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A Brief History of Marijuana in the United States of America

Jordan McKenzie

Written by: Jordan McKenzie

Updated on December 14, 2023


Marijuana has a long and storied history. Understanding that history is part of understanding where we are today and how we got here. From early indigenous uses to prohibition, hippie culture, and the current growing trend of legalization, cannabis has had quite a journey.
As states across the country push for legalization, there’s still a way to go. But it’s equally important to remember how far we’ve come.

Pre-20th Century: Indigenous Use and Early European Settlers

Many of the indigenous populations in the country were using marijuana and hemp long before settlers arrived. Some still use it as a ceremonial or medicinal supplement today, based on centuries of ancient tradition. Outside of the United States, the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes dates to as far as 2,900 BC, when the Chinese emperor at the time declared it a popular medicine.

The first European settlers to arrive on U.S. soil used hemp more than marijuana. Both come from the same family, but hemp has much lower concentrations of THC than the cannabis plant. It became so important that in 1619, a law was passed in Virginia that required every farm to grow hemp. It was also accepted as currency in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

As people discovered the comfort of cotton, hemp quickly fell out of popularity. Although it was still useful for things like ropes and paper, it was not as in demand as it once had been. At the same time, the use of the marijuana version of this plant was on the rise. Westerners had discovered what the Ancient Chinese already knew: cannabis had medical value. It was first marked as such, before becoming a recreational favorite among many communities.

Early 20th Century: The Rise of Reefer Madness and Prohibition

As the 20th century made its way into America, so did weed. Mexican refugees brought weed when they fled to the States. For three decades, this plant was used in many medications and tinctures. By the 1930s, smoking weed was popular among the black jazz community, Beatniks, and others. The media began showcasing weed as a drug that was linked to crime and violence.

Prohibition was repealed in 1930, which caused the straight-edge community to seek another outlet for its targeting. Marijuana, a drug primarily used by Mexican and black communities at the time, was the perfect target. They painted this drug as a danger and started the process of making it illegal.

In 1936, the film Reefer Madness was released to the public. This video was created to paint marijuana as a drug that could result in violence, rape, psychosis, and suicide. This propaganda, along with the heavy Marijuana Tax Act, eventually led to the full criminalization of the drug.

By 1931, a total of 29 states had already outlawed the sale and use of cannabis. When the film was released, that only solidified its “danger” to the American public. The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, which created huge excise taxes and made it illegal for anyone to use the drug unless they had specific industrial or medical purposes.

Now, it was a criminal act to own, possess, grow, or sell marijuana and its related products at a federal level. Since then, the country’s legal relationship with weed has had its share of back-and-forth.

Mid-20th Century: The Counterculture Movement and Increased Criminalization

By the 1940s, marijuana was being removed from the Pharmacopoeia of the United States. Doctors began to discredit its medical uses, as various reports were published to attempt to attack marijuana and its capabilities. This was a big turning point for the illegalization of marijuana. In the 1950s, the use of marijuana continued to rise in the counterculture.

1952 saw the passage of the Boggs Act, which outlined strict punishments for anyone who was involved in drug activity with cannabis and other drugs. As expected, this only pushed the drug further into the counterculture and continued to create problems for minority communities that used the drug.

The 1960s saw the decade of free love and hippie culture, which promoted marijuana as a plant that was “of the earth” and offered a harmless high. It became popular among college students, anti-war activists, and others in the young community. Smoking pot was the preferred way to relax and unwind, despite its illegality.

At the same time, the dance of how the country feels about marijuana continued to go back and forth. President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson commissioned reports to confirm that marijuana was not a drug that induced violence. They also reported in these documents that cannabis was not, indeed, the “gateway drug” it was marketed to be by anti-drug activists. Marijuana arrests were on the rise and by 1970, the Controlled Substances Act made cannabis a Schedule I drug.

This equated the plant to dangerous drugs like heroin and LSD and stated that there were no medicinal purposes. The report also said there was a “high potential” for abuse of cannabis, which created several harsh criminal penalties for using or possessing the drug.

