Weed: The Wild and Wonderful History of Cannabis in America

Written by: Robyn Blaze



Time to read 9 min

Cannabis: The Early Days

In the freewheeling days before cannabis became the green menace to society in the eyes of the law, it was just another plant. Yes, that's right—a plant. Not a schedule I criminal, not a gateway drug, but a humble, leafy friend. Early American settlers weren't lighting up to escape the dreariness of their colonial chores but were instead weaving its fibers into the very fabric of their society, quite literally. Hemp, a non-psychoactive cousin in the cannabis family, was a cash crop before cash crops were cool, making its way into ropes, sails, and the occasional Declaration of Independence draft. The Founding Fathers, those hemp-growing, freedom-touting rebels, might not have puffed their way through constitutional conventions, but they surely recognized the value of a good plant.

As we embark on this journey through the smoky haze of history, remember: cannabis wasn't always the boogeyman hiding under America's bed. It was, at various times, a trusted ally, a source of sustenance, and, yes, even a bit of recreational fun. So, grab your favorite munchies, and let's dive into the twisting, turning tale of cannabis in the United States—a story of highs, lows, and the utterly ridiculous.

Cannabis was practically a household name, and not in the way your paranoid aunt talks about it at Thanksgiving. Picture this: it’s the 19th century, and cannabis tinctures are chilling on pharmacy shelves, rubbing elbows with laudanum and other Victorian-era goodies. Doctors prescribed it for everything from pain relief to your very specific case of “melancholia” or what we now might call a bad mood. It was the CBD latte of its time, minus the latte.

The early 1900s were a simpler time for cannabis. Hemp farms flourished from sea to shining sea, supporting the economy and providing essential materials. It was a golden age where cannabis wasn’t just accepted; it was expected. George Washington himself was a known hemp cultivator, likely discussing crop rotation strategies with Thomas Jefferson over a colonial brewski. The idea that this plant could one day be seen as a societal scourge would have been as laughable as Prohibition... Oh, wait.

Enter cannabis, stage left, into the American narrative. This wasn’t yet the era of "Reefer Madness," but our green friend was starting to rub elbows with jazz musicians and artists, entering the cultural zeitgeist as something more than just a rope ingredient. It began to symbolize freedom, creativity, and a break from the mundanity of the industrial age. Cannabis, in its psychoactive glory, was becoming the muse of the misunderstood and the fuel of the fun-loving.

But, as is the case with many great American tales, not everyone was ready for the party. The stage was set for a clash between the cannabis connoisseurs and those who preferred their intoxicants in a glass, not a pipe. And so, the plot thickened, leading us to the most bewildering chapters of cannabis in America.

This beloved plant went from being a valued crop and a common remedy to public enemy number one. A transformation that would involve a cast of characters as colorful and varied as a bag of mixed nugs, featuring politicians with agendas, sensationalist media campaigns, and a public caught between changing tides of opinion. Buckle up buttercup because this ride gets pretty bumpy before it smooths out.

The Road to Prohibition

The path to cannabis prohibition in the United States was less a straight line and more a bewildering zigzag, the kind you might experience after indulging in a particularly potent edible. It was a journey marked by a series of cultural shifts, political maneuvers, and a splash of good old-fashioned hysteria.

As the 20th century dawned, cannabis found itself at a crossroads. On one side were its historical uses, medicinal benefits, and industrial applications. On the other? A growing wave of fear, misunderstanding, and xenophobia. Yes, xenophobia. Because, as it turns out, the demonization of cannabis was less about the plant itself and more about who was using it.

Enter the first act of our drama: the Mexican Revolution of 1910. As refugees sought solace in the United States, they brought with them their customs, including the recreational use of "marijuana." This did not sit well with the American public, who were already knee-deep in the throes of a xenophobic panic. The media, never one to let a good crisis go to waste, began to spin tales of madness, violence, and moral decay—all purportedly caused by this foreign plant.

Cue the second act: the Jazz Age. As cannabis use spread through the jazz clubs of New Orleans and beyond, it became associated with the African American and Latino communities, and by extension, with a challenge to the prevailing social order. The powers that be—law enforcement and moral crusaders alike—saw an opportunity. Cannabis could be a convenient scapegoat in their crusade to control these "undesirable" elements of society.

And so, the stage was set for the grand performance: Reefer Madness. This era, epitomized by the infamous 1936 propaganda film of the same name, marked the height of cannabis hysteria. Stories of insanity, violence, and debauchery filled newspapers and movie screens, painting cannabis as a destroyer of youth and morality. It was during this time that Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, took up the anti-cannabis torch, weaving tales of destruction and despair so fantastical they would make even the most seasoned fiction writer blush.

In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, effectively criminalizing cannabis by imposing strict regulations and taxes on its sale and distribution. This act didn't just mark the beginning of cannabis prohibition; it was the culmination of years of fear-mongering, racism, and political opportunism.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 drove the final nail in the coffin, classifying cannabis as a Schedule I drug—right up there with heroin and LSD, and supposedly with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." The irony of this classification, given cannabis's long history of medicinal use, was not lost on anyone with a sense of humor or a penchant for historical accuracy.

