Social History of Marijuana

Between 1850 and 1937 marijuana was widely used throughout United States as a medicinal drug and could easily be purchased in pharmacies and general stores. Recreational use was limited in the US until after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when an influx of Mexican immigrants introduced the habit.

The Volstead Act of 1920, which raised the price of alcohol in the United States, positioned marijuana as an attractive alternative and led to an increase in use of the drug. “Tea pads,” where a person could purchase marijuana for 25 cents or less, began appearing in cities across the United States, particularly as part of the black “hepster” jazz culture.

By 1930 it was reported that there were at least 500 of these “tea pads” in New York City alone. During the Great Depression as unemployment increased, resentment and fear of the Mexican immigrants became connected to marijuana use. Numerous research studies linked marijuana use by lower class communities with crime and violence. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which criminalized the drug. From 1951 to 1956 stricter sentencing laws set mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses. In the 1950s the beatniks appropriated the use of marijuana from the black hepsters and the drug moved into middle-class white America in the 1960s.

The increasing use of marijuana by mainstream white Americans helped lead to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, under which mandatory penalties for drug offenses were repealed by Congress and marijuana was categorized separately from other narcotics. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded the same year.

In the late 1970s, President Carter’s administration, including his assistant for drug policy, Dr. Peter Bourne, pushed for decriminalization of marijuana, with the president himself asking Congress to abolish federal criminal penalties for those caught with less than one ounce of marijuana. A grassroots parents’ movement responded by lobbying for stricter regulations and was instrumental in changing public attitudes.

In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, reinstating mandatory minimums and raising federal penalties for possession and distribution. In 1996, California enacted Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana use for people suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses and a similar bill was passed in Arizona the same year.

Current domestic marijuana cultivation trends are towards indoor production due to law enforcement efforts to curtail outdoor cultivation. The majority of foreign marijuana is supplied by trafficking organizations in Mexico, although countries in the Far East, such as Thailand and Cambodia, also supply the United States.