What’s Weed Got To Do With It? Marijuana and American Public Opinion

By Daniel Muehring

Hash, Hemp, Cannabis, Pot, Ganja, Weed, the Devil’s Cabbage. Whatever you want to call it, Marijuana has had a long and varied history within the United States. Indigenous to Central and South Asia, this infamous plant made its way to colonial America not as a recreational drug, but as a material for cloth, paper pulp, and rope where it quickly became a commonplace product. In fact, the Virginia Assembly of 1619 mandated every farmer to grow hemp, and the plant was also used as legal tender in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Recreational use of marijuana as a personal drug became prevalent after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when immigrants fleeing the war introduced it to the American public. Before this, the drug was commonly referred to as cannabis, but anti-drug groups quickly adopted the Mexican-Spanish name for the drug, marijuana, in order to attach the drug to the Mexican culture which played off of anti-immigrant sentiments. There were claims that marijuana made people more violent, that Mexicans were purposefully giving schoolchildren poisoned weed, and that marijuana was a drug for inferior races and social deviants. This sentiment was not just limited to Mexicans, however. Henry Finger, a member of the California State Board of Pharmacy, expressed his concern about the growing population of “Hindoos” (an archaic spelling of “Hindus”) and their influence on American marijuana culture in a 1911 letter:

“They [Hindoos] are a very undesirable lot and the habit [of smoking marijuana] is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”

However, while anti-immigrant groups may have used the drug as a talking point, many pot historians attribute the general animosity surrounding pot to the lack of knowledge about the drug’s effects. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana, and in 1937 Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which effectively restricted possession of the drug to only those individuals who were authorized to use it for medical and industrial purposes. Several laws passed in the decades following also enacted jail time and fines for marijuana-related offenses.

As the counterculture movement of the late 1950’s and 1960’s developed, marijuana became noticeably more acceptable, especially among the white upper middle class, and laws pertaining to marijuana began to loosen and move toward treatment rather than punishment. However, this was a brief pause in the efforts toward further sanctioning and since 1970, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act alongside other drugs such as Heroin, MDMA, Bath Salts, and the infamous Wolf of Wall Street Quaaludes. Such drugs are deemed to have no acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse, which restricts the amount of research that can be done to study the effects of these drugs.

In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which guaranteed life sentences for repeat drug offenders by instituting mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes as well as three-strike policies. The number of marijuana-related arrests skyrocketed: police officers in New York City made fewer than 800 arrests in 1991, and an astonishing 59,000 plus in 2010. In 2011 there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined. These arrests almost unanimously have a racial component to them as well; despite studies showing similar if not lower usage rates for African Americans, blacks are overall 3.7 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses.

Gallup has surveyed the general public for nearly half a century about the legalization of marijuana. In 1969, only 12% of the public agreed that it should be made legal, but as of 2015, an astounding 58% agreed on legalization. Support has been on the rise for the past decade and has enjoyed majority level approval since 2013. It should come as no surprise that young Americans have always tended to be more supportive than their older counterparts. 71% of Americans between 18 and 34 years of age support legalization, while only 35% of those 65+ years do. Legalization efforts which allow for the regulated use of medical and recreational marijuana have already succeeded in states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska; while other states such as California, Nevada, New York, and Minnesota have decriminalization laws on the books. Only 11 states currently practice full prohibition, and at least 20 states are expected to have ballot measures in the November 2016 election pushing to either legalize medical or recreational marijuana. With such a large movement and a majority of the public now supporting legalization, 2016 could be a “sky-high” year for marijuana advocates.

This article was written by Daniel Muehring. Click here to see more of Daniel’s work.