Why is cannabis illegal anyway?

By Dylan R.N. Crabb

(I wrote this essay in college and it has been in my Google Drive since. After submitting it to two local newspapers two weeks ago, I finally just came to the conclusion, “fuck it! I’ll publish it myself!” So, here it is.)


The cannabis plant is relatively easy to grow, it can grow almost anywhere on the planet, and humans have neural receptors that respond specifically to cannabinoids (THC and its relative chemicals in the plant).  Cannabis possesses multiple medicinal properties as a pain and stress reliever and it seems to be impossible to overdose on it.  The fiber from the plant can also be used for multiple industrial and commercial purposes.  Why would a government criminalize such a versatile plant?

In the first half of the twentieth century, three legislative acts defined American drug policy: the Harrison Narcotics Act, passed in 1914 under President Woodrow Wilson; the Marijuana Tax Act, passed in 1937 under President Franklin Roosevelt; and the Boggs Act, passed in 1951 under President Harry Truman.  The Harrison Narcotics Act and the Marijuana Tax Act were designed to control movement of opium, coca leaf (cocaine), and cannabis products throughout the nation.

The flaws in these acts of legislation involved limitations on medical professionals to assist so-called “non-patients” with addiction troubles and drove a sector of the drug market underground.  Medical professionals came out against these two acts of legislation in a plethora of medical journals.  The federal government, recognizing an increased national issue with drug addiction, passed the Boggs Act in 1951, which set criminal penalties for drug possession.  Naturally, this punitive measure did not help in reducing addiction.  On the contrary, it increased drug crime by inadvertently placing more value on black market products.  While the Marijuana Tax Act was eventually declared unconstitutional in 1969, it was soon replaced with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which created categories for different drugs.

Cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category supposedly temporarily while President Richard Nixon commissioned a report on the drug’s level of danger.  However; despite the Shafer Commission’s recommendations, President Nixon kept cannabis under the “Schedule 1” classification arguably to push back against the counter-culture that emerged from the 1960’s.  In the decades following the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis’ “Schedule 1” classification severely limited scientific research on the plant.

Momentum for reform grew out of citizen-led movements like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws at smaller government levels.  The states of Maine, Oregon, and Alaska were the first to decriminalize (not legalize) cannabis after President Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act.

The past efforts by the United States government to regulate drugs have been about controlling the crop and regulating the behavior of individuals; this does not fostering a safe environment for entrepreneurs.  Drug usage is an issue that revolves around a human conditioning for instant gratification, which comes from arguably the strongest part of our brain: the limbic system, which houses our emotions.  Governments are not going to rewire human emotions with punitive laws against drug use.  A more pragmatic method for dealing with drug use and the issue of addiction is to place it exclusively under the jurisdiction of medical professionals rather than law enforcement agencies.  Driving a product into the black market just creates more issues for our society, issues that are more dangerous than the original issue of drug addiction.  As a society, we should not be pushing the weakest among us into the arms of violent criminal enterprises, we should be shining a light on the black market with a benevolent domestic policy of liberty and justice for all.

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