Talk about a buzz kill!

On Thursday, just four days after recreational marijuana became legal to buy and sell in California, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions nudged federal prosecutors to aggressively enforce the federal law that strictly prohibits the drug.

In announcing the Justice Department’s new stance on the issue, Sessions reversed an Obama-era policy directing federal prosecutors and authorities to generally de-prioritize marijuana enforcement, particularly in states that had voted to legalize it for medical or recreational use.

Sessions previously served as an Alabama senator and federal prosecutor at the height of the drug war. He’s long insisted that marijuana is as dangerous a drug as heroin, blaming it for spikes in violent crime. In May, he ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against low-level drug offenders, overriding his predecessor’s pushed for more lenient sentencing guidelines.

New threats of a federal crackdown have been staunchly criticized by liberals, who say it will only further the steep human costs of the nation’s largely ineffective drug war, as well as by some conservatives who consider it a states’ rights issue. And while some in law enforcement support the tougher approach, a bipartisan group of senators in March even urged Sessions to uphold existing Obama-era marijuana policy of allowing states to implement their own recreational marijuana laws.unleashed furious reaction from some senators in own party

It’s still unclear if this most recent change in federal enforcement policy will impact the rollout of California’s newly relaxed weed laws.

Marijuana advocates argue that legalizing the drug  reduces racially skewed arrests and eliminates the need for a black market. Contrary to Sessions’ contention, they say it will also likely reduce violence by taking control of the trade away from criminal organizations. A regulated market, they say, will also ensure that consumers are purchasing safer, more pure drugs.

Opponents argue that legalization will lead to increased use of the drug, particularly among children and teens, resulting in an uptick in harder drug use and violent criminal behavior.

“Marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized,” Sessions said. “It ought not to be minimized. It is in fact a very real danger.”

Meanwhile, marijuana has long reigned supreme as the nation’s most popular illicit drug. And Americans  seem to be increasingly open to legalizing it: in a recent Gallup poll, 64 percent of respondents said they were for it, the highest (no pun intended) level of public support in the nearly half a century of polling on the issue.

California’s legal shift, which went into effect on Jan. 1, was set in motion when voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, a full two decades after it became the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana. Since then, 28 other states have legalized some form of medical marijuana.

For a place known for its trendsetting ways and love of all things green, California is actually a bit late to the party: it’s the sixth state to join the legal weed train, following the lead of Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada and, yes, even the nation’s capital. Massachusetts will also be joining the party in July. And Maine is likely to eventually hop on board as well: in 2016, voters there  approved recreational marijuana sales, but it’s been held up by a veto from the Republican governor.

But as the nation’s most populous state, and biggest marijuana producer, California’s legal shift is being considered a dramatic step towards mainstreaming what promises to be an incredibly lucrative industry.

Under the state’s new rules, people who are 21 and older can legally purchase up to an ounce of weed and grow up to 6 plants per residence. Smoking in public, however, is still subject to fines (unless permitted by local jurisdiction).  

And because marijuana sales are now taxable, the shift promises to be a huge windfall for the state. 

Recreational marijuana sales are projected to bring in roughly $5 billion in annual sales, and about 35 percent which will go to local and state taxes , according to a study commissioned by the state regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the, um, budding new market.

The federal government’s backlash against America’s increasing acceptance of marijuana is no big surprise given the long, racially-fueled history of demonizing the drug.

What follows is a brief history of a very contentious weed.

1600s to mid-1800s: Cannabis was literally part of the fabric of the nation. 

In the early 1600s, the British government encouraged colonial farmers  to produce hemp, a form of cannabis with low levels of  the psychoactive ingredient THC.  The fast-growing plant was primarily used for the production of rope, sails, clothing and paper. It was one of the most important fibers in the world, critical to the expansion of the  British and Spanish empires. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that flat-out required farmers to grow it. 

In the 19th Century, as hemp production waned with the rise of other industrial fibers, more potent forms of cannabis became a popular ingredients in many medicinal products and was sold openly in pharmacies.

But in the United States, it begins to be used in the 19th century during a there’s a kind of a craze for hashish, which is another preparation of cannabis. That begins in the 1850s thanks to a number of especially important literary works like Alexander Dumas’s the Count of Monte Cristo, or the book A Thousand and One Nights , according to Isaac Campos,  who spoke with KPBS in 2010.

1900 – 1920s: “The Marijuana Menace”

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a wave of Mexican immigrants poured into the southwestern U.S. and helped popularize the recreational use of the drug. Cannabis  was known in Spanish as “marihuana” or “mariguana” (“marijuana” is the Anglicized bastardization).

As cannabis use grew more common, the drug became increasingly negatively associated with Mexican immigrants. Anti-drug campaigners began to warn against the encroaching “Marijuana Menace,” describing the terrible crimes attributed to marijuana and the Mexicans who used it.

Matt Thompson from NPR’s Code Switch blog notes: “It was only referred to as marijuana “because anti-cannabis factions wanted to underscore the drug’s ‘Mexican-ness,’”  meant to play off of anti-immigrant sentiments.” It’s the reason why some cannabis advocates today consider “marijuana” a derogatory term.

Rumors quickly spread that Mexicans were distributing this “killer weed” or “locoweed” to unsuspecting American schoolchildren, notes author Eric Schlosser in his 1994 Atlantic article “Reefer Madness”.

The drug also became associated with West Indian immigrants in port cities along the Gulf Coast, one that became  broadly extended to African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes and  lower class whites.

“The Marijuana Menace,” as sketched by anti-drug campaigners, was personified by inferior races and social deviants,” adds Schlosser.

