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Marijuana Laws in the United States

A Short History


For a variety of different reasons, none of them especially compelling, the distribution of marijuana has been illegal for almost a century - but its history in colonized North America predates the War on Drugs by centuries.


An old 1619 Virginia statute required farmers to grow hemp, from which cannabis can be derived. While this requirement was presumably based on hemp's non-pharmaceutical properties, this fact is understandably cited by legalization proponents as an ironic milestone in the history of marijuana law.


The Irish physician and herbalist William Brooke O'Shaughnessy publicizes the medical benefits of cannabis, and medical marijuana becomes a useful ingredient in many pharmaceutical products over the coming decades.


A New York Times column refers to marijuana as one of "our fashionable narcotics," even though marijuana is not actually a narcotic. This casual use of the term "narcotic," to refer to non-opiates that have significant recreationally-beneficial side effects, continues to this day.


A pamphlet published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies cannabis as a poison, substantially limiting its use in pharmaceutical cocktails.


The Marihuana Tax Act effectively prohibits the legal distribution of marijuana for non-medical purposes.


The Boggs Act establishes mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of marijuana, a federal policy that continues to this day.


As part of his antidrug policy, President Richard Nixon implemented Operation Intercept - which imposed strict, punitive searches of traffic along on the U.S.-Mexican border in an attempt to influence Mexican domestic policy on marijuana. While Operation Intercept was a failure, it illustrated the Nixon administration's aggressive attitude towards controlled substances of all kinds, and in this case towards marijuana in particular.


California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana throughout the state. Since 1996, 15 other states and the District of Columbia have also chosen to make possession of small amounts of marijuana, for medical purposes, legal. The federal government has not cooperated with these laws, resulting in federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that act in accordance with state law.


In Gonzales v. Raich, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal government may continue to enforce anti-marijuana laws, even against citizens who act in accord with state-level medical marijuana regulations.


NYPD police chief Ray Kelly issued a memo calling on officers to deprioritize misdemeanor marijuana arrests, which had previously consumed massive police resources and led to racial profiling practices. This is consistent with municipal laws in Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle which classify marijuana possession as the "lowest law enforcement priority," the closest a city government can likely come to unilaterally legalizing marijuana possession without operating in violation of state law.
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