The drug policy for cannabis in America has always been like shifting weather. Its legalization process is tumultuous and stormy in some regions or easy like a sunny spring day in others.
In this article, we will discuss reasons why cannabis is still illegal in some regions of the U.S. We will also explain the differences in legality of varieties of the cannabis plant: hemp and marijuana.
The Current State of Affairs
As of the time of this writing, marijuana is federally illegal while hemp is federally legal. Though they both are varieties of the same plant, they have varying amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
THC causes psychoactive effects and is the most prominent cannabinoid in marijuana. This is one reason why marijuana is still federally illegal. However, the winds of change have swept the nation regarding marijuana laws.
As the research on cannabis medical benefits has grown, more and more states have opened their doors to its possibilities. Many states have legalized medical marijuana, while others have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana. But there are still many states who have still not legalized either.
Hemp’s legalization has taken a different path. As of recently, hemp has been differentiated from marijuana and has been legalized on a federal level. This also includes the legalization of its derivatives such as CBD and Delta-8 THC.
However, despite this groundbreaking federal legislation, individual state law must still be respected. Since states make their regulations, some have chosen to place restrictions on hemp products.
That is why it is so important to research the local laws in your area. Why has it been such a rocky road in the legalization of both hemp and marijuana? Much of it goes back to the history of public perception of cannabis.
History of Public Perception of Cannabis in America
To understand why there are still holdout states when it comes to marijuana legalization, it is first necessary to understand the history of cannabis in the U.S. So let’s go back to where the war against cannabis began...
The Social Stigma Begins
In the early 1900s, cannabis was included in medications like painkillers, sedatives, and used as a treatment for muscle spasms. At this time, an influx of immigrants from Mexico began bringing marijuana with them over the borders, creating the spread of recreational use.
The media began to link marijuana use with crime and violence, mostly blaming these Mexican immigrants. People began to become suspicious of cannabis, calling it the “Marijuana Menace.”
This could be due to the various powerful interests that had economic motives to suppress hemp production. For example, Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, claimed marijuana use led to insanity.
Crafting cannabis into the bogeyman to the popular imagination, these sort of powerful people were able to spread rumors of homicidal mania caused by the psychoactive plant.
This stigmatization was a big reason all states had heavily regulated marijuana use by 1936. In 1936, a movie called Reefer Madness was popularized. It gave the impression that marijuana was a dangerous drug, causing its users to commit acts of violence and rape.
It even pushed the idea the substances could lead to suicide and psychosis. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was legislated. It only allowed for specific uses of hemp and medical cannabis at the cost of a heavy excise tax.
Restrictions continued to go up state after state until cannabis was prohibited by federal law.
Spread of Cannabis Amongst Recreational Users
The 1960s were a big era for recreational marijuana use. It started to gain popularity among young people, especially hippies. It was found by commissioned reports from President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson that violence associated with marijuana was not marijuana-related.
However, state authorities increased marijuana arrests tenfold as they began to crack down on marijuana possession and sale. Drugs had become symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent.
As a result, the government halted scientific research that could have studied cannabis’ medicinal properties.
Harder Enforcement of Many Drugs
In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed by Congress. This legislation placed marijuana on the DEA’s list of Schedule I drugs, which also included LSD and heroin. It placed harsher punishment on drug crimes. This also made it harder for the study of these substances.
The legislation banned the buying, selling, possessing, or consuming of cannabis. This included all forms of cannabis including extracts, oils, and isomers.
At this time, hemp had not been properly defined. There was no differentiation between THC-heavy marijuana and industrial hemp used to make building material.
Due to ignorance, many people did not know the value of hemp, and simply associated it with the psychoactive “drug.” Even though the war on drugs waged strongly in the federal sector in these years, certain states implemented the decriminalization of marijuana. Some of them were Oregon, Maine, and Alaska.
The War on Drugs is Declared
In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He increased the size and presence of federal control agencies. At the same time, he was increasing mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. An aide to Nixon, John Ehrlichman, reportedly later admitted:
“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
In 1982, the “Just Say No” campaign began, followed by the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) in schools. During this era, the referring to marijuana as a “gateway drug” was popularized.
In DARE, law enforcement officers would come to schools to talk about the negative effects of drugs. Eventually, funding was cut back when it was evident that the program did not deter kids from using drugs. The program finally ended in 2009.
In 1989, the “New War on Drugs” began under President George H.W. Bush and was continued through the Clinton era. Bush approved drug-related policies and the 1033 program, which equipped local and state police with military-grade equipment for anti-drug efforts.
Years later, the evidence shows that these changes made no difference in the amount of drug use. During these years, more and more people considered marijuana dangerous, strengthening the opinion of it as a “gateway drug.”
A Glimmer of Hope
Things started to turn around in 1996 due to California’s passing of the Compassionate Use Act legalizing medical marijuana. This immediately began to shift the public attitudes toward the controversial plant.
California was the first state to make medicinal marijuana legal on a state level. This now allowed researchers to expand their studies into cannabinoid medical uses, including CBD.
The stigma began to shift. But not until 2012 with the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, did other states began to follow suit. Dispensaries began to pop up all over these legal states, bringing in large revenues.
Major Wins for Hemp
In 2014, the Agriculture Act, or Farm Bill, was passed. The purpose of this bill was to cultivate hemp for research and agriculture purposes. Additionally, this legislation separated hemp from marijuana, defining it as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
A few years later, the federal government legislated the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, or Farm Bill, declassifying hemp as an illicit substance. It exempted any cannabinoid that is derived from hemp excluding THC. CBD and Delta-8 fall under this category and were at this point considered federally legal.
