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Federal Legal Status

United States

Federal Legal Status

Currently, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level in the United States, classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. This classification means that the federal government considers cannabis to have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. As a result, cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws face significant legal and regulatory challenges, including limited access to banking services, inability to deduct business expenses for federal taxes, and potential federal prosecution.
1880 – 1920

A Crop & A Tonic

At the end of the 19th century, hemp was a widely cultivated crop. A vital component of the agricultural landscape valued for its industrial uses such as fiber for textiles, paper, and rope. At the dawn of the 20th century, the temperance movement gained momentum, leading to increased scrutiny of various substances such as alcohol. Due to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and the influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States, cannabis was associated with Mexican culture. Anti-Mexican sentiment influenced the demonization of the plant. Fearful of the perceived social and moral consequences, in the 1920s various states criminalized cannabis. At that time public awareness was limited and consumption was modest. Cannabis tinctures and extracts were available as over-the-counter remedies and pharmaceutical preparations. Cannabis was used as an ingredient in tonics promoted as remedies for pain, insomnia, and nervous disorders.
1920 – 1950

Demonization

The 1920s marked the beginning of a shift in attitudes toward cannabis, setting the stage for the more restrictive policies that would unfold in the coming decades. During this time, cannabis transformed from a relatively unregulated substance with limited social stigma to a demonized and criminalized substance. Government agencies, law enforcement, and anti-drug organizations launched propaganda campaigns that portrayed cannabis as a dangerous and addictive substance with severe societal consequences. These campaigns often employed sensationalized and exaggerated claims about the effects of cannabis use, linking it to violence, insanity, moral decay, and the corruption of youth. Advertisements, movies, and articles of the time reinforced these negative stereotypes and stigmatized perceptions of cannabis. Medical professionals began to distance themselves from prescribing cannabis due to the legal and social implications associated with its use.
1937

Marihuana Tax Act

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first comprehensive federal legislation that targeted cannabis. While it did not outright criminalize the possession or use of cannabis, it imposed stringent regulations and taxes on its cultivation, sale, and transportation. The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, played a crucial role in shaping public opinion against cannabis during this time. Anslinger pushed anti-cannabis propaganda that linked the substance to violence, insanity, and criminal behavior, contributing to the demonization of cannabis in the eyes of the American public. With cannabis products harder to find, the medical use of cannabis declined, and its association with deviant behavior and criminality grew.
1944

LaGuardia Committee Report

The LaGuardia Committee Report, an extensive investigation into the effects of cannabis use on individuals and communities in New York City, concluded in 1944 that many claims made against marijuana were unfounded. They found that cannabis use did not lead to significant increases in violent or criminal behavior, nor did it induce insanity or addiction as previously suggested. However, these findings did not significantly influence the trajectory of cannabis policy at the time. The Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 further intensified federal penalties for cannabis offenses, reflecting an increasingly punitive approach. These laws established mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses, including marijuana possession and trafficking. The legal landscape became increasingly hostile towards cannabis users, contributing to a sustained period of prohibitionist policies. Since legal avenues for obtaining cannabis products became increasingly restricted, people often turned to the black market or illicit sources. The social and medical preconceptions surrounding cannabis persisted, and the substance continued to be associated with criminality and societal ills.
60s & 70s

Flower Power

The countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s finally challenged mainstream perceptions of cannabis. The use of cannabis became associated with broader cultural shifts of the time, including opposition to the Vietnam War, civil rights activism, and a rejection of traditional societal norms. This period witnessed a surge in cannabis consumption, particularly among the younger generation, leading to an increased demand for the plant. Smoking marijuana became a common method of consumption, and the drug became closely linked with anti-establishment sentiments. Cannabis use was often associated with rebellion, deviance, and a perceived threat to societal order. The “War on Drugs” rhetoric, initiated by President Nixon in the early 1970s, further vilified cannabis and contributed to the stigmatization of its users.
1970

Controlled Substances Act

The 1970 Controlled Substances Act categorized cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, officially solidifying its status as a drug with high abuse potential and no recognized medical use. It unified and expanded existing drug laws, giving the federal government greater authority to regulate and penalize cannabis-related activities. Passage of the Controlled Substances Act marked a significant turning point in the criminalization of cannabis in the United States, setting the stage for decades of aggressive drug enforcement policies and mass incarceration related to drug offenses. This strict federal classification of cannabis also hindered scientific research on its potential medical benefits. Even when federally commissioned studies, such as the Shafer Commission Report, recommended the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use in 1972, Nixon rejected the commission’s recommendations, and the punitive approach to cannabis persisted.
80s & 90s

War On Drugs

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an escalation of the War on Drugs, with stringent anti-drug policies and harsh penalties for cannabis offenses. The Just Say No campaign, launched in the 1980s during Nancy Reagan’s tenure as First Lady, was a prominent aspect of the anti-drug efforts. The campaign aimed to discourage drug use, particularly among young people, through educational programs and media campaigns. While it became a significant cultural phenomenon, critics argued that it oversimplified the complexities of drug addiction and failed to address underlying social and economic issues. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, disproportionately affecting individuals convicted of non-violent cannabis-related crimes. These laws contributed to the over-incarceration of individuals for low-level drug offenses.
Legalization

State By State

Public sentiment began to evolve in the late 20th century. The medicinal potential of cannabis gained attention and states started to pass laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana. California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis with the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996. This marked a turning point in the cultural and legal landscape, with subsequent years seeing a gradual increase in states adopting medical cannabis programs. A landmark development occurred in 2012 when Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis for adults. Today 39 of the 50 states have changed their laws to allow cannabis use with and without conditions.
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