From Counterculture to Corporate: The History of Marijuana in the US

marijuana field

Since the first call for illegality, the history of marijuana in the U.S. had racist roots and a basis in fear.

It’s a tool used to imprison hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a drug that can treat dozens of ailments. It brings people together and has a subculture all of its own.

We break down how marijuana arrived in the U.S. and its road through the legal system.

Our First Presidents Grew Marijuana – Sort of

You may have heard that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew marijuana plants. Well, that’s true!

Er, sort of.

They grew the version of marijuana known as cannabis sativa L. The level of THC in cannabis sativa L is so low, the presidents didn’t grow marijuana to smoke it.

Instead, the cannabis sativa L strain is better known as hemp. Hemp was vital in the early colonies. In fact, there was actually a bill passed 1619 in Virginia that hemp was to be grown on every farm in the colony.

The early settlers used hemp in almost everything. They made ropes, clothes, shoes, sails, military uniforms, and much more. It was a part of every day colony life.

But as products such as cotton started to replace coarse, itchy hemp, it lost its value and started to phase out.

So when did smokeable pot arrive in the U.S.? After all, that’s the real question we’re asking here.

We Have Mexico and Jamaica to Thank

Smokeable marijuana originated in Asia where people used it for thousands of years. The first signs of people using marijuana seeds and oils in foods occurred in 6,000 BCE in China.

Gradually, marijuana made its way to Europe. From there, Portugal brought marijuana to Mexico. Shortly thereafter, Britain brought it to Jamaica.

In both cases, marijuana was used to pacify slaves.

The history of marijuana in the U.S. started in 1910

During the Spanish America War, terrified Mexican refugees fled to the U.S. They brought marijuana with them.

The early 1900s were in many ways defined by racial tensions. This lasted all the way through MLK in the 1960s and arguably even into the new millennium.

People tended to distrust people of different skin colors. There was a lot of tension in Texas between Americans and the Mexican refugees.

So it’s no surprise that Texas is the first place that saw legislation against marijuana in El Paso in 1914.

To learn more, consider watching a weed documentary like these ones.

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What Lead to Marijuana’s Criminalization

We can thank (in part) a man named Harry Anslinger. During prohibition, Anslinger lead a force that was a precursor to the DEA.

His main duty at the time was to enforce prohibition. And in the face of the end of prohibition, it looked like he and his men would be out of a job.

So Anslinger deliberately targeted marijuana to be his new scapegoat. He made bold, bogus, racist claims. He claimed marijuana was a drug black men used to convince white women to perform sexual acts. He said marijuana caused Mexicans to murder their white neighbors.

None of Anslinger’s claims had any basis. But these claims mixed with the racial tensions were enough to stir up demand to outlaw marijuana.

Marijuana Becomes Illegal

In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed. This effectively made marijuana illegal because taxes were too high.

In the 1970s, The Controlled Substance Act classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 Drug. This made possession and use of marijuana a criminal act.

Marijuana and Culture

Up until the 1950s, marijuana was considered a “colored people’s drug.” It was used by Mexican’s, Jamaican’s, black Americans, jazz artists and “deviant whites.”

But in the 1950s, marijuana made its way into affluent colleges. It became popular amongst college students. From there, it began to lose its racist affiliations.

The 1970s are most noted as marijuana’s mainstream comeback. The ’70s were a time filled with social unrest. People protested the Vietnam War.

There was a spotlight on the toll the American lifestyle was putting on the environment. Marijuana became the drug of love and peace when it was hip to go against the status quo.

As time progressed, more and more people became used to the idea that marijuana was safe. Gradually, a consensus is leaning towards marijuana’s legalization.

Marijuana and Health

As early as 5,000 years ago marijuana was used to treat depression and pain in ancient civilizations. In recent years it has made a comeback as a more natural way to treat many ailments.

Marijuana and CBD are used to treat chronic pain, depression, and much more. They can help people stop smoking cigarettes.

Unfortunately, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug. It shares its ranks with cocaine, heroin, and meth. This means that doctors and scientists don’t have access to the drug to test it’s health effects on users.

Because we don’t understand – and can’t study – long term effects, society is reluctant to legalize pot.

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The Road to Legality

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational pot.

10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. Additionally, 33 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use.

But for many, legalization isn’t coming fast enough. There are some obscenely strict laws on marijuana. In Montana for example, a person faces life in prison for growing a single marijuana plant.

Because of the strict drug classification, it’s causing a mess in overcrowded prison systems. Many drug-related charges don’t offer parole.

Instead, prisons release violent offenders to make room. Most violent offenders return within 3 years for another violent crime.

Even though marijuana is legal in some states, laws are full of minutia. This has created a legal nightmare for citizens who don’t understand the laws.

Like the case of the woman in Colorado who used medical marijuana on federal lands, while still within the state. Even though she was in Colorado, marijuana is illegal federally.

This is a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Thousands of people every year fall into similar circumstances.

Or when tourists try to bring home edibles or a joint for friends in states where marijuana isn’t legal. They’re pulled over in routine searches and are subsequently arrested for marijuana possession. This is so commonplace in Texas that a sub-niche for lawyers has popped up.

Billboards litter highways advertising lawyers with websites like or

In fact, marijuana criminalization continues to latch onto its racist roots. More than 10 times as many black Americans are arrested than white Americans. This is the case even though marijuana use is about the same.

Nonetheless, many candidates running for election have put marijuana legalization on their platforms. Federally, it looks like marijuana could be legal in as few as two years.

Racist Roots Behind Us, Marijuana Is On Course to Legality

The history of marijuana in the U.S. may have originated in racist fears. But it doesn’t have to follow that path. It has gradually become a drug that people use to relax, heal and bring people together.

Curious about the signs of a good bud dispensary? We explain it here. 

Want to know more about the medical advantages of marijuana? You might want to read this.