Even though there have been advocate groups for legalization of marijuana since the 1970s and a few wins here and there, the shift in drug laws did not start to manifest till around 2010 when pro-marijuana initiatives began to appear on state ballots. To this day, more and more legalization is taking place on state levels for both hemp and marijuana.
A Change in Public Perception
The shifting attitudes on marijuana are evident in this research from Pew Research Center. It was found in September that 67% of adult Americans believe that marijuana should be legal, with 32% in disagreement. This is in stark contrast to 1969 when Pew found that just 12% supported legalization while a whopping 84% were against it.
The relaxation of these attitudes toward marijuana may be due to the passing of time and anecdotal and clinical evidence on cannabis’s positive effects. And most people think that the case against marijuana pales in comparison to the bigger drug problems in the U.S. today, like opioids.
Despite this change in American’s attitudes toward cannabis, marijuana is still illegal federally and in most states. And even though hemp and its derivatives are federally legal, there are still some states that have some restrictions.
What are some reasons for these holdouts? Now we will attempt to answer this complex question.
Arguments Against Legalization
The lingering stereotypes from the past hang in the air like a fog. Likely, your grandparents may still abide by the presumptions people like Anslinger set in place back in the day. Marijuana is the devil’s drug, so on and so forth.
The demonization of cannabis goes back generations and has been implanted firmly in people’s minds.Besides these outdated perceptions, there are more legitimate reasons some states are holding out against legalizing marijuana and not loosening restrictions on some hemp products. Here are some arguments of those who want to keep marijuana illegal:
Is the term “gateway drug” really a fair statement when it comes to describing marijuana? It has long been promoted that marijuana has a high potential of preceding the use of other substances, which can lead to addiction to more dangerous drugs.
Some evidence shows many that who use marijuana often go on to use other illegal substances. Another study showed that marijuana users were more likely than non-users to develop an alcohol use disorder within 3 years.
It was also linked to other substance use disorders like nicotine addiction. Although these findings are consistent with the idea of marijuana being a “gateway drug,” it is evident that most marijuana users do not move to harder substances.
There may be other factors at play that increase someone’s risk for drug use, including the social environment as well as other biological mechanisms. More research is needed to get more definitive answers on what causes someone to jump from marijuana use to hard drugs.
May Negatively Affect Young People
With more legalization of marijuana and hemp products, this means they will become highly accessible, even to young people. This could lead to more use and misuse of the psychoactive plant.
Heavy marijuana use in adolescence has been associated with drops in school grades and more dropouts. Opposers of marijuana legalization say this could lead to more welfare dependence, higher unemployment levels, and in turn, lower life satisfaction in these people.
But is marijuana all to blame for this? There may be other factors involved, including peer influence, emotional distress, or a tendency for problematic behavior that could cause a predisposition for these issues. The great causal/correlation debate.
Though there are not many longitudinal studies in this area, there have been a few. This one showed that persistent marijuana use led to a decline in IQ. There were 1,037 subjects of this study, tested 5 times between the ages of 18 to 38.
The most persistent cannabis users in the study experienced a drop in neuropsychological functioning equal to about 6 IQ points. Until the early to mid-’20s, youngsters’ brains are still in development.
This is especially true for one of the last areas to develop: the frontal cortex. This part of the brain is critical for the use of planning, judgment, decision-making, and personality. Cannabis products may play a role in the lack of development of our most important tool.
For this reason, we think all cannabis products must have age restrictions that are strictly adhered to.
Increased Addictive Behavior
Some people argue that making marijuana legal and more widely available could increase the cases of Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD), also known as cannabis addiction. This is a disorder that is characterized by the continuous use of cannabis despite clinically significant distress or impairment. Here are some signs of CUD:
- A strong desire to take cannabis
- Difficulty in controlling use
- Persistence in use despite harmful effects
- A higher priority given to cannabis use than to other activities and obligations
- Increased tolerance
People are concerned that for-profit businesses will market their products to people who are heavy users and display this addictive behavior. This has been seen similarly in the alcohol and tobacco industries, where these businesses make their bucks off of people with serious addictions.
As an example, in this study taken on Colorado’s legal marijuana users, the heaviest pot users contributed to the biggest demand. The top 29.9% of those who smoked the most marijuana made up 87.1% of the demand. This proves that the heaviest marijuana users profit these companies the most.
Not Enough Research on Risks
One argument against the legalization of cannabis is that we simply do not have all the knowledge we need to accurately weigh its benefits and risks.
However, this can be seen as a self-perpetuating problem. Research is lacking in many areas of cannabis knowledge because it has been difficult to study something illegal. This has made it difficult for research groups to gain funding and acquire the knowledge that is needed.
As cannabis is increasingly legalized, we will have access to more knowledge on its effects and benefits. This will enable us to educate the public on clear facts and less on anecdotal evidence. The facts in turn will allow for smarter use of substances.
It Just Takes Time
If you look back in time, you can see that although Prohibition ended in the 1930s, it was not until the 1960s till Mississippi, the last holdout state, lifted its statewide prohibition of alcohol sales. And even to this day, there are still counties in the U.S. that are “dry” of alcohol.
It is an extremely slow process. And with this example, we see that it is possible to legalize such a thing on a federal level, but it may not become legal everywhere.
Looking back on the tumultuous history of cannabis, the public perception of marijuana has greatly changed. Federal and state lawmakers continue to legalize the use of cannabis, giving us more hope that good things come to those who wait.
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