With the MORE and SAFE Acts making headlines over the last few months, it’s important to remember how we got here in terms of cannabis reform. After all, cannabis wasn’t always federally illegal. And even when it was first prohibited, many advocates still stood by it.
How Cannabis Became a Schedule I Substance
Although the Nixon Administration passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, cannabis had already been a well-established target for propaganda and prohibition by that time. In reality, our story of cannabis criminalization starts about 40 years prior with Harry J. Anslinger.
Anslinger was a Pennsylvanian born in 1892 whose first rendezvous with regulation was his work in stopping rum smuggling during alcohol prohibition. Three years after joining the Treasury Department to aid in federal anti-smuggling efforts, he became the assistant commissioner of the Prohibition Bureau.
Naturally, when the Treasury Department created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, Anslinger became its first commissioner. At this time, cannabis sale and possession were still free-game — The Harrison Act of 1914 that had established federal regulations of narcotics only addressed opium and cocaine.
But when the Great Depression hit in full swing, Anslinger found his department faced the threat of elimination due to the crash in federal tax revenue. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics went into survival mode — it needed a reason to justify its existence, to show the government and taxpayers alike that it shouldn’t be eliminated due to budget cuts.
Conveniently, cannabis propaganda had already begun circulating in editorial papers by the 1930s. Such stories claimed that cannabis made men into murderers and corrupted women with lust. These stories were also very racially motivated and prejudiced. Anslinger had collected these newspaper clippings as he had traveled the country to give speeches.
With the department on the brink of buckling under his supervision, he turned his gaze toward cannabis criminalization. He shared these unsourced stories during his tours, which would go on to inspire anti-cannabis films like Reefer Madness (1936).
And by 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, effectively limiting cannabis possession to those who could afford to pay excise taxes for specific medical and industrial uses. Although the LaGuardia Report of 1944 concluded that cannabis use does not lead to an increase in crimes — nor does it lead to the use of other illicit substances — legislation continued to pass throughout the 1950s that enabled stricter penalties for cannabis use and possession.
Which brings us back to 1970, when the Nixon administration tackled the counterculture movement head-on by passing the Controlled Substances Act, deeming cannabis as a Schedule I substance with “no accepted medical use.” One year later, Nixon declared the War on Drugs.
Timeline: Cannabis Policies Through The Years
Despite 40 years of anti-cannabis efforts led by exaggerated misinformation, not everyone was so quick to jump on the pot prohibition bandwagon. In 1972, the Shafer Commission (also known as the “National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse”) published a report saying the “criminalization of possession of marihuana for personal [use] is socially self-defeating as a means of achieving this objective.”
In other words, the Shafer Commission wanted to decriminalize the personal possession of cannabis. President Nixon rejected their recommendations, but 11 states proceeded to decriminalize cannabis over the course of a decade. These 11 states included:
- Oregon (1973)
- Alaska (1975)
- Colorado (1975)
- California (1976)
- Ohio (1976)
- Maine (1976)
- Minnesota (1976)
- Mississippi (1977)
- Nebraska (1977)
- New York (1977)
- North Carolina (1977)
The Shafer Commission’s first report on cannabis wasn’t the only big push for reform in 1972. That same year, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) also petitioned to reschedule cannabis as a Schedule II substance.
Then in 1976, the Supreme Court dropped charges against an individual with glaucoma who said cannabis was the only therapy able to alleviate his condition in the case United States v. Randall.
By 1980, the first synthetic THC prescription medication, Marinol, was distributed by the National Cancer Institute. The Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1985.
In 1988, DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis Young recommended rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II substance due to the proof of its therapeutic uses.
“It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record,” Young said.
However, the DEA Administration overruled his recommendation.
Just eight years later, California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996. Alaska, Oregon, Washington state, Maine, Hawaii, Colorado, and Nevada followed suit just a few years later.
Then in 2003, the United States Department of Health and Human Services patented cannabinoids as antioxidant and neuro-protective compounds. Yet, despite the government patenting cannabinoids, cannabis itself still remained federally illegal.
Throughout the 2000s, several more states moved forward with legalizing medical cannabis, including Montana, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Michigan, and New Jersey.
But then, in 2012, something unprecedented happened at the state level; Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize adult-use cannabis.
In the decade since these states passed recreational cannabis, 37 states in total have passed cannabis reform laws. Eighteen states have enacted adult-use cannabis programs, and 19 states have established medical-only cannabis programs.
Further Readings: Maps: Is Cannabis Legal in Your State?
Advocates and organizations nationwide have rallied support in favor of federally legalizing cannabis more than ever in recent years. Pew Research Center polls also depict that American support for cannabis is at an all-time high.
Key Takeaways: Cannabis Reform Isn’t New
Cannabis reform isn’t a new idea, and it’s long overdue. Even during the early days of cannabis prohibition, experts, advocates, and legislators alike opposed the stringent regulations imposed on such a medically-valuable plant.
With the MORE Act passing in the U.S. House of Representatives for a second time, it is vital to pay homage to the advocates who made reform possible. The who spoke up for cannabis when no one else would amidst the whirlwind of volatile propaganda.
Although it may feel like cannabis reform just started 10 years ago, the fight for cannabis justice has continued for several decades. And while it may feel like the battle has already been won, there is still so much work to do to help secure cannabis’ place as a legal and accessible medicine.
- Nadler, J. (2021, May 28). H.R.3617 – 117th Congress (2021–2022): Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. Congress.Gov | Library of Congress. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3617
- Schakowsky, J. D. (2021, May 19). H.R.3355 – 117th Congress (2021–2022): SAFE Act of 2021. Congress.Gov | Library of Congress. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3355?r=3&s=1
- Barcott, B. (2015). Weed the People (1st ed.). Time Books.
- University of Southern California. (n.d.). Overview of Controlled Substances and Precursor Chemicals – USC Environmental Health & Safety. USC Environmental Health & Safety. https://ehs.usc.edu/research/cspc/chemicals/
- National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. (1972). Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding. Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. https://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/nc/ncrec1_17.htm
- Scott, E. M. (2010, May 5). MARIJUANA DECRIMINALIZATION. OLR Research Report. https://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-r-0204.htm
- NORML. (2013, September 5). 25 Years Ago: DEA’s Own Administrative Law Judge Ruled Cannabis Should Be Reclassified Under Federal Law. https://norml.org/news/2013/09/05/25-years-ago-dea-s-own-administrative-law-judge-ruled-cannabis-should-be-reclassified-under-federal-law/
- CaseBriefs. (2020, August 18). United States v. Randall | Case Brief for Law Students. https://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/marijuana-law/marijuana-law-keyed-to-mikos/the-regulation-of-marijuana-users-in-prohibition-regimes/united-states-v-randall/
- Drug Policy Alliance. (n.d.). Medical Marijuana Victories. https://drugpolicy.org/departments-and-state-offices/california/medical-marijuana-victories
- Hampson, A. J. (1998, April 21). Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. Google Patents. https://patents.google.com/patent/US6630507B1/en
- Daniller, A. (2020, May 30). Two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/11/14/americans-support-marijuana-legalization/