In 1913, California (of all places) passed the first state cannabis prohibition law. The effort was sponsored by the state Board of Pharmacy as part of a larger anti-narcotics campaign, although at the time, there was still  little public concern about cannabis. The law was proposed by Henry Finger, a powerful member of the board, to supposedly prevent the spread of the drug’s use by “Hindoo” immigrants.

Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica,” wrote Finger in a 1911 letter (page 18). “They are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”

1930s: Reefer Madness

Massive unemployment and poverty during the Great Depression furthered resentment and fear of immigrants and minorities and heightened concern about the perceived ill effects of marijuana that came to be associated with them. A flurry of pseudo-research linked the use of the drug to violence, crime and other socially deviant behaviors.

In 1930, Congress created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the first national drug control agency. Its commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger, insisted that marijuana led to “insanity, criminality, and death.” By 1931, 29 states had outlawed it. 

The debut of “Reefer Madness” in 1936, a series of other anti-drug propaganda films,  helped fuel hysteria about the drug. Originally titled “Tell Your Children,” the film centered on a series of hyperbolic events that ensue when innocent high school students are lured into trying marijuana—from a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, hallucinations, and a steady descent into madness. 

Following a lurid national propaganda campaign against the “evil weed,” Congress passed the “Marihuana Tax Act.” It marked the first time the drug was regulated and taxed by the the federal government. The statute effectively criminalized marijuana, outlawing its possession and sale and restricting it to individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses.

1960s – 70s: The counterculture and the crackdown

Widespread adoption of the drug by both young hippies and the white middle class briefly resulted in more relaxed attitudes and enforcement. Reports commissioned by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson found that marijuana use did not induce violence or lead to use of heavier drugs.

But that didn’t last long.

As part of President Richard Nixon’s anti-drug efforts, Congress in 1970 passed the Controlled Substances Act, which created various legal categories, or schedules, for different types of drugs depending on their perceived public threat. Cannabis was placed alongside heroin and LSD into Schedule 1, the most restrictive category reserved for drugs deemed to have no medical use and the highest potential for abuse. The designation even made it difficult for doctors and scientists to access the drug for research.

Including cannabis in this category was more a reflection of “Nixon’s animus toward the counterculture with which he associated marijuana than scientific, medical, or legal opinion,” Scott C. Martin, a history professor at Bowling Green State University, writes in Time magazine.  The Schedule I designation, he notes,  made it difficult even for physicians or scientists to procure marijuana for research studies.

In fact, the bipartisan Shafer Commission, appointed by Nixon to study drug abuse, recommended that marijuana be removed from Schedule 1 and that possession of small amounts be decriminalized. In 1972, a year after Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” the commission presented its findings to Congress in a report titled: “Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding.

It  noted that contrary to popular belief, most  marijuana users were not dangerous at all, but rather more  timid, drowsy and passive. It concluded that cannabis did not pose a widespread danger to society, and recommended using social measures other than criminalization to discourage its use.

In response to the nation’ increasingly restrictive drug laws, the commission stated:

“Unless present policy is redirected, we will perpetuate the same problems, tolerate the same social costs, and find ourselves as we do now, no further along the road to a more rational legal and social approach than we were in 1914.”

Not surprisingly, Nixon vehemently rejected the commission’s findings, forging ahead with his anti-drug agenda, and  the following year, congress created the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a merger of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE)

But the report did have significant influence on state governments. A movement spearheaded by the newly formed National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) resulted in Oregon passing the first decriminalization statute in 1973, with 10 other states — from California to (astoundingly) Mississippi — following suit over the next five years.

During the same period, a nationwide movement emerged of conservative parents’ groups whose lobbying for stricter marijuana regulation, particularly among teenagers, proved influential in shaping public opinion in the 1980s. 

1986: The birth of mandatory minimum drug sentencing

President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, instituting mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. The legislation had actually been championed by Democrats who saw a political opportunity to outdo Republicans by “getting tough on drugs.” The shift was in part a response to the nation’s shock over the death of Celtics star draft pick Len Bias from a cocaine overdose.

The law increased federal penalties for the sale and possession of an array of drugs, including marijuana, with penalties based on the amount of the drug involved. Under the law, possession of 100 marijuana plants received the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. A later amendment established a “three strikes and you’re out” policy, requiring life sentences for repeat drug offenders, and sanctioning the death penalty for “drug kingpins.”

In the wake of the law, drug-related arrests soared, resulting in a massive increase in the state and federal prison populations.  In 1986, there were roughly 400,000 inmates in America’s prison system. By 2015, it had nearly quadrupled, to a high of almost 1.5 million.

Marijuana arrests factored heavily in this increase, accounting for more than half of all drug arrests, mostly for possession, with African-Americans arrested at a dramatically higher rate than whites, despite similar rates of usage, according to the ACLU.

1996: The dawn of the modern medical marijuana movement 

With the passage of Proposition 215 by a solid majority of voters, California bypassed federal law and became the first state to legalize the sale and medical use of cannabis for patients with AIDS, cancer, and other serious and painful diseases. Twenty-eight other states and Washington, D.C. have since passed legislation authorizing (to varying degrees) medical use of the drug. 

2012 to the  present: Time to recreate!

Colorado voters in 2012 passed the nation’s first recreational marijuana law, which went into effect in 2014. Amendment 64 (apparently a popular number), regulates and taxes marijuana and allows adults to possess up to an ounce of the drug. Since then, five other states, including, have followed suit. Massachusetts is preparing to jump on board the weed train in July, and Maine is likely to follow close behind.

Reefer Madness! The Twisted History of America’s Weed Laws 5 January,2018Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a digital media producer for KQED News. He previously produced The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog. Matthew's written for numerous Bay Area publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. He also taught journalism classes at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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