How the War on Cannabis Started: A Brief Guide

By Luis Rivera
Published: July 21, 2017 | Last updated: April 25, 2022 06:53:14
Key Takeaways

In 1986, US president Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which made drug-related sentences obligatory and stricter. There was no distinction between the drugs, and a sentence for possession of marijuana was the same as one for possession of heroin. Could this be what marked the start of the current war on drugs?

Even in the 21st century, cannabis is still a topic of very mixed opinions. While legalization has started receiving increased support around the world, mainly due to the medicinal properties of the plant that can relieve a wide range of health conditions, there are still many people that are strongly against marijuana consumption – both politicians and the general public alike.


Cannabis oil production is also starting to turn into a big industry, relieving the symptoms of some very serious diseases like cancer, epilepsy, asthma, and Alzheimer's, but many patients are still struggling to get their hands on it in certain regions of the world.

Despite persisting negative opinions, cannabis derived products are receiving a wider approval than ever before. How did we get here and what were the historical factors that lead to marijuana's banishment in the first place?


The Connection between Hemp and Marijuana

It is important here to distinguish the difference between hemp and marijuana. They are both genetic derivatives of the plant Cannabis Sativa L, and what makes them different is the way they're used and their THC levels. THC is the substance in cannabis that gives users of the plant that “high” feeling.

Marijuana can have up to 15% THC and is used mainly for recreational purposes or for relieving certain health conditions, while hemp has no more than 0.3% THC and is used to produce certain consumer products like clothing, auto parts, building materials, and beauty products, but still has medicinal properties.

One of the biggest hemp related industries is the production of cannabidiol oil, which is said to be extremely helpful in relieving the symptoms of epilepsy, loss of appetite, and depression.


There are a number of large companies that produce hemp and extract cannabidiol oils on massive scales. Using sophisticated equipment like full spectrum led grow lights and nutrient delivery systems they are turning the growing of cannabis into one of the most lucrative business ventures available. The funds, job openings, and medicinal implications of these ventures are another key factor that has helped cannabis gain a more positive recognition.

“Many crimes related to immigrants were attributed to the usage of marijuana and public opinion started shifting for the worse.”


Early History of Cannabis

During the 17th century, the production of hemp was actually a booming business stimulated by the American government and was used to make everyday commodities like clothes, ropes, and sails.

In states like Virginia it was even mandatory for farmers to grow it and it was also used as something that could be exchanged for goods or services. It was a big operation that harnessed the work efforts of many slaves.

The first major negative connotations related to cannabis happened in the early 1900s after many Mexican immigrants started moving to the US and spreading the recreational use of cannabis.

Cannabis use and immigrants soon became lumped together and were both starting to be perceived as an 'issue'. Many crimes related to immigrants were attributed to the usage of marijuana and public opinion started shifting for the worse. This is a key moment in the history of cannabis.

The Great Depression from the 1930s and large-scale unemployment at the time only worsened how the immigrants were viewed, and this was also true for marijuana, as more and more crimes were said to be caused by the effects of cannabis consumption. At this time, 29 states officially outlawed cannabis and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created.

This sparked nationwide efforts against marijuana, and Congress formulated the so-called Marijuana Tax Act, which stated that the substance is illegal for everyone except those who pay a tax that grants them a permit for medical or industrial usage.

Cannabis after the Second Half of the 20th Century

Despite the government's best efforts, the 1960s gave rise to more liberal cultural movements and tendencies resulting in a more open public mindset towards cannabis. Marijuana became widely used among certain layers of the middle class in the US and also among the so-called hippies.

Furthermore, scientific research led to findings that the plant doesn't cause people to become violent or use other, more potent drugs. People started realizing that those sentenced for cannabis-related crimes were being treated unfairly. However, the US government did not like this and in their eyes marijuana was something signifying rebellion against authority, overall disturbance, and political disagreement.

Despite this small positive shift towards the acceptance of cannabis in the middle of the 1970s, groups of conservative parents started strongly advocating for stricter regulation of cannabis, and even gained the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). This is another important point in history as it gave start to the so-called “War on Drugs” in the 1980s.

In 1986, US president Ronald Reagan put his sign on the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which made drug-related sentences obligatory and stricter. There was no distinction between the drugs, and a sentence for possession of marijuana was the same as one for possession of heroin.

During the next 10 years, the number of people jailed for non-violent drug crimes jumped to 400,000. From then on there would be massive efforts on part of the US government against all types of drugs and it would take some time until marijuana would be considered for decriminalization in more states.

Read also:

Cannabis in Recent Years

Public opinion towards cannabis started shifting for the better in the past couple of decades, and things like attributing violent or criminal behavior to marijuana use are long past. Nowadays, cannabis is more widely used than ever before and many reforms are taking place to allow access for those in medical need of it.

Statistics from the UN show that close to 160 million people worldwide use cannabis and production in the US alone has increased tenfold over the last 25 years.

Part of this change can be attributed to many public figures like famous actors and musicians advocating for legalization. Even politicians like Michael Bloomberg, Justin Trudeau, and Barack Obama have openly shared that they have used marijuana in their younger years.

North America especially is taking huge step towards more liberal policies concerning the usage and possession. States like Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington have made the usage of cannabis legal for adults.

In addition, such progress is not all limited to the states. Uruguay was the first country to start regulating cannabis legally and Canada is planning to fully legalize it in 2018.


The major factors that contributed to the long war against cannabis can be said to be mostly political, with pragmatic but powerful mindsets shaping the mass opinions aided by the media. These days, people are starting to become more open about it, but there are still some individuals who have conservative opinions, and places where strict policies remaining.

Nonetheless, more efforts are focused on actually addressing addiction and regulating medical marijuana use through proper means instead of simply criminalizing and discriminating. Perhaps a future where marijuana will be strictly but openly regulated – just like alcohol is – is not too far in sight.


Share This Article

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter

Written by Luis Rivera

Profile Picture of Luis Rivera

Luis Rivera has more than 20 years of experience in global market expansion, business development, mergers and acquisitions, business re-engineering, finance and investor relations of software companies. He is passionate about technology, spectral science, indoor farming, food production, automation, and more. Since 2015 he has been the president of Advanced LED Lights, a leading LED grow lights manufacturer based in Hiwasse, Arkansas. When not at work, Luis enjoys swimming, yoga, and growing grapes and flowers in Sonoma, California.

Related Articles

Go back to top
Maximum Yield Logo

You must be 19 years of age or older to enter this site.

Please confirm your date of birth:

This feature requires cookies to be enabled