With hemp internationally recognized as a legitimate and important agricultural commodity today, it might surprise you to know that it was once essentially banned nationwide via the so-called “1937 Marihuana Tax Act.” The act erroneously lumped hemp in with psychoactive varieties of cannabis and set in course a history of hemp prohibition in America. That was finally lifted in early 2014, when a congressional Farm Bill issued an amendment allowing states and universities to cultivate hemp for study.
The Marihuana Tax Act’s legacy still lives on, however, standing as one of the primary reasons for cannabis’ schedule I DEA drug classification and its continued illegality at the federal level.
Cannabis, marijuana, and hemp: What’s the difference?
In order to understand the guilt-by-association nature of hemp stigmatization, it’s important to note that a significant portion of the American population is unable to distinguish between cannabis, marijuana, and hemp. Marijuana and hemp are two varieties of the cannabis plant grown for entirely different reasons: the former for its narcotic components, and the latter for its wide range of agricultural uses.
While most Americans over 40 couldn’t tell you the difference between hemp, cannabis, and marijuana today, hardly anyone outside scientific or agricultural lines of occupation could differentiate the three back in the 1930s.
From our current perspective, with hemp playing a major role in several multi-billion markets — such as the sustainable construction, marijuana-derived terpenes, and green energy industries — it’s hard to imagine how a blanket ban including hemp could ever have gained popular support among the American people. In this post, we examine how and why the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was signed into law.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and its implications on immigration
The Mexican Revolution was a long and bloody struggle that raged over the course of a decade to end a 30-year dictatorship, causing multitudes of displaced Mexican nationals to immigrate to the United States in the process. With much more of an ethnically-homogenous demography at the time, Americans met these waves of penniless immigrants with prejudice and fear.
According to investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, who wrote a book on the 1910 Mexican Revolution titled Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, American prejudice against the peasant immigrants extended beyond an anticipated impact on socioeconomics. In a 1994 article for The Atlantic, Schlosser wrote that fears and negative preconceptions “extended as far as their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana.”
Police reports and public perception of cannabis
In the same article for The Atlantic, Schlosser quoted from old Texas police reports, which claimed absurdities of all kinds — including that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a “lust for blood,” and gave its users “superhuman strength.” The reports also stated that Mexicans were busily distributing “the killer weed” to “unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”
Needless to say, these rumors molded public perception, in turn influencing voting trends for decades. They also birthed generalizations that carried on through to conservative parent groups and jury members in the 70s, when incarceration rates for cannabis-related offenses had ballooned to an all-time high.
How science prevailed over prejudice
The 2014 Farm Bill was a boon for society, in that it allowed for state-sanctioned researchers as well as universities to study hemp for its potential practical applications. Their findings ultimately led to the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (more commonly known as the 2018 Farm Bill), which both recognized hemp as a legitimate agricultural commodity and allowed its cultivation on an industrial scale.
Although the cannabis plant as a whole was widely associated with frightening Jekyll-and-Hyde effects in the past, hemp has become a cornerstone of several net-positive industries today. It’s by far the most accessible source of the therapeutic compound cannabidiol (CBD), a foundational material for sustainable biofuels and building materials (such as the bio-aggregate Hempcrete), and even serves a crucial environmental purpose — known as carbon sequestration — in its farming stage.
As America moves inches closer to cannabis legalization at the federal level, time and scientific research may yet uncover more practical uses not only for hemp but other varieties of cannabis as well.