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The Complicated History of Cannabis in the US

American colonists were once encouraged to grow and cultivate cannabis for hemp, but it all changed when the plant's more "medicinal" uses were discovered.

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

No matter the decade, one thing never changes: parents will always be worried about the effect peer pressure has on their children. In the 1950s, access to cars became much more common for American teenagers. This gave them a variety of freedoms unimaginable to previous generations. That newfound autonomy brought with it all-new temptations, and their parents freaked out. For a great deal of those petrified parents, Marijuana became public enemy number 1.

To combat this, Encyclopedia Britannica produced this mental hygiene film to warn kids about the dangers of smoking pot. After all, who would want to risk becoming like poor Marty? In just a few short weeks after taking one puff at a party, he devolved from an upstanding young boy to a full-fledged drug addict and petty criminal. Realistic? No. A hilarious time capsule of the 1950s? Absolutely.

The United States of Hemp

Hemp and marijuana are both produced from the cannabis plant, although hemp is derived from a strain that has a much lower quantity of THC, the compound that produces hallucinogenic effects. Hemp is made from the fibers of the plant and historically has been used to make a broad variety of products, from rope to cloth to paper. As you can imagine, it was an important product in the New World as the American colonies were being established. It was so important, in fact, that in 1619, Virginia passed a law requiring hemp to be grown on every farm in the colony. At the time, the crop was also considered a proper form of currency in Virginia, as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland.

As new products were imported or developed to replace hemp—cotton was surely a welcome change to the itchy fibers of hemp shirts—the plant fell out of popularity. By the end of the Civil War, the United States’ hemp production had passed its peak, but a different version of the plant was on the rise. Marijuana was becoming an increasingly popular ingredient in medicines and tinctures.

The Rise of Reefer Madness

The popular image of the 1950s may be all Leave It to Beaver, but underneath the pearls and penny loafers, there was a countercultural movement bubbling to the surface. The Beat Generation emerged early in the decade, when a group of young people began to unite in their rejection of conventional society in favor of artistic and bohemian ideals. The Beatniks also enjoyed experimenting with drugs, particularly marijuana.

But the Beats weren’t the first group to embrace weed. The drug started gaining traction in the U.S. in the 1910s after Mexican refugees brought marijuana with them as they fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution. In the 1930s, it became popular among the hepsters, the black jazz community made up of “hep cats” like jazz singer Cab Calloway, who had a hit with his song “Reefer Man.”

The Roots of Criminalization

The process of criminalizing marijuana had already begun, even before the Beats took up the cannabis cause. The roots of this movement are mired in a racism that still persists in how drug policies are carried out in the U.S. today.

In the 1930s, Prohibition was repealed in the middle of the Great Depression. Straight-laced bureaucrats looking for another target turned their attention to marijuana, which, at the time, was mostly being used in the Mexican and black communities. They painted the drug—and the communities using it—as a threat to the already crippled country and began the process of banning it. Twenty-nine states had outlawed marijuana by 1931, and in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, essentially making the plant illegal in the United States.

Since then, lawmakers have been doing a do-si-do with the drug. Over the decades, stricter enforcement and the passing of mandatory sentencing laws have traded off with repeals of those laws and efforts at legalization. Today, nine states have legalized marijuana (with 29 allowing medical marijuana), but, as far as the federal government is concerned, the drug is still cannabis non grata.

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