4/20 Weed Day: Looking Back On The Real Reason Why Marijuana Is Illegal Nationally [Opinion]

Today is April 20, or 4/20 in shorthand. And if you haven’t already picked up on it, today is unofficially “National Weed Day,” an unofficial stoners’ holiday that makes use of a 40-year-old joke about the time of day and applies it to the calendar. And today, 4/20, is as good a time as any to talk about the real reason why marijuana remains illegal nationally.

To understand why marijuana is still illegal in 2017, you need to understand why marijuana became illegal in the first place. Harken back with The Inquisitr to 1937 and the heady days of Jim Crow Laws, Negro Jazz, and the agricultural economy of the Great Depression.

why is marijuana illegal
Marijuana became illegal nationally during the Great Depression. [AP Photo]

As the Drug Policy Alliance explains, most Americans at the time were familiar with cannabis (the plant that produces THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana) – you could get it at just about any pharmacy. But the term “marijuana” was a new one to Americans’ ears — a term that entered the language thanks to Mexican laborers who used “marihuana” to relax after a hard days’ work.

“So, when the media began to play on the fears that the public had about these new citizens by falsely spreading claims about the ‘disruptive Mexicans’ with their dangerous native behaviors including marihuana use, the rest of the nation did not know that this ‘marihuana’ was a plant they already had in their medicine cabinets.”

Meanwhile, there was another minority group that God-fearing, white Americans feared as much as, if not more than, Mexicans: blacks. As it just so happened, black musicians (many of whom also used marijuana) at the time were pioneering a new form of music that terrified whites deemed “Negro Jazz.” With its indescribably sinful dance moves and its rhythms inspired by none other than The Devil himself, it was a seen as a menace to polite, white society. What’s worse, white kids were getting into it.

How jazz helped make pot illegal
Don't let Negro Jazz lead your kids down the path of Reefer Madness. [Image by Gordon Parks via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and Resized | by Public Domain]

If the government couldn’t put a stop to jazz, it could, at the very least, put a stop to “marihuana.” Just start a public relations campaign, funded in part by newspaper magnates who wanted to sell papers, convincing Americans that marijuana makes black men eager to rape white women; or that makes white women unnaturally sexually attracted to black men; or that marijuana turns your teenagers into raving psychopaths; and voila! You can make marijuana illegal with almost no public opposition – accomplished via the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

That was 80 years ago, and of course, Americans are no longer racist or distrustful of Mexican laborers. OK, so that was hyperbole, but few (if any) politicians or voters genuinely believe that marijuana is a one-way ticket to psychosis, hypersexuality, or a career as a jazz musician.

So why is marijuana still illegal? There are three main reasons.

Genuine Belief That Marijuana is Harmful

Eighty years of government propaganda has convinced many Americans that marijuana is genuinely dangerous, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. You’ve heard the term “gateway drug” applied to marijuana? Even though the idea has been thoroughly debunked, the belief persists. As Salon reported just this week, none other than Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly still believes that pot is a “potentially dangerous gateway drug.”

Now, whether or not Kelly, or any other anti-pot politician, is genuinely convinced that pot is dangerous or just repeating old canards to protect their donors (more on that in the next paragraph), I can’t say, and neither can you.

The Pharmaceutical Industry

THC, the psychoactive component of the marijuana plant, is a mind-altering chemical compound – one that is produced outside the control (and profits) of the pharmaceutical industry. That users are finding relief from seizures, pain, anxiety, depression, and other maladies from pot is a big concern to Big Pharma because it could potentially cut into their profits.

If that sounds like so much hyperbole to you, look what happened in Florida: grocery store chain heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett, of the family that owns popular grocery store chain Publix, recently donated $800,000 to a Florida group fighting medical marijuana, according to the Miami New Times. Of course, it’s entirely a coincidence that Publix is in the middle of an expansion project to put pharmacies in many of its stores. Pharmacies that would likely make less money selling antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and other medications that cannabis users don’t need because they’ve found relief elsewhere.

Cops’ Unions and Prison Guards’ Unions

If outdated concerns about pot’s safety and opposition from the pharmaceutical industry are keeping marijuana illegal, they’re small-time players in the game. The real reason marijuana remains illegal is the prison-industrial complex.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests account for half of all drug arrests. Put simply, if pot is legal, cops are going to have a lot less work to do, meaning less overtime, hiring fewer cops, and even worse, less of that sweet federal Drug War money going into their budgets.

With fewer pot arrests come fewer prisoners to incarcerate, jeopardizing the budgets and jobs of the prison industry. It should come as no surprise then, that, as San Francisco Gate reports, prison guards donated money to help keep pot illegal (they failed).

The Takeaway

Opponents of marijuana legalization are fighting a losing battle, as public opinion turns against the 80 years of anti-drug hysteria that has kept cannabis illegal for so long. That the Trump administration is filled with anti-pot crusaders like Jeff Sessions and John Kelly may slow legalization, for the time being, the vultures are already circling.

So today, celebrate 4/20, and hope that America will collectively come to its senses and fully legalize marijuana nationally.

[Featured Image by Alex_Vinci/Thinkstock]