The Roots of Marijuana’s Legal Status

Marijuana legalization in Colorado has been the table-talk of the nation since the day it went into effect, and you would be hard pressed to find somebody with access to the news who hasn’t heard about it. With the conflict of law, media attention and strong division among the population in terms of support, one can easily see why the marijuana topic is such a “big deal”.

But why is there even a law conflict in the first place? While almost every American is aware of marijuana’s illegal status (excluding the states of Colorado and Washington), very few seem to know why or when it came to be that way. The laws are old, and the principles they are founded on seem to be a bit of a grey area in the history of drug legislation.

This topic is more complicated than most would, and a bit of setting and background information is requisite to delve into the issue. Luckily, the topic is well written about, and “The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: An Inquiry into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition” by Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread provides an excellent backdrop and explanation of the law. Their article explains the key subjects pertaining to American drug legislation in the early 20th century, namely the founding of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), recently enacted legislation prohibiting use of heroin, morphine and various other opiates that preceded the Marihuana Tax Act, and the widespread anti-marijuana propaganda spread by the FBN.

Bonnie and Whitebread note (in reference to the FBN) that “The existence of this separate agency, anxious to fulfill its role as crusader against the evils of narcotics has done as much as any single factor to influence the course of drug regulation from 1930-1970” (990). In fact, the leader of the FBN at the time, Harry Anslinger, seemed to have what can only be defined as a personal vendetta against marijuana usage. Under his lead, the FBN spread their anti-marijuana propaganda far and wide. All of it demonized the drug and its users, claiming that it was extremely addictive, and turned normal individuals into criminally insane, sexually crazed monsters capable of rape, murder and any array of violent crime. He also made a point of associating marijuana usage with black males, and spread stories of them using the drug and then raping or murdering innocent white people. When you combine this with the generally ignorant and apathetic attitude the majority of the population held towards marijuana and the widespread racism that was directed towards black Americans at the time, it is easy to predict the effect these stories had on public opinion.

In fact, these same racial overtones also heavily influenced opium regluation only years prior to marijuana, only with Chinese immigrants instead of blacks. Bonnie and Whitebread even cite the Oregon district court in their paper saying that “Smoking opium is not our vice, and therefore it may be that this legislation proceeds more from a desire to vex and annoy the ‘heathen-Chinee’ than to protect the people from the evil habit” (997). Once enacted, it was only a matter of time before opium laws landed addicts in court, and once they were convicted, the trials served as precedents for later legislation pertaining to alcohol and other narcotic drugs, which marijuana was classified as.

In summary, the marijuana policy we have today sprung forth from the time of prohibition and the great depression, and has never been based upon truth or scientific studies as much as it was on propaganda, politics, and blatant racism.

-David Ross


Bonnie, Richard J., and Charles H. Whitebread, II. The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: An Inquiry into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition. 98 vols. N.p.: Virginia Law Review, 1970. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2014. <;.



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