A History of Cannabis Prohibition

Clinical research on cannabis is nearly nonexistent in the US and most of the first world. Since 1970, marijuana has been a schedule I drug. So for the last 45 years research into the mysterious workings of this substance has been frozen. That’s because the law tells us that cannabis is medically worthless.

Yet for over 100 years, patients could obtain any number of cannabis products for health and personal use. That all changed in the 1930s, with its deathblow finally culminating from reclassification to schedule I by the beginning of the turbulent 70’s.

But why? Why has cannabis received such onerous attributes? How can a herb that enjoyed 100’s of medical applications during the 19th and early 20th centuries suddenly become medically useless?

That’s not possible unless a strange phenomenon in human behavior called politics becomes enmeshed with it. There is only one force stronger than the rational facts of hard science – politics and the irrational politician.

What actually happened during the last century to transform what could be described as a miracle drug into the devil’s ditch weed?

There are various reasons why cannabis became demonized. Some say it was the emerging paper industry. Threatened by hemp paper as a competitor, such heavyweights as the DuPonts and WR Hearst enlisted to crush the neonatal hemp industry as it was leaving the birth canal.

There are other factors too such as prejudicial fear mongering of “degenerate” Mexican “immigrants” and black musicians who after using marijuana would lose their minds and impulse control. This would lead to “deviant sexual (rape of white women) and other felonious behaviors”.

From a recent publication in the Mayo Clinic  Proceedings entitled Blurred Boundaries: The Therapeutics and Politics of Medical Marijuana by J. Michael Bostwick, MD, a section is devoted on just how strange and Byzantine our government became regarding all things marijuana.

The execution goes like this:

  • The Federal Bureau of Narcotics over the objection of the American Medical Association pushed for the congressional passage of the 1937 Marihuana [sic] Tax Act that taxed cannabis. It may have been meant to placate xenophobic law enforcement officials and legislators from southwestern and western states who associated marijuana’s use with dangerous and criminal activity of Mexicans and migrant workers. Pharmaceutical companies opposed any regulation.
  • On the heels of media propaganda campaigns, removal from the US Dispensatory in 1942 after nearly a century stripped it of any remaining therapeutic legitimacy.
  • In 1970 marijuana was finally declared persona non grata. The controlled Substances Act requires scientific evaluation and testimony before legislative action. In spite of clear medical indications congress declared cannabis illegal in the “absence of such evidence.”
  • In a rapid follow up the FDA reclassified pot into schedule I: an addictive drug with high abuse potential and no currently accepted medical use.

Thus ending the millennial reign of king cannabis.

Dr. Bostwick reminds us that the basic principles of medicine should take precedence over political expediency in the development of a rational strategy for any therapeutic agent, even one as controversial as marijuana. Marijuana being relegated to Schedule I status appears especially irrational when precedence exists for assigning potential drugs of abuse Schedule II status when they also possess manifest medical benefits. Think of the opiates and cocaine for example. Risk versus benefit needs to be considered.

It’s not just the ridiculous scheduling that has made cannabis one of the hardest drugs to research, it’s also the Medusian tangle of bureaucratic limbs to negotiate.

The FDA, for example, authorizes research to proceed on safety and efficacy, the National Institute on Drug Abuse provides the research material, and the Drug Enforcement Agency grants the investigator the actual license to perform the research. Any one of these agencies has the power to halt an initiative in its tracks.[ref]February 2012 Volume 87, Issue 2, Pages 172–186. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2011.10.003[/ref]

I know of a physician who took 10 agonizing years before being granted permission to use DMT on human volunteers. The average time it takes for cannabis approval is about half that time (but it can be longer). The US government still favors a culture of prohibition. They won’t go down without a fight but it’s the wrong fight in this new era.