Milestones in the History of Marijuana Prohibition


  • In 1619, King James I decreed that colonists grow 100 hemp plants each to supply its increasing demand for export.
  • George Washington cultivated hemp at Mount Vermont as one of his three regular crops.


  • Hemp became a vibrant and productive industry in the US throughout the 18th and 19th century. It was primarily used to manufacture rope and fabric.
  • After William O'Shaughnessy introduced cannabis for medical use in the West,  American  pharmacies started to offer  it as medication in 1850s.
  • Shortly after being introduced as medicine, the US government introduced stricter laws to regulate narcotics and required the proper labelling of drugs. The so-called ‘poison laws’ were imposed.  
  • In 1860, following a series of suicide incidents involving substances labelled as poison, a bill was passed in New York prohibiting the sale of cannabis – along with other substances without written prescription of a physician.  
  • California state legislature introduced a bill in 1880 to regulate the sale of opium and other narcotic poisons without doctor’s prescription. However, the bill was withdrawn. Restrictions for hemp-based drugs were introduced in 1885 and 1889.


  • In 1905, an official bulletin from the US Department of Agriculture listed 29 states with laws that mentioned cannabis.   Eight of the twenty-nine states lists cannabis as poison: North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Vermont, Maine, Montana, and the District of Columbia. Although majority of US states did not list cannabis as poison, the government required it to be properly labelled.
  • The United States Congress passed The Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.  It required that special drugs such as cannabis be properly and accurately labelled with contents.
  • However, there was popular clamor to revise The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act because of the legal ‘loopholes’ in the poison laws. The proposed changes aimed to restrict cannabis along with other narcotics by limiting their sale to pharmacies and requiring doctor’s prescription before purchase.  
  • In 1911, a reform legislation called the Towns-Boylan Act targeted the restrictions of all “habit-forming drugs” in terms of its sale even with physician’s prescription. Later on, the New York Board of Health classified cannabis as a habit-forming drug.
  • The Poison Act was passed in 1907 and was amended three times (1909, 1911 and 1913). It was amended to make possession of “extracts, tinctures, or other narcotics preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations and compounds” a violation of the law.  Critics of the amendment say that “there was no evidence that the law was ever used or intended to restrict pharmaceutical cannabis”.
  • In 1915, a revision in the Poison Act placed cannabis under the same category of ‘other poisons’.
  • In time, other US states  passed their  own marijuana laws including: Wyoming (1915); Texas (1919); Iowa (1923); Nevada (1923); Oregon (1923); Washington (1923); Arkansas (1923); and Nebraska (1927).
  • Mexican immigrants started to flood the US in the 1920s after the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The Mexican immigrants introduced marijuana for recreation use and caused widespread prejudice against them. Marijuana became identified with Spanish-speaking immigrants and crime.
  • The United States supported the regulation of Indian hemp duringthe International Opium Convention in 1925. A resolution to ban exportation of Indian hemp to countries that prohibit its use.   Countries intending to import Indian hemp were required to use it exclusively for research, medical or scientific purposes only.
  • The Uniform State Narcotic Act that was drafted in 1925 and finalized in 1932. It aimed to impose and implement the same safeguards and regulations in all US states.  Although other marijuana-related laws were already included in The Harrison Act of 1914 and the Federal Import and Export Act of 1922, these Acts did not give states authority to exercise police power to seize illegal drugs and punish the violators.
  • Eventually, upon the pressure from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), the   Uniform State Narcotic Act was adopted by most member states in the middle of the 1930s.  This was achieved mainly due to the spirited effort of Harry Anslinger, the head of FBN who was determined to continue the broader push to outlaw all recreational drugs including marijuana.
  • During the Geneva Convention for the Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs at Geneva in 1936, the United States led by Anslinger refused to sign the final version of convention agreements because they were too weak with regards to extradition, extraterritoriality and the seizure of trafficking profits.
  • By passing The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the government effectively made the possession of cannabis illegal in the United States. Tax were imposed for the sale and possession of cannabis for medical, research and industrial purposes.  Stiff annual fees were required for manufacturers and cultivators of cannabis.Marijuana remains listed and defined as “a dangerous drug” in The Federal Pure Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938.

1950 – 1960s

  • The Boggs Act of 1952 and Narcotics Control Act   further tightened the noose on marijuana possession and use.  Under these acts, first-time cannabis possession violators are penalized with two to ten years in prison and a fine up to $20,000.
  • The US Supreme Court Leary v. United States (1969) decision held the Marijuana Tax Act to be unconstitutional and stated that it violated the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
  • In reaction to their defeat in the Supreme Court, the US Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, as substitute for the repealed Marijuana Tax Act.
  • In 1968, the US government created the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs under the United States Department of Justice subsidiary by merging the Bureau of Narcotics and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare subsidiary the Bureau of Drug Abuse.   



  • The US Congress repealed majority of the listed mandatory penalties for drug-related offenses. It became evident that the mandatory minimum sentence of the 1950s achieved nothing to eliminate the drug culture in the 1960s. The minimum sentences imposed on marijuana offenders were deemed harsh.
  • In this decade, marijuana prohibition had breakthrough when the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act differentiated marijuana differentiated from other drugs. The act also removed the mandatory federal sentences for possession of small amounts.
  • The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded in 1972.
  • In 1973, the Nixon-appointed Shafer Commission recommended the decriminalization of marijuana personal use. Although President Nixon rejected the proposal, eleven states decriminalized marijuana and reduced penalties for violators.
  • The powerful US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created by merging the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) in 1973.
  • In 1976, a nationwide movement composed of conservative parents and lobby groups emerged to advocate stricter regulation of marijuana and the prevention of teenage drug use.  The movement gained traction   with the support of DEA and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).  The movement had a profound public influence and change attitude towards marijuana and drugs, that it ushered the War on Drugs in 1980s.


  • In 1986, President Reagan approved the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. It instituted mandatory sentence for drug-related crimes and raised the federal penalties for marijuana-related crimes. The Act was later amended and included the “three strikes and you’re out” policy, which means repeated drug offenders such as drug kingpins are punished with death penalty.
  • In 1989, President George Bush declares a new War on Drugs in a nationally televised speech.


  • California voters passed the historic Proposition 215 that legalized medical use of marijuana in California.  It allowed the sale and medical use of cannabis for patients with cancer, AIDS and other illness with serious chronic pain.