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How did cannabis become illegal?

28.January 2021 | Manuela

A pink cannabis leaf is behind a prohibition sign on a light blue background

Whoever operates as a cannabis company in 2021 will sooner or later have to deal with the mills of justice. Why is this still the case?

Tracking the legislation of cannabis

In recent decades, we have fortunately seen a wave of liberalization, but the current legislation is still overgrown with out-of-date excesses. How did these come about? How did a much-praised useful and medicinal plant become a demonized drug? If you want to understand the current legislation surrounding cannabis, you have to travel a few decades into the past to find the source of the unwelcome growths.

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The cannabis plant has come to stay

In about 40 nations, it is at least written that dealing with the narcotic cannabis carries the death penalty. In at least eight of them, it is still actively implemented in connection with cannabis offenses (as of 2017). Legislatures diametrically opposed to the beginnings of human history with cannabis.

For thousands of years, the plant rode a wave of success. The robust plant spread almost all over the globe and, remarkably, where it arrived, it stayed. Its many uses allowed it to integrate into local cultures.

The first recorded prohibition of the plant dates back to the 14th millennium in the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately, nothing is known about its background. Napoleon forbade his soldiers to visit Egyptian hash cafés. The confrontation with the intoxicating effects of cannabis led to local restrictions. But it remained with individual cases. If you are looking for the big break, you will find yourself in the 20th century.

Off to the land of the free! - How America influenced cannabis legislation

If you talk about cannabis repression, you have to talk about the United States of America. Here, too, hemp got off to a flying start. The first colonialists had to give up a quarter of their acreage to the crop. The Declaration of Independence is written on hemp paper and the first president, George Washington, was a hemp farmer.

We encounter the first regulation in 1906, when the incumbent president, Theodor Roosevelt, signs the Pure Food and Drug Act. A law for trade control. Consumers should be better protected by product declarations and the introduction of prescription. Cannabis must be moved to the poisonous plants chapter in the medical books.

Failed alcohol prohibition is the undoing of cannabis

The year was 1933, and the "Noble Experiment", the American alcohol prohibition, had failed, causing one thing above all: crime. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, created specifically for this purpose, is in shambles. Its director, Harry Jacob Anslinger, suffers a nervous breakdown. The son of German-Swiss immigrants was an ambitious upstart who had taken over the Bureau in 1930. Now his office had lost its central function, his officials were becoming lethargic, bribes were no longer flowing, and the economic crisis was putting increasing pressure on the state's finances. The career of Anslinger, the political tightrope walker, was about to come to an end. The Bureau of Narcotics had to find a new bandwagon!

Until now, Anslinger and his agency had hardly dealt with the herb, and the experts considered it harmless. But Anslinger had found a new mission and fired up the propaganda machine. What followed was an unprecedented hunt and demonization of a previously unknown recreational drug. With the help of falsified police reports and absurd accusations, a medicinal plant became a deadly drug in no time. Newspaper reports and entertainment media were filled with absurd horror stories.

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Movie Poster Reefer Madness (1936)

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Cannabis users are dalles junkies!

One example is the 1936 film "Reefer Madness", in which a group of teenagers become deadly junkies after consuming cannabis. Cannabis became the firebug of the drug scene: one puff and you're a junkie! Just because such statements sound completely absurd nowadays, we should not underestimate their implications. How many modern discussions around cannabis still talk about a gateway drug? Anslinger was a child of his time and certainly not the inventor of repression, but he fundamentally changed the image of cannabis with his propaganda machinery. Even today, the plant is surrounded by an aura of evil and criminality. Statements, without any scientific basis became the social canon. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?

Cannabis becomes a scapegoat

Even at the end of the 19th century, cannabis could not be ignored as a useful plant. Mountains were climbed with hemp ropes, seas were sailed with hemp sails, and fine twine was made from hemp fibers. In the 1880s, the German pharmaceutical company Merck launched two cannabis-based medicines. A few years later, the tide would turn. Cannabis was increasingly instrumentalized to enforce other interests. What does that mean?

Let's take the Jamaican "Ganja Act" of 1913 as an example. Under pressure from the white population and the Protestant Church, the consumption and possession of marijuana was banned. What had not been a political issue before was now instrumentalized by an elite class to criminalize a part of the population. A motive that will henceforth run through the history of hemp.

Another example can be found at the International Opium Conference of 1925 in Geneva. As the name suggests, the call for a regulated international approach to drugs became louder and louder. Cannabis had not been an issue until then, and 18 out of 19 countries saw no need for action here. Only Portugal stepped out of line and noticed the problem of "black insubordination after cannabis consumption" in their colony in Angola. This "insubordination" was more likely due to occupation by a colonial power, but in Portugal's political rhetoric, cannabis provided a more fitting explanation.

