The History of Hemp: Reefer Madness and the Changing Legal Status of Cannabis in the United States

Even though cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years, its history in the United States is peculiar, and accounts for much of the confusion surrounding the legal status of hemp and CBD products today. Below I give an overview of the history of hemp, highlighting some of the factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs in the CBD industry.

Early history

There’s a written record of cannabis use as old as 2727 B.C. in China. In Siberia, burned cannabis seeds have been found in shaman’s graves dating to 500 B.C. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were known to use it. In America, hemp was a staple crop of colonial farmers by the early 1600s, which they used primarily for textiles and rope. The U.S. Declaration of Independence is drafted on hemp paper. But more recently, the plant’s history is complicated.

In the 1830s, an Irish doctor found that cannabis could help with stomach pain and nausea. By the late 1800s, cannabis extracts were found in many medicinal products sold openly in pharmacies and doctors’ offices across Europe and the United States. 

Cannabis started to be used recreationally in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Immigrants from Mexico, fleeing the Mexican Revolution, introduced smoking cannabis to the American culture. Indian immigrants also brought “hasheesh,” a different form of recreational cannabis, to the West Coast. At the same time, cannabis was being introduced to the Black culture in New Orleans from the Caribbean

It seems clear that the wave of anti-cannabis legislation that followed had a racial dimension. 

Reefer Madness

Led by California in 1913, individual states began outlawing cannabis use. The early prohibitionists used the term “marihuana” instead of the more familiar “cannabis” to highlight the drug’s Mexican-ness and leverage people’s fear of immigrants and minorities. Names like “demon weed” and “locoweed” made matters worse. By 1931, in the spirit of the Prohibition Era’s distrust of all intoxicants, 29 states had outlawed cannabis. Internationally, it had already been banned in Mexico (1920), Canada (1923), Australia (1926), the UK (1928). 

In 1936, a church group financed a sensationalized film calledTell Your Children(which was later recut and reintroduced as Reefer Madness) to deliver an exaggerated moral message about the dangers of the drug. The film fueled hysteria about marijuana and kickstarted a government disinformation campaign to create a narcotics scare. The film claimed that marijuana “destroys the human spirit, transforming men into violent monsters and women into ravenous whores.” The campaign was effective. A year later, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, effectively making the plant illegal on the federal level. 

The Dark Ages of Prohibition

Marijuana use remained relatively low until the beatniks of the 1950s and hippies of the 1960s revived its popularity. But as part of Nixon’s anti-drug agenda, a stricter Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, which grouped cannabis with heroin as a Schedule I drug. This was in turn made worse by Regan’s 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which set mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. Over the next 30 years the number of people incarcerated in the United States nearly quadrupled, with more than half of this increase being attributed to simple possession of marijuana. 

The strict laws and harsh sentences associated with marijuana use caused enormous damage to many communities, with minorities communities being the hardest hit. Though cannabis is a plant that grows naturally and has been used by humans for thousands of years, the fear of its intoxicating effects pushed the plant underground, and tens of thousands of people are still behind bars for using it during this dark era. It was even illegal to study the medicinal benefits of cannabis, despite the known successes of earlier medicines. Even the production of hemp for fiber and oil were outlawed, largely due to confusion with other kinds of cannabis. The damage caused by the anti-marijuana propaganda of the 1930s have taken nearly 80 years to begin to heal. 

Marijuana Laws Begin to Loosen

In 1996, the tides of cannabis prohibition began to turn. That year, California passed State Proposition 215, becoming the first state to legalize the medical use of cannabis for patients with AIDS, cancer and other serious and painful diseases. Since then, 33 states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. The game changed again in 2014 when Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use. Within a few years, 10 other states (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Illinois, Missouri, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine) along with all of Canada have also legalized recreational use, with several more states currently working on ballot initiatives. 

It should be noted that marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, and in most countriesaround the world. 

The New Status of Hemp in the U.S.

The loosening of marijuana laws has been good news from the U.S. hemp industry. The Agricultural Act of 2014 removed federal restrictions on growing industrial hemp. Another Farm Bill, passed in December 2018, defined hemp as cannabis with 0.3% THC or less and legally distinguished it from marijuana, removing it (along with hemp-derived cannabinoids like CBD) from the purview of the DEA and instead placing it under the authority of the FDA. The CBD industry is flourishing under these new laws.

Recently, the FDA approved the drug Epidiolex for two severe forms of epilepsy. To date, this is the only drug containing CBD that has been approved by the FDA. The agency is currently in the process of creating guidelines and regulations around the marketing and sales of other CBD products. It’s important to note that, besides Epidiolex, the FDA has approved no other medical uses for the drug, so sellers cannot legally make claims about the health benefits of their CBD products.

CBD Plaza is Fully Compliant with all Federal Laws

At CBD Plaza, we understand the changing legal dynamics in the CBD industry and are committed to remaining fully compliant with all legal requirements. We believe CBD is an important medicine that has been kept away from people for too long, and it should be readily available to everyone who wants to use it. Feel free to browse our large and growing collection of CBD products and rest assured that every product we sell has been thoroughly quality tested and is fully legal. We’re in the business for the long game, and our goal is to keep you as a customer for years to come. 

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