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When and Why did Cannabis Become Illegal?

Many stories about cannabis prohibition have floated around for decades. There are records available of the beginnings of prohibition. Some think the government was bored. Others believe that they may have thought that cannabis really was a danger back then. Here we’ll break it down for you and make the story of prohibition a little easier to understand.

Pre-20th Century

Prior to the 20th Century, production of help was encouraged from the 1600s through the 1890s. The American government encouraged the production of hemp for ship sails, clothing and rope in the 17th Century.

The Surprise of 1906

Cannabis hadn’t been outlawed anywhere in the U.S. yet. In fact, the Pure Food and Drug Act required that any OTC medications (over-the-counter remedies as they called them), show cannabis as an ingredient if it was part of the recipe for the remedy.


Everything started in California in 1913. It was the first state in the United States to ban cannabis. The California State Board of Pharmacy was amidst leading the most aggressive anti-narcotics campaigns of that time. It was also one of the first campaigns that was anti-narcotics. The press paid no attention to the new law, so no one really knew that lawmakers even saw cannabis as an issue in California.


Utah followed behind California by outlawing cannabis in 1914. It happened because polygamy was outlawed in 1910, so those practicing that lifestyle moved to Mexico. As they returned some 4 years later, the cannabis came back with them. The Mormon Religious Prohibitions law was finalized, and cannabis was no longer legal in Utah.

The Next 2 Decades

Over the next 2 decades, a total of 29 states had banned cannabis. Racial prejudice was the reason for southwestern states banning it. In other states in the U.S., some believed that heroin addicts would start using cannabis too.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was created in 1930. Henry J. Anslinger was the commissioner of the organization from its inception through 1962.

The Uniform State Narcotic Act was adopted in 1932 after the FBN urged states to adopt bans on cannabis and controlling the “problem” themselves. Research conducted at the time concluded that cannabis use was associated with crime. It also concluded that social problems rose with cannabis use.  

In 1936, “Reefer Madness” came to be and that same year, Motion Pictures Association of America banned movie production companies from showing any use of drugs in films.

1937 – The Marijuana Tax Act

1937 is when cannabis really became criminalized. The Marijuana Tax Act only allowed for possession of marijuana for medical or industrial purposes if they paid a special excise tax. Anyone else in possession of cannabis would be charged with a crime.

What helped prohibition was that pharmaceutical companies were unable to establish proper cannabis doses, so they joined Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst, in opposing cannabis. Those against cannabis went as far as to say, quoted from an excerpt published from the Washington Times, that, “The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a deadly drug, and American children must be protected against it.”

The final nail in the coffin for cannabis was the support of the Marijuana Tax Act by the American Medical Association.

Fast Forward to 2016

As more information is published about cannabis and the benefits that it has, it clearly proves that science and technology were lacking when this law took effect. Because it can bring on a euphoric feeling, in some strains, some thought that people were “crazy” from smoking cannabis. In the 1930s, there was just a severe lack of information and too few resources to find the answers that we have today.

Now, in the United States, 8 states have legalized recreational cannabis. More than half of the U.S. has legal medical cannabis. Time has changed, science and technology have advanced and people are realizing that cannabis really isn’t as dangerous as the government and influential persons of our past has made it out to be.

A Few Words for Thought

Cannabis sure stirred things up in our history – because there weren’t answers available. It was easier to point fingers and raise a ruckus than it was to really look into how and why cannabis affects the body the way it does and how it helps some dozens of medical conditions. All we’re doing right now, is working backwards to get to where we were before 1913 when cannabis wasn’t illegal anywhere in the U.S.

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