A Brief View of the History of Marijuana Legalization

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The legalization of marijuana is, and has been a heavily disputed issue for decades. On one hand, marijuana could lead to a medical breakthrough, or at least provide relief to cancer and AIDS patients. On the other hand, legalizing a drug could expose it to too broad an audience. As a drug, marijuana has never proven to be anywhere near as harmful as cigarettes or alcohol. Each year in the United States, 400,000 people die from tobacco, 50,000 from alcohol, and from marijuana, zero. Regardless of what side one may take to this argument, there are some causes to this marijuana debate that everyone should know. Marijuana was not always illegal, and the reasons behind the history of narcotic regulation are interesting when viewed from today's perspective. The history of marijuana prohibition is a story of racism, political repression, and poorly represents the qualities this country claims to embody.

The story of marijuana's prohibition goes back as far as the early 1900's. The Mexican revolution was bringing a large population of Mexicans into the southwestern United States. The Mexicans brought with them the habit of smoking "motas", marijuana cigarettes. (Gerber) The locals claimed that the marijuana "incited Mexican immigrants to violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood' and generated superhuman strength." (Gerber) These statements stemmed more from the racist ideas of the time than from actual fact. There were similar claims made all over the states; by the 1930's, the New York Times was printing such headlines as "MARIJUANA MAKES FIENDS OF BOYS IN 30 DAYS; HASHISH GOADS USERS TO BLOOD LUST." (New York Times) This racism became, over time, a notion in the minds of Americans that marijuana was a dangerous narcotic. Marijuana has never been able to drop that image, in part because politicians continued to push it well into the 20th century.

In more recent history, the late 1900's were filled with important decisions by politicians regarding marijuana. During the Kennedy administration in the 1960's, Vietnam was a major issue, and the public, especially college students, turned to marijuana as a form of dissent. As this happened, enforcement lessened; courts dismissed marijuana charges or imposed only "modest fines." (Gerber) In 1960, there were only 169 marijuana related convictions in the entire United States. During this time, marijuana was seen more as an escape and protest. Time Magazine saw marijuana use as an attention worthy means of protest. (Time) Crime rates did not rise, and no major health problems had appeared to be caused by the drug. The 1962 White House Conference on Drug Abuse concluded that there was only "weak" evidence indicating that marijuana leads to using harder drugs. (Eldridge) At that point in time, it almost seems as if we were the closest we've ever been as a nation to decriminalizing the drug.

By the 1970's, however, the war on drugs took a turn towards the more conservative end of the spectrum. The Nixon administration chose to attribute crime to drug use; Nixon personally disliked all illegal drugs, and convinced Americans that if more arrests were made on drug related charges the crime rates would go down. It is almost unbelievable that the drug has been unable to shake this stigma. Compared to the policies Nixon introduced, policies nowadays are even worse. (Gerber) For years, the government was feeding the people these lies about marijuana, and those who supported it were silenced. This trend continues well into the present day.

The 1980's saw the rise of the Reagan administration, which made some of the most restricting policies about marijuana use. These policies are still very relevant to current times. In 1986, Reagan's then-drug advisor, Carlton Turner, gave an interview with Newsweek magazine about marijuana use in the United States. He mentioned that while visiting a drug treatment center, he found that 40% of the patients had engaged in homosexual acts. (Gerber) The...
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