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The History of Marijuana in the United States

Marijuana's Yo-yo history from good to bad and back again.

By Kimberly CrawfordPublished 5 years ago 5 min read

Marijuana has been woven through the human timeline for centuries and has taken on many faces throughout its history. It has fluctuated over time from a medicinal miracle to an evil mind-melting drug. The overwhelming negative propaganda that turned the country against marijuana and pushed for its subsequent illegalization. It has been a tug of war between the reverence for its functional medicinal properties and condemnation for its place in the drug trade. The history of marijuana is a fascinating journey of nature versus man.

A Bumper Crop with Purpose

Marijuana has long been considered a miracle plant with astonishing medicinal properties. The cultivation of marijuana can be traced back as far as 500 BC. Marijuana has been used throughout almost all ancient cultures to cure ailments, such as arthritis in ancient China, leprosy in ancient India, and inflammation in ancient Greece. If you really want to get controversial, it is even said that Jesus used cannabis oil to anoint his followers.

With the early colonization of the United States, hemp was a staple crop. Due to its rapid growth and easy cultivation, it was a crop that was depended upon for making rope, clothing, and paper. As early as 1619, the legislative powers in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut made it mandatory for farmers to plant hemp as part of their crops. This cash crop was a vital part of the formative years shaping the nation.

In the 1840s a French doctor, Jacques-Joseph Moreau, discovered the medical benefits of marijuana extended as far as curing headaches and aiding sleep. 1850 The United States Pharmacopeia listed it as a cured for many common ailments including typhus, cholera, opiate addiction, dysentery, alcoholism, anthrax, and incontinence, just to name a few.

Prohibition and legalization of Marijuana

With the 1920s new mindsets and legislation brought about a stringent change in the laws, morals, and ethics of the United States. Marijuana suddenly went from being a magical cure-all to a drug of suspicious origin, associated with Mexican immigration, and the recreational sized smoking of it. American politicians, seeing marijuana as a correlation to low income and crime called for stricter laws. The onset of the great depression leads to propaganda touting research statistics that linked marijuana as a cause for escalating crime, violence and divergent conduct. A campaign warning users against “Reefer Madness.” Claiming that smoking marijuana recreationally would cause hallucinations, maniacal and uncontrolled laughter as well as violent behavior. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotic was formed and not long after marijuana became illegal in 29 states. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 not only made marijuana illegal but for all intents and purposes criminalized it for anyone using it for anything than manufacturing purposes.

Interestingly enough, although the federal government was working diligently to make marijuana illegal, the Hemp for Victory Act encouraged and compensated farmers for growing hemp to supply materials for wartime supplies. Going as far as granting deferments to those willing to grow hemp to supply the government with the raw materials to make industrial fabric.

Marijuana in the Shadows

The federal government continued its attack on marijuana. In the 1950s, new acts were created that carried exorbitant penalties for all possession such as two to 10 years in prison and fines in excess of $20,000 for first-time offenders. This was just the beginning. The Controlled Substance Act was passed in 1970, classifying drugs by the degree of harmfulness, the likelihood of addiction, or medical usefulness. Marijuana was placed in the same category as hard drugs like Heroin, Cocaine, and LSD. They claimed that marijuana was addictive and had no medical use.

Meanwhile, marijuana popularity with the ever-growing counter culture of America in the 1960s and 1970s for its recreational use lost its stigma. Several organizations pushed for decriminalization of marijuana and more lenient legal penalties, feeling that the drug was not in the same class as the other addictive drugs such as heroin. The next few decades would be a tug of war between those who believed marijuana to be harmless and perfectly safe for recreation use and those who were staunchly opposed to marijuana. Despite the federal government’s insistent stances, states began to decriminalize marijuana as early as 1973, with Oregon being the first to do so.

The 1980s brought the “War on Drugs,” where the Reagan administration signed in several acts, The Anti-Drug Abuse Act that, and The Crime Control Act. These new laws not only set up mandatory sentences for offenders but also based the federal penalties on the amount of marijuana in possession. The acts also created the “3 Strikes” law, requiring life sentences for recurring criminals with drug-related crimes.

Marijuana for the Millennium

While the federal government was doing everything it could to stem the rapidly growing trend of recreational use, it began meeting opposition from not only special interest groups such as NORML but also government at the state level.

It came to the attention of the medical community that marijuana has beneficial medical properties that could be used to help those suffering from serious chronic diseases ("Life under Miss Liberty," 2015). In 1996, California was the first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana for certain severe illnesses, with the Compassionate Care Act ("A Call to Higher Action: Cannabis Prohibition in the United States and Canada Makes for an Uncertain Future," n.d.). This began a wave of other states following suit and legalizing marijuana for medical purposes ("A Call to Higher Action: Cannabis Prohibition in the United States and Canada Makes for an Uncertain Future," n.d.).

In 2001, Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative was sued by the government to cease the distribution of medical marijuana. The supreme court ruled in favor of the federal government, stating that “There is no medical necessity exception to the Controlled Substance Act.” However, in 2013, the Justice Department agreed that they would not challenge state ruling in the legalization of marijuana and would rely on the states to enforce marijuana laws.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, creating an economic boom in these states. By 2018, marijuana was legal in nine states as well as Washington DC and the statistics of the benefits from legalization continue to make headlines. States, where marijuana has been legalized, have found a profound decrease in opioid dependency. The medical benefits have been found to be profound, such as slowing the spread of cancer, preventing Alzheimer’s, treating glaucoma, epilepsy, anxiety, and depression. It has also been found helpful in Crohn's disease and lupus.

With a rapid succession of states such as New York and New Jersey both racing to make marijuana recreationally legal, there is little doubt that before long, marijuana will be legal in all 50 states.


Editors, H. (2017, May 31). Marijuana. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/crime/history-of-marijuana

Historical Timeline - Medical Marijuana - ProCon.org. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.timeline.php?timelineID=000026

Kabir, S. (2018, August 22). 20 Medical Benefits of Marijuana You Probably Never Knew. Retrieved from https://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/20-medical-benefits-marijuana-you-probably-never-knew.html

Martin, S. C. (2016, April 20). Marijuana in the United States: How Attitudes Have Changed. Retrieved from http://time.com/4298038/marijuana-history-in-america/

(n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html


About the Creator

Kimberly Crawford

KIMBERLY CRAWFORD is a writer who lives in Upstate New York with her family. Her work focuses on travel, music, and relationships. She writers for Family Traveller, GIGSoupMusic, The Family Backpack, Lessons Learned in Life & Your Tango.

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