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The History Behind Illegal Cannabis

The beginning of the 21st century has seen the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis in many countries. The public opinion has shifted from a rejecting to a more tolerating view. The history of cannabis use stretches back thousands of years. It has been used for recreational, medical and commercial purposes. It is known that George Washington used to grow weed and a picture of harvesting weed even appeared on the back of a 1914 ten-dollar bill. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was banned for recreational use and restricted in its industrial use due to dubious reasons.


Back in 8000 BC Taiwanese artists have been reported to use the stem of hemp to decorate clay pots. Afterwards, it has been used for the making of ropes, hemp fabric and paper in almost all over the world even in colder climates like Scandinavia and Russia. In the US cannabis was widely used for industrial purposes and in the 1850s it was available in the pharmacies for medical purposes. Coming to the 20th-century cannabis started to become more regulated. 

The 1910 Mexican revolution forced a lot of people to move to the US. The immigrants smoked cannabis recreationally which wasn’t as common to the people of the United States. At the end of the 1920s when the Great Depression hit the US, tensions grew due to the loss of jobs. The Mexicans were blamed in some media and labelled as dangerous and as fuelled by marijuana. These racist claims were just one part in the puzzle of illegal cannabis. 

The businessmen Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst and the Du Pont family are said to have had financial interests in restricting the use of industrial hemp. It is argued that due to the invention of the decorticator, hemp had become a cheap alternative to the paper pulp used in the newspaper industry. Hearst wanted to have a monopoly in the paper manufacturing and saw that hemp was competition for paper. Hearst used the newspapers that he owned to demonize cannabis and spread lies that there was a connection between cannabis and violent crime. Also, Andrew Mellon, secretary of the treasury, had invested huge amounts of money into the Du Pont family’s owned nylon business which was also seen to be in competition with hemp. Coinciding around the same time was the repeal of the prohibition of alcohol in 1933. The commissioner of the federal bureau of narcotics Harry J. Anslinger had earlier spoken about cannabis as being harmless but when he found his department now obsolete he changed his views and started to ran a campaign against cannabis. He received much support from Hearst and in the campaigns, he showcased biased research about cannabis as a gateway drug and as causing violence and crime. In addition, these campaigns were very racist against black people. For example, he made a claim that black people would drug white women with cannabis and later the women would be found with syphilis. Finally, in 1937 the Marihuana Tax Act was passed which put a tax on hemp and restricted its production. 

The reasons for banning cannabis seems now to have been due to the self-interests of a few wealthy and influential men. The laws that were passed were later on acted in other countries either voluntarily or influenced by the US. An example of this arbitrariness of illegal cannabis can be found in Finland where the legality of cannabis was decided by the use of a lottery ticket. The long-term negative effects of making cannabis illegal are huge. They can be seen in the failed war on drugs, the number of people imprisoned and in the lack of development of hemp products and medical cannabis. 

Recently, the recreational use of cannabis has been legalized in many US states and in 2018 Trump legalized the use of industrial hemp at the federal level. In addition, cannabis has been legalized or, at least, decriminalized in many of the European countries. The vast uses of industrial hemp have begun to be applied again in many industries like clothing, food, fibre, building material, paper and biofuels. It looks like we are finally on the progressive path.


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