The Transition of Cannabis in the USA

Legal to Illegal to Semi-Legal

The Transition of Cannabis in the USA

In the 1970s, many places in the United States started to abolish state laws and other local regulations that banned possession or sale of cannabis. The same thing happened with marijuana sold as medical cannabis in the 1990s. All this is in conflict with federal laws; cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic according to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which classified cannabis as having high potential for abuse, no medical use, and not safe to use without medical supervision.

Medicinal preparations of cannabis became available in American pharmacies in the 1850s following an introduction to its use in Western medicine. Around the same time, efforts to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals began, and laws were introduced on a state-to-state basis that created penalties for mislabeling drugs, adulterating them with undisclosed narcotics, and improper sale of those considered “poisons”.

A 1905 Bulletin from the US Department of Agriculture lists twenty-nine states with laws mentioning cannabis. Eight are listed with “sale of poisons” laws that specifically mention cannabis: North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Vermont, Maine, Montana, and the District of Columbia. In some states where poison laws excluded cannabis, there were nonetheless attempts to include it.

The Pure Food and Drug Act was then passed by the United States Congress in 1906 and required that certain special drugs, including cannabis, be accurately labeled with contents. Previously, many drugs had been sold as patent medicines with secret ingredients or misleading labels. In New York, reform legislation began under the Towns-Boylan Act, which targeted all “habit-forming drugs”, restricted their sale, prohibited refills in order to prevent habituation, prohibited sale to people with a habit, and prohibited doctors who were themselves habituated from selling them.

In the West, the first state to include cannabis as a poison was California. Other states followed with marijuana laws including Wyoming (1915); Texas (1919); Iowa (1923); Nevada (1923); Oregon (1923); Washington (1923); Arkansas (1923); and Nebraska (1927).

In 1925, the United States supported regulation of Indian hemp, also known as hashish, in the International Opium Convention stating that the shipment was required “exclusively for medical or scientific purposes”. Because of the Uniform State Narcotic Act, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics encouraged state governments to adopt the act. By the middle of the 1930s, all member states had some regulation of cannabis.

The use of cannabis and other drugs came under increasing scrutiny after the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930. Then The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively made possession or transfer of cannabis illegal throughout the United States under federal law, excluding medical and industrial uses.

Mandatory sentencing and increased punishment were enacted when the United passed the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. The acts made a first-time cannabis possession offense a minimum of two to ten years with a fine up to $20,000. However, on July 1, 1973, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) merged to create the Drug (DEA). In January 1976, California’s study of the economic impact of its law repealing prohibitions of use went into effect. Later an amendment created a three-strike law, which created mandatory 25-years imprisonment for repeated serious crimes – including certain drug offenses- and allowed the death penalty to be used against “drug kingpins. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis.

Gonzales v. Raich (2005) was a decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even where individuals or businesses in accordance with state-approved medical cannabis programs are lawfully cultivating, possessing, or distributing medical cannabis, such persons or businesses are violating federal marijuana laws. In Gonzales, the respondents argued because the cannabis in question had been grown, transported, and consumed entirely within the state of California, in compliance with California medical cannabis laws, the defendants’ activity did not implicate interstate commerce. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, finding that cannabis grown within California for medical purposes is indistinguishable from illicit marijuana. Moreover, because the intrastate medical cannabis market contributes to the interstate illicit marijuana market, the Commerce Clause applies. Even where California citizens are using medical cannabis in compliance with state law, those individuals and businesses can still be prosecuted by federal authorities for violating federal law.

Possession of cannabis (marijuana) in the United States now is illegal under federal law. However, some states have created exemptions for medical cannabis use, as well as decriminalized non-medical cannabis use. In four states, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, the sale and possession of marijuana is legal for both medical and non-medical use; and Washington DC has legalized personal use but not commercial sale.

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