As the curtain fell on this act of our story, cannabis sat backstage, a vilified yet persistent presence in American society, waiting for its next cue. And oh, what a comeback it would make.

America was on the verge of an era that would turn up the heat on cannabis prohibition and fuel the fires of resistance. Through the haze of time and smoke, a movement began to grow—a movement that would eventually challenge the very foundations of cannabis prohibition in the United States.



The War on Drugs Era

The War on Drugs, an era that would make even the most hardened prohibitionist pause and say, “Well, that escalated quickly,” was America’s attempt to tackle drug use with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Launched by President Nixon in the 1970s and enthusiastically continued by administrations that followed, it was a war not on drugs, per se, but on people—specifically, those using, possessing, or having a passing acquaintance with cannabis. 

This period was marked by aggressive policing, draconian sentencing laws, and an almost comical misunderstanding of substance addiction and its societal impacts. Cannabis, despite its relatively benign nature compared to the hard-hitters like cocaine and heroin, was cast as a leading villain in this morality play. The message was clear: cannabis was not just illegal, it was immoral.

The result? A booming prison population, disproportionately composed of minority groups, serving lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offenses. It was less a "war" and more a siege against America's own citizens, a fact that became increasingly hard to ignore as the years wore on.

Amidst this backdrop of enforcement and punishment, a counter-culture pushed back. They were armed not with weapons, but with science, compassion, and a sense of humor that the authorities found baffling. This was the era of tie-dye resistance, where protests often looked more like music festivals than political rallies. The message from the cannabis community was clear: "We're here, we're high, get used to it."

And then, the plot twist: as the 20th century drew to a close, the narrative began to shift. Research began to emerge, suggesting that cannabis was not the menace it had been made out to be. Medicinal uses for cannabis, long buried under decades of propaganda, started to gain scientific and public recognition. The absurdity of incarcerating individuals for possessing a plant that was less dangerous (and certainly less intoxicating) than alcohol became too glaring to ignore.

Modern Reform and Legalization Efforts

Enter the 21st century, and with it, a new chapter in the saga of cannabis in the United States. This era could be characterized by a single phrase: "Well, maybe we overreacted." States began to challenge the federal narrative, starting with California’s Proposition 215 in 1996, which legalized medical cannabis. This was the equivalent of a legislative mic drop, and it set off a domino effect across the country.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape is unrecognizable from the days of "Reefer Madness." Recreational cannabis is legal in a growing number of states, and the medical marijuana train has left the station, chugging along with widespread public support. Hemp, cannabis's non-psychoactive cousin, has been legalized at the federal level, heralding a renaissance for the crop as a sustainable source of everything from clothing to concrete.

The battle isn’t over yet, though. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, a situation that creates a bizarre patchwork of legalities across the country. However, the trend is clear: the walls of cannabis prohibition are crumbling, one state at a time.

What’s driving this seismic shift? A potent mix of public opinion, economic potential, and a growing body of research highlighting cannabis's benefits and relative safety, especially when compared to alcohol and tobacco. The conversation has changed from "Should we legalize?" to "How should we legalize?"

In this new era, cannabis has gone mainstream, with businesses, celebrities, and even politicians jumping on the bandwagon. The once-demonized plant is now celebrated for its medicinal properties, its role in social justice reform, and its potential as a driver of economic growth.

As we look back on the long, strange trip cannabis has taken in the United States, it’s hard not to appreciate the irony. What was once vilified as a source of societal decay is now hailed as a potential solution to a myriad of issues, from chronic pain to the opioid crisis.

The story of cannabis in America is far from over, but if the past is any indication, it's sure to be a wild ride. So, light up your imagination (if not your joints) and stay tuned. The future of cannabis, much like its history, promises to be anything but boring.

This journey through the history of cannabis in the United States has been a tale of transformation, from a valued crop to a demonized drug, and back again to a symbol of healing and hope. Through the highs and lows, the story of cannabis is deeply intertwined with the broader American narrative, a reflection of changing attitudes, cultural shifts, and the ongoing struggle for freedom and justice. And if there's one thing we've learned, it's that the story of cannabis, much like a good Sativa strain, can take you to unexpected places.

Robin Blaze - Cultural Correspondent & Cannabis Connoisseur

Robin Blaze

Cultural Correspondent & Cannabis Connoisseur

Robyn Blaze is a dynamic force in the world of journalism, known for her spirited exploration of cannabis culture. With a keen eye for the evolving landscape of modern culture and a deep understanding of cannabis trends, Robyn has become a trusted voice for readers seeking insight beyond the mainstream.

Beyond her written work, Robyn is a vibrant speaker and advocate for cannabis education, demystifying the plant's culture and science at conferences and public forums. Her commitment to uncovering the stories that matter, combined with her approachable demeanor, has endeared her to a diverse audience.

When she's not chasing stories or demystifying the latest cannabis products, Robyn finds joy in the simple pleasures of life. A lover of the outdoors, she often retreats to nature for inspiration, believing that the greatest stories are written by living life to the fullest.