Cannabis History: The Impact of Prohibition

November 11, 2020

Cannabis History: The Impact of Prohibition


The National Association of Cannabis Businesses (NACB) was founded in order to advance the industry by establishing agreed-upon standards in best practices and business responsibility. As our industry rapidly expands, the purpose of the NACB is to give a voice to current and prospective cannabis businesses, helping them thrive and ensuring they stay on the right track. 


In addition to the above-mentioned values and intentions, we are also proudly committed to social equity in efforts to level the playing field when it comes to diversity within the legal cannabis and hemp sector. The NACB believes in the value of information and education as fundamental building blocks of a healthy industry; staying informed about the implications of legal cannabis and everything involved is crucial to maintaining social equity. To that end, in this blog we will discuss some major points within the history and impact of cannabis prohibition in the United States. 


The Racist Origins of Cannabis Prohibition


In order to assess where we are now regarding the status of cannabis prohibition in America, it's important to understand where we came from. When looking back into history, it's hard to believe that something as widely used as the cannabis plant (for more than just holistic purposes) could so quickly become nationally vilified and abhorred. Cannabis prohibition as we know it today can be attributed to Henry J. Anslinger, former commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who played an instrumental role in pushing federal legislation that prohibited the cannabis plant and everything with which it was associated. 


In the beginning of the 20th century, it was Mr. Anslinger who was chiefly responsible for 'educating' the American public on the dangers of cannabis. Through the use of unsubstantiated racist claims about such minority groups as African-Americans, Hispanics, Filipinos, and even entertainers, Ansilnger was able to whip the public into an anti-cannabis fervor. A fervor from which reverberations are still felt today. While more and more Americans are seemingly pro-cannabis, the stigma still exists and it is impossible to ignore nearly a century of civil rights violations when it comes to cannabis and hemp. 


The Impact of U.S. Cannabis Prohibition in the 20th Century 


The social and human consequences of Henry J. Anslinger's actions can be seen quite clearly when we look at the data taken from the years that followed the federal legislature enacting prohibition. Increased prejudice against minority groups continued through unfair mass incarceration and perpetuation of stereotypes, leading to Nixon's declaration of a "War on Drugs" and other subsequent legislation that followed. In the years after 1937's "Reefer Madness" legislation, the United States has incurred billions in costs while causing tremendous harm to the immigrant groups mentioned above. More recent data suggests no change in this disturbing trend:


To illustrate, half of the amount of cannabis possession arrestees in 1990 in California were African-American, Latino, Asian, or members of other nonwhite groups and 35% were under age 20.167 In 2010, that number increased to 64% nonwhite and 52% under age 20, while cannabis possession arrests of teenagers of color rose from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,400 in 2010, a 300% arrest increase greater than the population growth in that group.


The quoted passage above comes from Matthew J. Routh's essay titled Re-Thinking Liberty: Cannabis Prohibition and Substantive Due Process. Here Routh makes the assertion that cannabis prohibition is a "violation of the 14th Amendment," whereby one's personal dignity and autonomy are usurped. Certainly, this argument is quite compelling given the historical consequences associated with the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana. 


Looking Ahead: 21st Century & Beyond 


Because of the tireless and thankless work of cannabis activists throughout the years, we're fortunate now to be in this new era in which federal legalization is no longer just an unattainable dream. As individual states take their own initiatives to protect the civil rights of their citizens, the national narrative (both in public and in the government sectors) is certainly shifting in a more positive direction. Progressive leaders such as Colorado Governor Jared Polis are taking it into their own hands to ensure social equity is observed and followed; he recently announced plans to pardon 2,700+ convictions for low-level marijuana possession - which, while not the end of the battle, is surely a step in a just and fair direction. 

For more cannabis information, educational resources, and the latest NACB industry news -- be sure to keep following our blog!