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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

American History in Hemp

The federal war against weed leads to the arrest of hundreds of thousands of people each year and costs taxpayers billions of dollars. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, which means that the United States government considers the drug to have “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use in treatment.” Even though any use or possession of marijuana is federally illegal, some state governments have recognized the medicinal usefulness of the drug, and allow its prescribed use and/or have decriminalized possession. This discrepancy between federal and state laws results in a kind of legalistic catch-22 with contradictory laws butting heads. Ironically, it was the discrepancy between federal and state laws that made marijuana illegal in the first place.

Marijuana is called weed for a reason; the plant can grow pretty much anywhere, and once upon a time in American history it did. Hemp was a cash crop second only to tobacco and used for making rope, paper and fabric. Rumor has it that drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper, and that Betsy Ross made the first American flag from hemp fabric. (Technically, industrial hemp has much lower THC levels than the marijuana people smoke to get a buzz, so let’s not get into the question of whether or not the founding fathers were stoners.)

In the unpatented and unregulated drug days of the 1800s, Americans utilized and marketed the medicinal uses of marijuana as a treatment for general pains and cramps. More than being smoked, people mostly ate a concentrated form of marijuana called hashish that was added to candies and confections. It wasn’t until 1876 that Americans realized they could make even more money from marijuana by opening smoking bars.

Even with “Turkish style” smoking parlors, alcohol was America’s drug of choice until Prohibition came and people needed a different way to get their buzz on. Marijuana was a legal alternative and sold like cigarettes. It was particularly popular on the New Orleans jazz scene and with Mexican migrant workers. As violence and organized crime increased in the years of Prohibition, marijuana became an easy scapegoat. In 1924, states started banning non-medical uses of the drug, even though marijuana was still federally legal.

By 1930, with the Great Depression and jobs frighteningly scarce, states were eager to get rid of Mexican workers. Since a great number of Mexicans grew and smoked weed, states pressured the United States government to make marijuana illegal so they could arrest and deport migrant workers. Eventually the states got their way, and in 1937 the first federal law against marijuana was passed. No scientific evidence was put forth; “reefer madness” style propaganda was all that was needed to convince the courts and public.

The Marijuana Tax Act said anyone who had, sold, moved or used weed had to have a marijuana tax stamp, but stamps were impossible to get. Additionally, you would have to bring your marijuana with you to get the stamp, but then you’d already be breaking the law. In 1969, Timothy Leary sued claiming the law was self-incriminating and unconstitutional; the Supreme Court agreed and repealed the act. Then Congress created the Controlled Substances Act and made marijuana outright illegal.

So now states are trying to reclaim regulation of marijuana use. California passed Compassionate Use Act in 1996 so that sick and dying patients could legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Other states have followed suit, legalizing various medical uses of marijuana, and in some cases decriminalizing it. Grassroots organizations are working to reform marijuana laws, but the United States government will not be quick to relinquish their control. Just three years ago the Supreme Court ruled that only Congress has the right to legalize marijuana, and the ruling of Raich v. Gonzales declares that the federal government can prosecute people for using medical marijuana regardless of the law in their individual states. Maybe state governments should consider this is a lesson to be careful what they wish for.