The Marijuana Prohibition Movement

A Tale of Propaganda, Word Choice, and the “War on Drugs”

The first formal prohibition of cannabis use was issued by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799, whose troops were introduced to the herb during their conquest of Egypt and brought it back to France as a spoil of war. Bonaparte worried cannabis would make his troops soft and banned them from smoking or drinking it, imposing a three-month prison sentence for those who violated his order.

In the 1800s, the British, in an attempt to control unrest in colonized India, began to restrict production and consumption of cannabis and shed a negative light on its users with an inquiry that concluded the herb’s use led to insanity. This inquiry was later criticized for sloppy use of statistics and ultimately discredited, but the ill effects of its negative perception lingered there.

In the early 1900s, the prevalent attitude within the United States of America toward cannabis took a pointed turn thanks to a combination of political, cultural and financial factors. American legislation prohibiting marijuana started popping up at the state level, beginning with a ban by Massachusetts in 1911.

Additionally, in the early 1900s, the first countries to issue an outright ban on cannabis were South Africa and Jamaica in 1911, followed by increased restrictions in Canada, Britain, and New Zealand in 1913.

Cannabis users in the early 1900s consisted mostly of Mexican immigrants who arrived in the United States during the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920, African-American jazz musicians in and around New Orleans, and Caribbean immigrants and bohemians north of New Orleans. The term used by Mexican immigrants during this time was “marihuana,” a word propagandists would later bastardize and use to encourage cannabis prohibition.

Numerous states passed laws in the 1920s regulating marijuana as a poison, including Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Colorado. Thirty additional states had cannabis-prohibitive laws on the books by the time alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1933.

The wedge between reality and perception of cannabis was driven more deeply into the culture through a concerted effort by media magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Harry Anslinger, America’s first drug czar, to cast cannabis in a negative light. Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary to the United States, was Anslinger’s boss and uncle to his wife. Mellon also held interests in Mellon Bank, a major financial backer of the DuPont company, which was debuting a line of man-made paper with which industrial hemp paper would compete. Like Hearst, the DuPont Company, and Mellon by extension, had a personal stake in restricting access to cannabis-derived paper products and industrial hemp production.

During the time when Anslinger held the professional role as Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he was known to publicly attack the character of cannabis users, including making racist and prejudicial remarks. He’s widely cited as having said: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”

Hearst gave Anslinger’s positions front-page treatment in his newspapers, stoking fears of depravity, crime, and an influx of minorities threatening delicate American sensibilities.

By 1937, the American propaganda campaign had successfully woven misinformation and paranoia into the fabric of the cannabis conversation throughout the world. The 1933 propaganda film Reefer Madness illustrates the level of inaccuracies surrounding cannabis perception at the time, depicting cannabis smokers as wild and uncontrollable, almost animalistic in their behavior.

Against the recommendation of the American Medical Association, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed into law on Oct. 2 of that year. In the decades that followed, harsher legislation, like the Boggs Act of 1951, resulted in stricter penalties for cannabis-related offenses.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was overturned in 1969, though in the following year, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA deemed cannabis as having “no accepted medical use” and included additional restrictions that classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug. The classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug greatly reducing medical and scientific research. In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs and later established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and in 1972 appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.

President Reagan renewed the call for a “war on drugs” in 1982, which emphasized a strict “zero tolerance policy” that led to overcrowded prisons throughout the country and the creation of minimum sentencing laws. Since its inception in 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States more than $1 trillion and counting and is considered to be an economic and criminal justice failure.

The perception of cannabis continues to change, with 2015 polls showing the majority US citizens supporting medical marijuana. While local efforts to legalize cannabis have been successful in countries like the United States, Uruguay, Canada, and Australia, it remains illegal throughout most of the world.


Wharf, Barney. “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis.” Geographical Review, vol. 104, no. 4, Oct. 2014, pp. 414–438.

Winter, Paul. “A Brief History of Marijuana Prohibition”, 15 July 2016

Pollack, Hannah. “Increasing Percentages of Americans are Ready for Legal Marijuana.” The Harris Poll, May 2015.