From Taboo to Mainstream: the History of Politicians and Cannabis

History Of US Politicians & Cannabis.jpg

Believe it or not, in the 1970s eleven states had decriminalized marijuana. However, by the end of the 1980s, the nation had bought into the propaganda marketed as the War on Drugs, originally coined by Richard Nixon in 1971 and brought to full steam by Reagan.

Marijuana was labeled a gateway drug and became a focus of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No Campaign.” Cannabis wasn’t the only inconsistently treated substance in the War on Drugs.  Policymakers created a 100 to 1 disparity between sentences for crack, a further processed form of cocaine largely concentrated in poor urban areas, versus powder cocaine, the purer, more expensive suburban form.  These policies disproportionately targeted lower class minorities and resulted in their mass incarceration.

For most elected officials, it was best to avoid talking about these laws in a negative light during the decade that followed. Collective public knowledge was limited to nightly news coverage and the morning paper. University libraries were one of the only places to find scientific journals, which no one outside of academia was reading.

The average American had no reason to question why the Reagans had labeled marijuana the most dangerous of all drugs.

If a politician questioned the disparity in drug policy targeting the inner-city, it was easy to hide the science and attack them for being a gang sympathizer disregarding youth safety. The Republican administration touted their policies as beneficial to the nation, but the statistics didn’t echo their sentiment. Crime and incarceration increased, not only punishing non-violent taxpayers but destroying the family structure of hundreds of thousands of lower-class children who found themselves without a father in their lives.

The 90s continued the nation’s damaging bipartisan drug policies. President Bill Clinton was handed a country devastated by its self-imposed War on Drugs.

"We had gang warfare on the streets. We had little children being shot dead on the streets who were just innocent bystanders standing in the wrong place," Clinton reflects. Speaking to an audience at the 2015 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual meeting, he said, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.”  

Despite the fact that millions of Americans continued to use cannabis for decades without any detriment, the fear of publicly embracing the plant that was made illegal by propaganda-based prohibition remained. It frustrated a significant percent of communities, but even taxpayers often remained quiet for fear of being called drug addicts or pushers.

Shaping the Way We Talk About Cannabis

In my opinion, here are a series of fortunate caused a change in how we talk about cannabis:

  1. Prop 215. California legalized medical marijuana under Proposition 215 in 1996 during Clinton’s time in office. While federal agents pushed back, raiding dispensaries and farmers for a decade following the decision, Clinton didn’t stop it. Prop 215 showed that the herb could be used safely and beneficially for a variety of reasons, including pure enjoyment, for more than two decades before Colorado legalized recreational marijuana.  

    California successfully taxed and regulated a medical market. Other west coast states followed suit, but none as expansively as the Golden State. Much of the nation remained uneducated on the issue and assumed the west coast was full of lazy stoners when in reality some of the hardest working minds literally changed the world from their offices in silicon valley, using cannabis the whole time.

  2. The Internet. I know it goes without saying but the internet changed everything. Before Facebook and Twitter, group discussion occurred in forums and chat rooms where early bloggers began to find their voice. Out of these communities emerged a new kind of writer, free from company payroll or publishing restrictions. The internet added access to exponential amounts of information, and modern scholars began taking the time to synthesize scientific studies and journals into plain speak that the average citizen could understand.

    Blogs began to circulate the internet explaining the true benefits and dangers of just about every substance known to man. It started coming out that there had been evidence in the scientific community for decades showing cannabis to provide multiple therapeutic benefits and presented little to no danger. Social media platforms packaged the information from forums and made it even more digestible and discoverable.

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Access to the Internet also provided access to reputable research studies. UC San Diego established The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in 2000. With support from the California State Legislature, they performed the first medical studies using smoked cannabis in over 20 years. The Center was established pursuant to California Senate Bill 847, passed by the California State Legislature and signed into law by then-governor Gray Davis. The legislation called for a program overseeing objective, high-quality medical research that would "enhance understanding of the efficacy and adverse effects of marijuana as a pharmacological agent" (SB 847).

Not all research took place inside of laboratories. Detailed sociological studies were possible for the first time in states that allowed some form of marijuana. More recently, California Proposition 64 (Adult Use of Marijuana Act) is expected to provide funding (beginning in 2018) to the UC San Diego Center for Medical Cannabis Research to enhance understanding of the efficacy and adverse effects of marijuana as a pharmacological agent particularly focusing on THC and CBD. It’s an important step for state funding to go towards research cannabinoids, as they are some of the most promising compounds out there for human health.    

  1. Colorado.  In 2012 Colorado one-upped the several states that had quietly legalized medical marijuana by making recreational cannabis legal. Colorado became a champion for not only millennials but a growing number of baby boomers tired of seeing children suffer in a society brought down by their own legislature. The elected governor at the time John Hickenlooper polarized even his liberal peers as taxes and new residents rolled in.

    Washington followed suit with recreation legalization a year later, then Oregon. Coinciding with the success of Amazon and Boeing, the Pacific Northwest exploded. Real estate value more than doubled between 2014 and 2018. Crime didn’t skyrocket. By some measures, it went down.

  2. The Obama Administration/lobbyists.  In 2013 Obama issued the Cole Memorandum. The memo stated the Justice Department would not enforce federal marijuana prohibition in states that "legalized marijuana in some form and implemented strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems to control the cultivation, distribution, sale, and possession of marijuana." This opened the doors for serious money and outside industries to invest in cannabis throughout the states that had repealed prohibition. It also spurred a renaissance in the scientific study of marijuana.

    Learn more: Complete Political Landscape of CBD Oil

  3.  (Tax) Money Talks.  According to MarketWatch “Tax, license and fee revenue from cannabis exceeded $266.5 million in 2018, up from more than $247 million in 2017. To date, the state has collected more than $927 million in tax revenue since Jan. 1. 2014, including numbers for January 2019.”

In 2018, two more states adopted expansive laws decriminalizing the drug for recreational use and a handful of states approve measures allowing for medical marijuana. 33 states and the District of Columbia have now passed laws legalizing cannabis in some form.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are expected to be the next states to pass measures legalizing marijuana for recreational use this year, with Rhode Island, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Illinois to follow.

Today, even states whose representatives still feel that marijuana is a harmful substance that no one should be using acknowledge that its regulation makes more financial and social sense than criminal punishment. Millions of tax dollars generated from marijuana sales go towards education and public welfare in states like Colorado and Michigan. States perpetuating prohibition, in contrast, recirculate any monies obtained back into the industrial prison complex, doing nothing for the public welfare.

Officials aren’t exactly getting elected into office for having the sweetest prisons or the most inmates, but they do get votes for public initiatives like education. Cannabis taxes are providing revenue streams for that very thing.

Legal cannabis signified a new Gold Rush, one not just about a burgeoning industry, but one about an ethos of a conscious society. Harkening back to a time when the law favored the right to individual freedom, this new Gold Rush is about mind, not land expansion.


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