Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why is marijuana usage illegal in (parts of?) the United States?

Back in the day, marijuana was a remedy for everything from gout to inflamed skin.

Image courtesy Matthew Kenwrick
In the early 1900s, however, marijuana paranoia arose--for various reasons, but with an ugly racialized dimension. As Matt Thompson characterizes one explanation, "Pot was outlawed because MEXICANS."

Marijuana laws passed in fits and starts in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, about half of the states prohibited marijuana. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics strongly encouraged states to adopt laws regulating marijuana usage, and even adopted a Uniform State Narcotic Act for states to use as a model.

The first federal ban was passed in 1937: the Marihuana Tax Act. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled part of the Marihuana Tax Act unconstitutional. Complying with that part of the law required a marijuana user to incriminate him/herself in violation of the 5th Amendment. The next year, Congress responded by repealing the Marihuana Tax Act and replacing it with the Controlled Substances Act. The Controlled Substances Act created five schedules classifying substances according to their potential for abuse, currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and international treaties. A drug is classified as "Schedule I" if it has 1) a high potential for abuse, 2) no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, 3) a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. 

In 1970, Dr. Roger Egeberg, Assistant Secretary of Health, wrote a letter recommending that marijuana be classified as a "Schedule I" substance. His reasoning:

"Since there is still a considerable void in our knowledge of the plant and effects of the active drug contained in it, our recommendation is that marijuana be retained within schedule 1 at least until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue."

Recently, states are reversing the trend and decriminalizing marijuana, sometimes for medical use (California) and sometimes for recreational use (Colorado, Washington). State law is preempted by federal law, meaning that federal law will always trump if federal and state law conflict. However, the Obama Administration announced last month that it would not challenge state laws decriminalizing marijuana so long as they regulated its sale and distribution.

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