Cannabis in the clutches of business

Anslinger's agitation against cannabis had no scientific basis, but it nevertheless found support, not least from a broad coalition from the business community. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was ratified, imposing new taxes on cannabis as a raw material. The Act was intended to bring the raw material hemp to its knees. The cotton industry welcomed the new taxes for competition and chemical companies, such as DuPont, were able to push the replacement with man-made fibers.

U.S. anticannabis policy had weighty coalition partners in the business community who could benefit from repressive policies. The pressure of the trade associations against hemp as a raw material was soon to spread to the international arena. The USA began to systematically put pressure on countries that opposed cannabis repression. The economic power was to set the tone internationally, especially during the Great Depression and the turbulent war years.

Cannabis as a means to suppress minorities

Not only was the economic zeitgeist taken into account with cannabis prohibition, but also the marginalization of minorities. The propaganda machinery of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, in a familiar pattern, once again relied on the criminalization of disagreeable segments of the population and hit the pulse of the times. Thus it was said that "cannabis-smoking African Americans were raping white women" or "marijuana Latinos were seducing innocent American youth."

Cannabis became the kerosene of domestic American racism. It's a mechanism that later officeholders have used again and again. For example, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substance Act in 1970. This signature put cannabis on a par with heroin and cocaine. This happened in the climate of the anti-war protests of the 1970s. The protest movement, consisting mainly of hippies and conscientious objectors, could thus be undermined. Again with the help of the scapegoat cannabis.

Polemics instead of science in cannabis policy

Why can 20th century cannabis policy be identified as polemics? If one reads the previous lines, one might accuse the authors of a tendentious attitude, since marijuana is still an intoxicating drug! This may be true, but the authorship gives here to consider that the fundamental decisions for a cannabis repression were not based on scientific principles.

From the 1970s at the latest, cannabis was equated with heroin in criminal prosecution. This was despite the fact that physical dependence on marijuana could not be proven. Cannabis possession became a felony and its use, in public opinion, a driver of violence and social dislocation. Objections to cannabis polemics, such as those of the American Medical Association, which found cannabis to be largely harmless, were ignored. Studies that did not conform to the general tenor were brushed aside. A prominent example occurs in the 1940s:

Then-New York Mayor Fiorella La Guardia appointed a commission of scientists to evaluate the medical, sociological, and psychological aspects of cannabis use in New York City. The commission concluded that there is no link between crime and cannabis, no link with aggression or antisocial behavior, no evidence of personality changes or sexual overstimulation. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics ignored these, and many other studies. It is this fact that makes the drug policy of the time untrustworthy. It was devoid of any scientific basis. It was a toolkit for achieving other goals.

So what does the history of cannabis have to do with today's policy?

Where does that leave us now, cannabis enthusiasts and hemp entrepreneurs:in 2021? Unfortunately, the work of Harry Jacob Anslinger casts shadows into our time. His polemics have been adopted in many places and he played a leading role in the drafting of the UN Single Convention on Narcotics of 1961. At the latest with the question of the marketability of CBD products, one becomes abruptly aware of the implications of the historical developments described here. Also for us. Also in 2021. Nevertheless, we are feeling the thaw.

In recent years, many countries, around the globe, are rethinking their cannabis policies. The signs are pointing to liberalization. It's thawing, but 80 years of propaganda won't just wash away, and hemp still has a long way to go to its place in the sun. It is important to be aware of the historical developments on which mainstream cannabis policy is based. We must move into the future with science and reason. Only in this way can the medicinal plant cannabis once again showcase its full potential!

Grünkraft is proud to be a part of the rethought cannabis and will continue to educate to chase away the last ghosts. What challenges our CBD company is facing and how we are mastering the legal cannabis jungle we will gladly reveal in future blogs.

Sources and further links

Herer, Jack. Die Wiederentdeckung der Nutzpflanze Hanf. 2020. Solothurn. Nachtschatten Verlag AG.

Hari, Johann. Der Berner, der den Drogenkrieg begann. 2017. Zürich. NZZ Folio.

Takats, Janika. Das kleine Buch vom Cannabis. 2021. München. Penguin Random House Verlagsgruppe.

HISTORY - How Did Cannabis Become the World's Most Controversial Plant?

Buisness Insider - The Racist Origin of Marijuana Prohibition

Weird History - Harry Anslinger: The Man Responsible for Marijuana's Prohibition

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