Why Does the U.S. Government Want to Keep Cannabis Illegal?

For nearly a century, cannabis has been illegal in the United States. Worldwide, countries are starting to warm up to the idea of legalizing cannabis for both medicinal and recreational purposes, with some countries (including Canada) so pro-marijuana that they have online dispensaries like BudBuddies.ca. Yet despite the growing change in both public perceptions and objective medical evidence, the United States is reluctant to change historical laws on marijuana.

So why do our lawmakers want to keep cannabis illegal?

The Origins of Cannabis Laws

Let’s start by delving into the origins of the laws that currently dictate cannabis growth and use in the United States.

The roots of marijuana laws date back to 1910, about the time of the Mexican Revolution. Mexican immigrants were coming to the United States in large numbers, and bringing with them marijuana, which was used for medicinal purposes in the country for much of its history. Racially prejudiced rumors began to circulate that marijuana incited violent crimes, and that Mexican immigrants were distributing marijuana to schoolchildren. Propaganda materials like Reefer Madness began to circulate, and despite insistence from the American Medical Association that the drug was safe, people began to believe the drug was inherently dangerous.

Through 1931, multiple states began to outlaw marijuana, and in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 basically banned it at the federal level. This act later was deemed unconstitutional, but it was quickly replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s; this is the act that introduced the Schedules system as a way of ranking the severity and/or danger of different substances. Cannabis was originally placed into the Schedule I category, the most severe/dangerous, as a kind of temporary placeholder. President Nixon put together the Schafer Commission to investigate and determine whether that’s where it truly belonged.

The Schafer Commission found that marijuana certainly shouldn’t be in Schedule I, and probably shouldn’t be categorized as an illicit substance in the first place. Nevertheless, Nixon decided to go against the advice of the committee and keep marijuana in Schedule I.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, anti-marijuana propaganda continued to be popular, and penalties for possessing and distributing marijuana began to become more severe. It wasn’t until 1996 that California became the first state in the United States to approve marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Deep-Seated Ideas and Reluctance to Change

So why, given this history, is the United States government reluctant to change?

Part of this is due to the prevalence of deep-seated ideas about what marijuana is and how it affects the brain. Propaganda films, public misconceptions, and of course, the persistent Schedule I status of the drug have shaped the public’s mindset to believe that marijuana is inherently dangerous. If you grew up being told, constantly, that marijuana is a dangerous drug, you would be hesitant to approve of any politician who wants to legalize it.

Institutional change is also very slow. Changing the mind of an individual is nearly impossible; instead, social and political progress is often made when one generation passes to the next. Accordingly, it often takes years, if not decades, for a given trend to reverse. Considering how long cannabis has been illegal, it makes sense that it would take a long time for people to warm up to its potential legalization.

The Complexities of Widespread Legalization

Legalization of cannabis at the federal level would also be inherently complex. There are many hard questions that need to be answered, and most of them don’t have a bipartisan resolution. For example, would marijuana first be legal only for medicinal purposes, or would it suddenly be legal for recreational purposes? If the former, which medical conditions would be considered worthy? How would cannabis products be taxed? Would states and cities have the ability to impose their own taxes? What about their own regulations? How would we deal with the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people who have served time in prison for relatively minor marijuana-related offenses?

These questions don’t have clear answers, and we may need clear answers before we can start making progress.

Signals of Change?

There are signs that the United States is getting ready to change. Lawmakers in Congress are considering legislation that would remove marijuana from its current Schedule I classification, and give exemptions for state-approved marijuana activity. There are already 33 states, plus Washington DC, where medicinal marijuana is legal.

Despite the reluctance of U.S. lawmakers, and at least some public pressure to keep marijuana laws where they are, it’s only a matter of time before the United States comes around. At this point, there’s no clear reason why cannabis should stay illegal when substances like alcohol and tobacco (which are more harmful) are commonplace.

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