Cultural attitudes regarding social policy often change with time. One of the best ways to analyze the changing culture of a society is by examining the progression of its laws. The laws governing marijuana have varied widely throughout the history of the United States. Tracking the path of laws regarding marijuana is a demonstrable example of social change; those laws having gone from one extreme to the other and back. There has been a fundamental change in cultural attitude regarding the legalization of marijuana. Examples of this shift can be seen by examining the history of marijuana before it was illegal, why the laws changed to make in illegal (even a felony), the change in attitude, the racial aspect, modern legislation, progressregress, and current trends and opinions. Recently, the majority attitude of the American people has shifted in favor of the legalization of marijuana.
The first evidence of marijuana use comes from the Chinese emperor Shun Nung in 2727 BC as he experimented with various herbal medicine (6). Marijuana was also used by ancient Romans and Greeks. Hemp, the fiber of the cannabis plant, is extracted from the stem. In 1545, hemp was spread to the western hemisphere as Spaniards imported it to South America for its use as fiber. By the 17th century, American production of hemp was encouraged by the government for the production of rope, sails, and clothing. Hemp became so popular, that by “1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. Hemp was allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland”(2) .
Following the Mexican revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants flocked to the U.S. and introduced the recreational use of cannabis by smoking its leafs. They called the substance marijuana. The fear and prejudice about the Mexican immigrants became associated with marijuana. Anti-marijuana campaigns were initiated in the 1920s for many reasons. Newspaper industry executive, William Randolph Hearst, felt threatened that the supply of hemp, which was a cheaper and stronger fiber than paper, would undercut paper prices. Hearst, in addition to being a newspaper executive, had financial holdings in timber, the main component of paper. He used negative propaganda published in his newspapers to create public fear. The claim that Mexicans were committing crimes and attributing it to their marijuana use was a result of the propaganda, shifting the cultural attitude against marijuana. By the 1930s. unemployment caused by the Great Depression, increased the outrage toward the Mexican immigrants, as they usurped ever shrinking number of American jobs. The fact that the Mexicants were associated with marijuana use resulted in a negative public impression. In 1936 the infamous anti-marijuana movie Reefer Madness was released. The film depicts a group of teenagers smoking marijuana and proceeding to do mischievous acts from a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, and descent into madness due to marijuana addiction. By 1937, Marijuana became officially illegal without a government issued tax stamp, which would inevitably never be given out. This law would prove to be unconstitutional, yet the criminalization would be officially finalized in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act, classifying marijuana as a schedule 1 narcotic, meaning that there is high risk for abuse with no potential medical benefits.
Evidence of a cultural attitude shift in favor of marijuana legalization came in the 1960s and 70s. During this time America was mired in the Vietnam War and a cultural war at home regarding that involvement. With the rising popularity of Rock music at this time, the use of marijuana increased (marijuana chart citation). American politicians saw the anti-war movement, with its supporters being the younger generation, as a counter culture. The breakout example of 1960s counter culture, occurred August 15-18, 1969, at the Woodstock Arts & Music Festival, in Bethel, New York. The festival drew hundreds of thousands of people who came for “3 days of peace and music” and was subsequently identified as “The Woodstock Generation.” The use of marijuana at Woodstock was a large part of the counter cultural shift. To oppose this movement, President Richard Nixon announced the “War on Drugs.” The “war on drugs” was more of a political attack – particularly against the 1960s “counter-culture” – than rational governmental policy. President Nixon saw it as a way to retaliate against pot-smoking Vietnam protesters, and presidents since have feared being labeled as “soft on drugscrime.” In 1972, Nixon appointed Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer to chair a national commission to report on the effects of marijuana and make appropriate recommendations. His reports concluded that marijuana was not as harmful as assumed and recommended its decriminalization, disappointing President Nixon, whose opinions about marijuana were based solely on his personal prejudices rather than the evidence. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter recommended that congress decriminalize marijuana use for American adults, but congress failed to act. On September 14, 1986, First Lady Nancy Reagan introduced the “Just Say No’ campaign, again changing the cultural attitude on the stance of marijuana legalization. Her campaign was successful as high school seniors using cannabis dropped from 50.1% in 1978 to 36% in 1987, (9) to 12% in 1991 (10), hindering the positive cultural attitude shift of marijuana legalization.
