War on Drugs: Marijuana’s Role in American History

When it comes to the war on drugs marijuana isn’t the obvious culprit. While Reagan made labeled the war on drugs on crack, it first started with weed.

The United States has fought countless battles over the years. We fought England for independence in the Revolutionary War, we fought with ourselves over slavery in the Civil War, and we found in not one, but two World Wars that had a momentous effect on humanity all over the globe, which can still be felt today.

However, there’s another war that the U.S. has been fighting, and it’s definitely a front-runner for the longest battle waged between two opposing sides in all of human history and likely prehistory as well. Unlike many other wars, this one isn’t about religion, tyranny and communism, or subjugation. Instead, this is a War on Drugs.

How It All Began

The expression has been traced back to a statement made by President Richard Nixon during a press conference on June 16, 1971, which is now known as the day the war on drugs began. During his statement, Nixon referred to the growing drug problem in the United States as “public enemy number one.”

The press conference took place the day after Nixon’s message to the Congress of Drug Abuse Prevention and Control was made public. In the message, Nixon notably referred to his emphasizing punitive action against drug-using community as his “war on drugs,” which was quickly adopted by news and media outlets and remains a prominent term today.

In developing his tactics, Nixon created a task force that consisted of four adults and eight youths; the youths were included because they were the population showing the most engagement in drug use and, therefore, would be the most affected by the war on drugs.

According to the twelve people on Nixon’s task force, the war on drugs can only achieve success or progress by addressing the root causes of addiction, and due to numerous studies being conducted to better understand drug use, it was known that a primary determinant in a person’s drug use is an inability to cope with his or her “immediate personal environment.

Although Nixon recognized this to be an effective plan in the long-run, budgetary constraints meant that he needed to pursue more immediate results. So instead of declaring war on the root causes of addiction and portraying drug users as alienated youths with an inability to cope, Nixon declared war on drug users portrayed as criminals who were compromising the moral fiber of the US, which warranted only punishment and incarceration.

Even with this emphasis on criminalization, Nixon’s administration still allocated more funds to addiction prevention than to law enforcement for criminalization. However, Nixon’s was one of the last administrations to do so.

Aside from President Jimmy Carter—who notably tried to call off the war on drugs—every administration since Nixon has increased the division between prevention and law enforcement, resulting in modern-day discrepancies and the tendency to punish the sinner rather than address the sin.

Despite it being just shy of 45 years since Nixon’s official declaration of war, this battle extends back much further than that.

Hysteria Sweeps America Over the ‘Weed with Roots in Hell’

Until the cusp of the twentieth century, marijuana a relatively obscure, uncommon substance that was known to have a level of medicinal value. It hadn’t yet achieved much value for recreational use until it began trickling in from Mexico where many of the locals would add it to their cigarettes.

Meanwhile, opium use and addiction had become a major issue in Western societies, leading to the demonization of all drugs. Therefore, marijuana became the subject of massive amounts of propaganda, which referred to cannabis as an addictive narcotic weed “with roots in hell” that caused anyone who smoked it to commit ghastly, violent crimes and offenses against society.

In 1936, propaganda film Reefer Madness threw suburban America into full-blown hysterics, resulting in marijuana and hemp (and heroin) being made illegal in 1937. But by the time it was made illegal, there had already been a number of people who had been growing and producing marijuana independently.

When it was made illegal, these people were forced to stop their operations, but the result was that there were a number of areas throughout the US, where marijuana had begun to grow and spread on its own. In 1951, a group tasked with eliminating the marijuana that had been growing wild like weeds collected and destroyed more than 41,000 pounds of marijuana in New York City alone.

Medical Uses for Marijuana Warrant Reconsideration of Laws

Since it was made illegal and its use heavy criminalized, marijuana has remained popular only as a common street drug and—compared to the narcotics and other dangerous drugs on the street—mostly a nuisance to law enforcement. However, there was always behind-the-scenes research into any practical applications for marijuana continued.

It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that medicinal uses of cannabis would be discovered due to the research of Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy. It was actually due to his research that marijuana became a more widely known substance in England and the US.

Although cannabis had been used medicinally since as much as 10,000 years ago in China, the “reefer madness” that swept the US effectively made anything other than criminalizing the substance inconceivable.

A synthetic form of THC—the active ingredient in cannabis—was first made in the 1970s, marketed in the pharmaceutical drug Marinol (dronabinol), which was offered to cancer patients as a treatment for the side effects of chemotherapy. Between 1996 and 1999, eight states voted in favor of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, which went against federal law.

Today, there are 23 states and Washington, DC, to have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Additionally, recreational use of marijuana has been legalized in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC. with more states expected to follow in the coming years.

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