Late 20th Century to Early 21st Century: Medical Marijuana and the Push for Legalization

Despite the growing criminalization of marijuana through the second half of the 20th century, many states continued to push back on federal laws. In the 1970s, Maine, Alaska, and Oregon had already decriminalized cannabis because they saw through the reports and purported dangers.

In 1972, the Shafer Committee even recommended that personal marijuana use should be decriminalized, but of course that didn’t happen. Instead, more movements against marijuana started. Parents were worried about their teens becoming addicted to drugs by using marijuana, and public opinion started to shift back.

This was bolstered by the “Just Say No” drug campaign started by Nancy Reagan during her time as First Lady in 1982. The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program was founded in 1983, and public schools and federal authorities never looked back. In fact, in 1986, the criminalization of weed was enhanced by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

This once more raised penalties for marijuana use, possession, cultivation, and sales. Many of the sentences suggested were equal to those of drugs like heroin. The first President Bush carried on this attitude and declared his “New War on Drugs” that kept targeting cannabis as an illegal danger.

In the 1990s, states finally started fighting back more aggressively. California was first, approving Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana use within the state. It wasn’t long before other states followed suit, despite the continued promotion of anti-drug campaigns.

21st Century: The Green Wave – Recreational Legalization and Social Acceptance

As the 21st century dawned on the United States, the growing discussion of legalization continued to shift the tides for marijuana once again. Despite persistent political arguments that marijuana should still be illegal, many states started pushing for legalization. The medical uses of marijuana were cited first, making it easier for states to pass laws to allow cannabis use.

Socially, cannabis use was becoming more acceptable as the 1990s turned into the 2000s, with personalities like Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson being advocates. The use of recreational cannabis was discussed as not a danger, but a “safer” option for both personal and medical uses.

The big movement for legalization started in 2012, as Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana for residents over age 21. Since then, there have been another 19 states that have jumped on board, legalizing marijuana for either medical or recreational use, or both. Where it wasn’t initially legalized, it was at least decriminalized. That meant people were no longer going to be arrested for small crimes related to marijuana, such as personal possession or attempting to purchase.

As racial bias and potential “threats” have been removed from marijuana over the years, it has continued to become more socially acceptable. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, although it has been largely decriminalized. States are now passing legalization laws at an impressive pace, with many poised to join the ranks within the next few years.

Current Challenges and the Future of Marijuana in America

One of the biggest challenges in the current state of marijuana in the U.S. is that federally, it is still considered an illegal scheduled substance. The murky laws surrounding marijuana use and the back-and-forth dance of whether the substance is a danger has created a lot of confusion for the country, and the world.

However, as more studies are released and more states legalize recreational and medical marijuana use, the truth is clear: much of the propaganda about the dangers of marijuana was just that – propaganda. This plant can help people with a host of medical issues and ongoing studies are only further solidifying that.

Marijuana has also proven to be safer for recreational use than alcohol and other substances because it doesn’t cause as many potential health dangers or risks with use. There are still several politicians and groups that believe that cannabis should continue to be illegal, but they are quickly becoming the minority. Although it’s impossible to know what the future holds, the chances are good that full legalization isn’t that far off.

Federal legalization of marijuana will be necessary if states are going to be able to maximize their profits and operate fully within the realms of the law. Currently, many states don’t have banking systems in place because they can’t deposit funds from cannabis businesses in federally insured banks and accounts. This leads to a lot of cash floating around and that can bring its own challenges.


As we have observed, marijuana has a long and complex history in the United States. It has traversed a significant journey, and societal perceptions seem to be shifting as people increasingly recognize its potential benefits and risks. Although there is still a considerable distance to go towards widespread legalization, the fact that more conservative states like Ohio are beginning to contemplate marijuana legislation suggests that more states might legalize it within the next decade. As for whether federal laws will change in tandem, and how all of this will unfold, remains to be seen.

Jordan McKenzie
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