by Moshe Y Bernstein


Part III: Just Say ‘No’!

The history of cannabis prohibition can be divided roughly into three phases. The initial phase (discussed in Part I) was the ban on cannabis as a fiscal crime instigated by Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger with the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. In the second phase (Part II), President Richard Nixon’s decision to list cannabis as a Schedule 1 dangerous drug ramped up fiscal prosecutions for ‘marihuana tax’ evasion to a rash of criminal prosecutions for possession, cultivation, and consumption of cannabis.

The third phase of cannabis prohibition commenced during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and has continued more or less unabated until the present day, when the movement for cannabis law reform has begun to gain traction. This final phase has witnessed the criminalization process anchored during the Nixon years transformed into the industrialisation of the US prison industry and the mass incarceration of drug offenders, many thousands behind bars for cannabis offences.

Before examining this stage in more detail, it is important to contextualise the status of cannabis prior to the onset of prohibition more than eight decades ago.

For five millennium cannabis had been regarded as a remarkable plant offering manifold benefits to humanity.

Cannabis played a prominent role in the pharmacopoeias of ancient China, India, Persia, and Greece among other cultures. At the dawn of the twentieth century, just prior to prohibition, cannabis oils and tinctures for a variety of conditions were readily available on the shelves of pharmacies and grocery stores, produced by pharmaceutical giants like Parke-Davis, Eli Lilly, Bayer, and E R Squibb & Sons. (The products were labelled with their botanic name “cannabis”; the “marihuana” moniker was introduced only later with prohibition).

Cannabis had also served as a source of spiritual inspiration for diverse groups such as Hindu Saddhus, Muslim Sufis, African Hottentots, and Rastafarians and as a creative stimulus for artists, writers, entertainers, thinkers, scientists, and innovators, both historically and contemporaneously.

 In its non-psychoactive form of ‘hemp’, prior to prohibition, cannabis was once a common, prolific crop, its sturdy fibres used for centuries in the production of rope, ladders, clothes, sails, and paper; the sails of the Spanish Armada were made of hemp, as were the pages of the Gutenberg Bible. Several of the America’s founding fathers were hemp farmers, including its first president, George Washington.

With the onset of prohibition, natural cannabis analgesics were replaced in grocery stores and pharmacies with a newly developed pharmaceutical product: acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin. Aspirin has a therapeutic index of 1:20, meaning that twenty times the standard dose can be potentially lethal. By contrast, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the lethality threshold for cannabis is between 1:20,000 and 1:40,000, its negligible toxicity making it impossible to establish any plausible overdose standard.

Prohibition also signified the eradication of hemp crops. Hemp’s natural fibres, once used to produce paper and textiles, were replaced with forest timber for the former and synthetic fabrics like nylon for the latter.

There can be, however, no replacement for the many thousands of lives ruined through criminalisation and imprisonment for the consumption of a nontoxic plant which has played a significant role throughout human history.

In 1980, during Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the presidency and the start of what would become a decade long national epidemic of highly addictive crack cocaine, Reagan made this notoriously risible proclamation:

“Leading medical researchers are coming to the conclusion that marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States, and we haven’t begun to find out all of the ill effects, but they are permanent ill effects.”

The Reagan administration accelerated Nixon’s War on Drugs, conducted government funded anti-cannabis media crusades, expanded both the funding and scope of law enforcement, engaged the U.S. military in intercepting cannabis shipments, minimised drug treatment options, and assumed unprecedented federal authority to test employees and appropriate cannabis-related assets.

Ronald Reagan initiated the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, for which First Lady Nancy Reagan became the national spokesperson, touring across the country to urge American middle-class youth to avoid the scourge of drugs. She travelled over 280,000 miles both in the US and internationally to promote her message, enlisting the assistance of the of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Kiwanis Club International, and the National Federation of Parents for a Drug-Free Youth. During the campaign, the First Lady appeared frequently on talk shows, co-hosted a special edition of Good Morning, America, and featured in a PBS documentary warning of the dangers of drug abuse.[1]

During the early years of Reagan’s presidency, the DEA ‘s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) increased from seven states to forty. By the end of his first term, fifty states were conducting operations to eradicate cannabis cultivation. Copying the nefarious tactic used by federal agents in Mexico during the seventies, in 1983 the DCP/SP employed helicopters in Georgia to spray the toxic herbicide paraquat to obliterate cannabis fields. Due to environmental lawsuits, this practice was quickly abandoned.

The Reagan Administration altered the Posse Comitatus Act to enable the U.S. Navy to work in tandem with other federal agencies to prevent the smuggling of cannabis into the US. The budget to combat smuggling increased from under $4 million when Reagan came into office to over a billion by the end of his tenure.

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, setting mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and again conflating cannabis with the most dangerous drugs. There were none of the usual committee hearings prior to the bill’s passage. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act in many respects marks the acceleration of mass incarceration and the formation of what would snowball into the “Prison Industrial Complex” (PIC).

The Reagan Administration also initiated the draconian strategy of civil asset forfeiture for cannabis-related crimes. According to Ninth Circuit Court judge Stephen Trott, then Reagan’s Associate Attorney General, this strategy involved "not only sending pot users to jail but also forfeiting everything they own”.

Bill Clinton came into office in January 1993. He was the first US president who admitted to using cannabis, although he claimed that he did not inhale. (He also famously claimed, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”)

If the Anti-Drug Abuse Act expanded the numbers filling US prisons, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, commonly referred to as the Clinton Crime Bill or the Biden Crime Law, did so exponentially. Its provisions specifically targeting “gang-related crime” disproportionately affected minority communities and has led to the United States’ notorious record of more prisoners per capital than any other country in the world, a substantial number convicted of drug offences.[2]

Barack Obama was the second US president who admitted to smoking cannabis and the first to inhaling it. While many had expected cannabis law reform to be a feature of his administration, Obama failed to produce any policy initiatives in that direction. He did, however, maintain a deliberate laissez-faire policy on those states which had legalised cannabis in violation of federal law.

These first three segments of Why Cannabis Is Illegal have attempted to show that cannabis prohibition, though disingenuously framed as a public safety issue, has from its inception signified a detrimental manifestation of government overreach and political control. Moreover, the practical and moral failure of drug prohibition has arguably inflicted more harm to society than the actual substances it seeks to eliminate, particularly regarding cannabis.

In the words of Mexico’s Supreme Court Judge, José Ramón Cossío Díaz, following a 2018 court decision that cannabis prohibition violated the human right to freely develop one’s personality:

“It’s clear that the policy that limits access to controlled substances has contributed to an increase in violence and corruption associated with organized crime, has hurt communities and individuals alike, and has generated a black market of millions of dollars that affect human rights and the health of the world and the nation.”

Part IV: Behind the Politics: Immigrants, Nylon, Timber and Big Pharma will examine some of the special interests which have over the years girded the political prohibition of cannabis.



[1] In the mid-1980s, as an example of this crusade, this writer observed a large government sponsored billboard in downtown LA declaring “Stay Away from Rock and Roll”; underneath the caption was a photo of a lit crack pipe (“rock”) juxtaposed with one of a joint in the process of being rolled (“roll”).

[2] A 2018 survey revealed that 46% of US federal inmates had been convicted of drug offences.