the same time, the propaganda war against marijuana continued with the film Reefer Madness (1936), in which high school students tried pot and descended into a world of madness that included rape, manslaughter, and suicide. The supposed culprit was marijuana, and the idea of pot as a “gateway drug” became established in American cinematic history.


World War II: Hemp and Fighting the Good Fight

During World War II, a “return to Washingtonian principles emerged”, as shortages in material to produce parachutes and other military necessities led to a campaign by the federal government to encourage American farmers to produce as much hemp as possible. The United States Department of Agriculture launched the “Hemp for Victory” program, showing the importance of hemp . . . when the government needed it. American farmers responded enthusiastically, producing hundreds of thousands of acres of hemp (

The 1950s: Lock Them All Up!

During the prim and proper 1950s, marijuana became a federal crime with mandatory sentences attached. With the passage of the Boggs Act in 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, mandatory sentences for first-time possession of marijuana carried a 2 to 10 year minimum jail sentence and a 20,000 fine! (

The 1960s and 1970s: The Counterculture Revolution with Government Intrusion

During the 1960s, the counterculture revolution brought drug use to the mainstream, and hardline views of marijuana relaxed. Studies showed that there was no correlation between marijuana use and violence.

Yet despite these findings, in 1961 the Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs was ratified, an international treaty prohibition production and supply of a number of drugs throughout the world. This led to the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which divided illegal drugs into five schedules, supposedly by harmfulness, with Schedule 1 being the worst and most illegal. Schedule I drugs were deemed as having high potential for abuse, no medical use, and unsafe substances. Schedule II drugs, that supposedly had some medical use, included cocaine and methadone (heroin). Politicians worked to outlaw marijuana everywhere, and stop its use. ( And in 1973, the federalization of drug crimes continued and the Drug Enforcement Administration was created.

1980s and 1990s: Just Say No

President Ronald Reagan built on Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” with his infamous “Just Say No” campaign. With the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, harsher mandatory sentencing laws developed, including the death penalty for drug kingpins. Federal penalties increased for cultivation, possession, and transfer of marijuana.

Supreme Court and Federal Power (2000s)

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Gonzales vs. Raich that people who cultivated and used marijuana in accordance to the laws of their states could still be prosecuted under federal law. In other words, legal users of medical marijuana in California and other places could still face prosecution from the powerful federal government.

Where We Are Today

By understanding the history of marijuana and hemp prohibition in the United States, you can understand what we are up against. Marijuana prohibition has been linked historically to the expansion of the federal government and wealthy business interests. Feeling distressed? Don’t give up! Here at Weedwall Inc. we are giving you the tools to fight back and end the war on marijuana today.

About the Author

Weedwall is a social network where you can learn about marijuana by asking questions on everything cannabis related.

Comment ( 1 )

  1. Thanks for this article! Very informative and a great summary on the history of prohibition.

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