Though cannabis has been used for millennia for medicinal and recreational uses, it was not widely used by European settlers in North America, however, until the early to mid-19th century. In 1839, Dr. W.B. O’Shaughnessy published a paper on his successful treatments of arthritis and various muscle spasms through cannabis therapies.

For another hundred years, the North American medical community experimented with various concoctions and tinctures of cannabis for treating numerous physical and psychological maladies without opposition. By the middle of the 20th century, marijuana became vilified and outlawed. Today, we are seeing a resurgence of the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes, and a greater level of acceptance by the public and some local, state, and provincial governments for its recreational use.

Medicinal Use of Cannabis 19th-20th Centuries

Prior to the advent of giant pharmaceutical companies and the development of the syringe, cannabis was widely prescribed to sufferers of myriad symptoms. It gained such quick acceptance after O’Shaughnessy’s report that by 1860, The Ohio State Medical Society listed it in its annual report as the remedy of choice for stomach pains, childbirth psychosis, coughs and gonorrhea. Noting its lack of side effects, many medical professionals preferred to prescribe cannabis, as opioid usage was not only associated with interference of gastrointestinal functions but had a high rate of toxicity. The medical literature of the day is rife with praise for cannabis due to users showing no appreciable physical dependence to it, and because higher doses were not needed over time for the same pain-relieving effects.

A drawback to medicinal cannabis, discovered at the same time, is its insolubility. Opiates can be easily converted to an injectable form, allowing a sufferer to achieve quick reprieve; cannabis takes considerably longer for its properties to take their full effect on the patient. With the advent of the hypodermic syringe and mass production of pills by the end of the 19th century, cannabis fell out of favor as the pain killer, sleep inducer, and relaxant of choice.

With the influx of Mexican immigrants into the US in the early 1900s a more recreational approach towards cannabis was introduced and with it, the use of the term marihuana or marijuana. Anti-drug campaigners were quick to seize upon the fear and prejudice around immigration, which was also mixed in and associated with marijuana.

Stoked by the unrest of the Great Depression, government-sponsored research fanned the flames of resentment and sought to link marijuana with violence and crime, and by the early 1930s, 29 states had outlawed its use. A national propaganda campaign was launched, and by 1937, US Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which essentially brought an end to its legitimate usage in the medicinal world and restricted its possession.

In that same year, the American Medical Association, in its annual report, suggested there was still no evidence that cannabis was an addictive substance and for that reason should still be prescribed to patients. As significant as the report was, it fell onto deaf ears. Just four years later, all cannabis products were removed from the listing of the National Formulary and Pharmacopoeia.

Recreational Use of Cannabis 20th Centuries and its Subsequent Illegal Status

The recreational use of cannabis was hardly unknown in the 19th century. It was widely used in Mexico. Its casual use (in smokeable form) is not attributed in the United States until about 1910, in New Orleans. From there, it had no problem spreading rapidly throughout the rest of the country. Its use was mostly employed by the poor and those of Mexican descent. This made it easy to target the drug and marginalize its users. By the time the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, the well-known anti-cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness had debuted. Federal and state governments, as well as scientific sources, began a campaign of misinformation on the use of cannabis.

Reports of marijuana users going mad and engaging in murderous rampages abounded. Schools began to include anti-marijuana rhetoric in curriculums across the country. The stance of most authorities was to keep America’s youth ill-informed of the facts surrounding cannabis use, and exaggerate the effects of consuming it. Amidst this concern around the severe danger that marijuana represented to the safety of America’s children, the laws on possession continued to tighten. By the 1950s, harsher federal sentences were beginning to be imposed upon individuals convicted of possessing marijuana.

The 1960s ushered in a whole new era of marijuana users as well as those who sought to keep its use criminal. Many college students and other young adults rediscovered the benefits of smoking marijuana. Many could not reconcile their own first-hand experience with cannabis against the propaganda and stern anti-marijuana messages they had received growing up. This, combined with their government engaging in an unpopular war as well as numerous other socio-economic reasons, led to a historic level of friction between the nation’s young adults and their elders. The government responded by increasing police presence and enforcement of existing drug laws. Arrests for possession of marijuana increased by a factor of 10 between 1965 and 1970. This division began to tear at the country’s cultural fabric.

Under a banner of restoring law and order, and during a time of great national unrest, Richard Nixon campaigned and was easily elected to the White House in November of 1968. Under President Nixon’s administration in 1970, US Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. This act led to the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance, meaning the government recognized no legitimate use for its production, sale, possession, or use. This put marijuana on par with substances such as cocaine and heroin. Law enforcement was to draw no distinction among their pursuit and subsequent prosecution of users of marijuana and all other narcotics.

This was not the last strike against marijuana use. Despite interest from President Jimmy Carter to decriminalize the casual use of marijuana in the late 70s, its vilification continued into the 1980s. The Reagan administration took a hard stance against drugs, including marijuana. Initiatives such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No programs flooded the airwaves and became commonplace in America’s schools. Under Reagan, penalties continued to stiffen for drug-related offences. The advent of controversial “three strikes” laws and mandatory sentencing regimes meant that anyone convicted of nonviolent offences like marijuana possession could be sentenced to life without parole.

This era marked the deepest opposition to marijuana as America’s war on drugs raged. Then, slowly, attitudes began to change.

For more information, check out A Look at North America's Renewed Interest in Cannabis, where we take a look at the renewed interest in cannabis as a viable solution to many medical issues, as well as the states that approved the recreational use of cannabis, or decriminalized its use.