One of the reasons that people have shifted their opinions in favor of marijuana legalization is because of racial injustice in the enforcement of current marijuana laws. The war on marijuana has largely been a war on African Americans. A strong support for marijuana legalization comes from the disapproval of the amount of money that is spent incarcerating convicted users. As of 2013, state and federal government are collectively spending approximately $20 Billion on marijuana prohibition annually (11). According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are more than four times (often higher depending on location) as likely to get arrested for possession of marijuana compared to white people, even though statistics show that whites and blacks use marijuana at about the same rate. “Marijuana arrests have increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52%) of all drug arrests in the United States (ACLU).”
Despite the fact that marijuana is used at comparable rates by whites and blacks, state and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against black people and communities. In 2010, the arrest rate for marijuana possession of black people was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000 — a disparity that increased 32.7% between 2001 and 2010. It comes to no surprising that the war on marijuana, has gone largely, if not entirely, overlooked by middle- and upper-class white communities. In the states with the worst disparities, blacks were on average over six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In the worst offending counties across the country, Blacks were over 10, 15, even 30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents in the same county. This injustice has lead to a demand by black communities and organizations for marijuana legislation, to prevent even more jailings.
An example of the recent shift in cultural attitude in favor of marijuana legalization is seen in modern legislation. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana. Since then, 26 other states have done the same. Four states, including Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia, have gone as far as to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, “100 million americans admit to trying marijuana, 25 million Americans admit to have smoked marijuana within the past year, and 14 million Americans admit to using it regularly, despite its harsh laws against it’s use.
The movement to legalize marijuana is often compared to the movement surrounding same-sex marriage. Television host, and political satirist Bill Maher has stated in monologue that marijuana is “the next gay marriage…the next obvious civil-rights issue that needs to fall. Former Vermont congressman Barney Frank, an open homosexual, also makes this comparison. Both issues are generational, led by young people whose experiences differ from older generations with baseless apprehension. Congressman Frank said in an interview with Big Think, an internet forum that features interviews, multimedia presentations, and roundtable discussions with speakers from a range of fields,
“What happened was marijuana smoking became legal in some places, same-sex marriage became legal in some places and none of the negative effects that people had predicted occurred. Reality beat the prejudice. And as more and more places adopted the reality, the prejudice lost and lost and lost.”
The intersectionality of these two socially constructed ideas reflect the shift in both movements.
So why is marijuana still illegal One of the major opponents to the legalization of marijuana is the country’s top pharmaceutical companies (4). Cancer, AIDS, and other communities of terminally ill patients are among the people who support the legalization of marijuana. Using marijuana can make living with certain diseases more bearable. Many patients claim that marijuana is the best medication for pain relief. “A drug that costs no money but has great benefits is a pretty strong competitor for established drugs that cost a lot and perhaps fight the original symptoms but bring with them new pain.” Some of the leading organizations that oppose the legalisation of marijuana include, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and The Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA). These organizations main financiers include Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories. These pharmaceutical companies all produce strong painkillers using opium, all of which are addictive and have led a number of Americans into addiction. 16 thousand a year die from overdosing on painkillers. “Since 1996 Purdue earned more than $27 billion in sales from its painkillers. That would not be possible with cannabis” (4). Looking closely at the lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many conflicts of interest. CADCA’s national events are attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, “many of whom have a financial stake in law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants” (13). The primary pharmaceutical lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), has spent a ton of money on keeping marijuana illegal. In 2012, they spent nearly $22 million on congressional races, endorsing candidate’s that would support their cause, keeping marijuana illegal. Beer and liquor companies represent another industry opposing the legalization of marijuana. When California sought to become the first state to legalize marijuana in 2010 via statewide ballot (officially known as Proposition 19), the California Beer and Beverage Distributors contributed $10,000 towards the proposition’s defeat.
According to Gallop polls, as of 2014, over 50% of Americans are now in favor of marijuana legalization, as opposed to 12% in 1969, when polling was taken for the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. Clearly, a fundamental change in cultural attitude is evident regarding the legalization of marijuana. Examples of this shift has been proven by examining the history of marijuana before it was illegal, why the laws changed to make in illegal, the shift in attitude in favor to legalization, the racial aspect, progressregress, modern legislation, and current trends and opinions. The majority attitude of the American people has shifted in favor of the legalization of marijuana.