Historical Context of Medical Marijuana’s Narrative within the United States

By: Brandon Lancaster

Cannabis has a complex history within the United States. According to multiple sources, it was considered another cash crop and harmless substance in the United States until the early 1900s (McGettigan; Perlman; Vitiello). Cannabis grew a stigma when its opponents used fear to change the public’s opinion. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was the first key player in changing the attitude toward cannabis by instilling the fear of race (Perlman; McGettigan). As racism is one of the core principles in the founding of America, cannabis very quickly became illegal, leading to mass incarceration of minorities. The fear was so powerful that the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 passed by Congress banned the use of cannabis (Perlman, pg. 100). The fear of race did not stop there. As the century continued, so did the regulation of cannabis. Anslinger continued to promote propaganda of cannabis, stating it allows African Americans to think they are equal, and it causes white women to flock to minorities (McGettigan, pg. 2). There were even subtle changes to the name (ie. Marijuana/Marihuana) to reflect minority use (Vitiello, pg. 797). Racial fear was a strong factor in the illegalization and in halting the research of the medical properties of cannabis.

However, the fear once instilled started to change in the 1960s. According to Vitiello (2020), marijuana was used more often by white middle class Americans and Congress considered looking at their approach on drugs once the Supreme Court struck down central sections of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (pg. 801). The federal government reviewing its previous judgment on marijuana was a huge step in changing attitudes, but it did not change the legality of the substance. Even when important research such as Raphael Mechoulam’s findings of the psychoactive part of marijuana and that marijuana use assisted with epilepsy were presented in 1980, cannabis remained illegal (according to Vitiello, 2020, pg. 4). The narrative Anslinger constructed embedded itself firmly with the roots of racism. Medical benefits and government intervention could do nothing in the face of racism.

The issue, however, is not racism. It is how marijuana is perceived medically. According to Vitiello (2020), Moriah Barnhart, the founder of Cannamoms, followed Mechoulam’s findings in 2010 and treated children with epilepsy with cannabis, even after the medical experts refused to suggest it as a viable treatment (pg. 4). The current medical experts are still denying cannabis the chance to treat illnesses. There was even a study performed in 1997 by Mr. Consrue showing 97 percent of participants suffering from Multiple Sclerosis had improvements after smoking marijuana (according to Peters II, pg. 25). If there are studies showing the medical benefits of marijuana and many states are starting to legalize it, why has the federal government acted so slowly? What is holding the federal government back from legalizing marijuana when it has already started changing its narrative?

Contrary to popular belief, the tobacco industry is not an opponent against the federal government legalizing marijuana. According to Rachel Ann Barry, Heikki Hiilamo, and Stanton A. Glantz. (2014), three multinational tobacco companies thought about making cigarettes with

cannabis (pg. 209). As a powerful opponent to tobacco, it would at first glance seem the tobacco companies would band together to delay any legislation. However, they seem to accept, even promote, marijuana use.

In conclusion, the marijuana narrative is seen through a negative, racially biased concocted lens instead of a scientific one. The issue here is how to change this type of policy on a federal level. Once changed, it will effectively allow the medical field to observe the medicinal effects marijuana with less restrictions.


Barry, RA., Hiilamo, H., amd Glantz SA. (2014). Waiting for the Opportune Moment: The Tobacco Industry and Marijuana Legalization.

McGettigan, T. The Politics of Marijuana: Truth Regimes and Institutional Ignorance.

Perlman, M. Reefer Blues: Building Social Equity in the Era of Marijuana Legalization.

Peters II, DC. Patients and Caregivers Report Using Medical Marijuana to Decrease Prescription Narcotics Use.

Vitiello, M. (2020). Marijuana Symposium: Marijuana Legalization, Racial Disparity, and the Hope for Reform.

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