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Global Marijuana Cultivation and Societal Place Because and In Spite of American Policy and Perception

This chapter presents a review of the legal and cultural path that marijuana has taken through the twentieth century and into the twenty‐first. From the ripple effect of early US criminalization, the start of global marijuana prohibition will begin to unfold under the ...

Published onSep 26, 2015
Global Marijuana Cultivation and Societal Place Because and In Spite of American Policy and Perception


This chapter presents a review of the legal and cultural path that marijuana has taken through the twentieth century and into the twenty‐first. From the ripple effect of early US criminalization, the start of global marijuana prohibition will begin to unfold under the influence of Americanized international policymaking. The chapter offers a snapshot of the integration of marijuana in US and international culture, legal definitions, and ethical policymaking going on today. It offers a realist view of the nature and effects on society and the cultural assimilation of a substance because of, and in spite of, legal restrictions. The chapter also describes what the place of marijuana is in the United States, and the rest of the world, moving forward. The public now sees a typical marijuana user as a typical American, showing homoscedasticity of demographic characteristics across most age, economic, and cultural groupings.


In countries throughout the world, marijuana, like alcohol, plays a variety of roles in local culture based on its social and legal position. The most prominent indicator of the level of social acceptability, or stigma, for marijuana hinges on how the substance is culturally and legally defined. Throughout history, governments have placed restrictions on the legal availability of various substances to appease matters of state. However, it has only been in the last century that Western democratic nations have attempted to employ effective prohibitive legislation to restrict access to recreational narcotic substances. This policy change evolved as the substances were being refined and globally distributed to suit a perceived growing demand for intoxication (Hague International Opium Convention 1912; United States Congress 1914). Today, as governmental organizations still seek to curb the development, cultivation, manufacture, export and import of existing and developing drugs, these substances are enjoying an ever more blatant role in popular culture.[i] Countless contemporary musical compositions use drugs as a theme or lyrical device. In film and on popular television, more and more facets of real drug use and abuse are shown, as compared to the propaganda of the past. However, in many of these shows the costs of drug addiction and abuse displayed in real life are far worse than those imagined in the much criticized film Reefer Madness (Gasnier 1936).

The United States, one hundred years from the Harrison Narcotics Act and over seventy years since the Marijuana Tax Act, is at the center of a global debate about the efficacy of marijuana-related enforcement and the ethical question about outlawing these behaviors. The United States sits in a position of power in this matter today because of the litigious manner in which it enacted various pieces of national legislation based on, and then mirrored in, the international community (see Table 1 for a timeline). It is the present subscription to international treaties on the part of various nation states around the world that places reform of marijuana laws, at the national and international levels, in a trepidatious holding pattern.


On the one hand, the hardline federal stance and adherence to international treaties shows America as a nation that is utterly intolerant to the use of marijuana. On the other hand, one would be hard pressed to identify a country that has more dedicated sects or populations devoted to the integration of marijuana into its local culture and socialization. While still illegal to possess recreationally in all but two American states,[ii] marijuana is glaringly visible in virtually all aspects of popular American culture. Movies, music and even network television broadcasts showcase the place of marijuana in American society. Instead of showing a cautionary tale of a perverter of chaste, marijuana is shown as a compliment to socialization in much the same way as alcohol, for better or worse. Marijuana smoking is glorified in all manner of popular music, as well as in cinema. It is this disjunction between the legal and cultural status of marijuana in America that sets the stage for a global review.

What follows in this chapter will be a review of the legal and cultural path that marijuana has taken through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. From the ripple effect of early American criminalization, the start of global marijuana prohibition will begin to unfold under the influence of Americanized international policymaking. The final section of this chapter will attempt to offer a snapshot, as blurry as it may be, of the integration of marijuana in American and international culture, legal definitions, and ethical policymaking going on today. By reviewing this issue in a legal, cultural and historical context it is the hope that the reader will be able to understand what makes, for instance, a small country in South America break from all other United Nations members and create the first national sponsored and monitored marijuana market (Nelson 2013), a life-long narcotics officer question what purpose his professional life has led (Al Jazeera Documentary Channel 2012), or the twelfth longest tenured United States Senator, John McCain, change his mind about the benefits of regulation versus criminalization (Nelson 2013). This chapter is intended to offer a realist view of the nature and effects on society and the cultural assimilation of a substance because of, and in spite of, legal restrictions. Where does it come from? Who uses it and why? How did we get here? And possibly, describe what the place of marijuana is in America, and the rest of the world, moving forward.

Marijuana in America – Pre 1937

            During the time preceding its effective federal prohibition in America by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the use of marijuana as a recreational intoxicant had been limited to large and border cities that had among them significant immigrant populations with a history of using recreationally and/or medicinally (Caulkins, Hawken, Kilmer & Kleiman 2012). It was common to find marijuana using groups to be centered around opium parlors, as marijuana had been used in various way by the Chinese for thousands of years, and in Southwestern towns near Mexico, as individuals in these cultures had a history of incorporating marijuana into their society with recreational and medicinal applications (Caulkins et al. 2012). With the exception of such isolated pockets of use, the most common contact that the average American had with marijuana was not in fact with marijuana, but with its non-intoxicating cousin, hemp.

Other societal staples faced similar policy pressure in the early part of the twentieth century. While the temperance push for the ban on alcohol was not a new movement by the early 1900s in America, what was new was the effectiveness of regulations of opium and coca based products by the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act (1914), the American complement to the International Opium Convention of 1912. The crux of the Harrison Act was to control the amount and potency of these products. It also aimed to ensure that the continued presence of these narcotics in American culture was rooted in medical applications and not in fostering addiction (United States Congress 1914). A similar medical exception to use was included as a provision in federal legislation that briefly halted the sale, manufacture and distribution across state lines of all intoxicating liquors in the United States (United States Congress 1919).

Unlike with harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, alcohol had become so transfixed within American culture that its prohibition was nothing of the sort. Instead of reducing alcoholism and related social harm, the prohibition of alcohol allowed organized criminal enterprises to cement their place in America’s black market, and through selective enforcement made outlaws from otherwise hardworking, taxpaying individuals seeking their drink. The rampant corruption, public resistance and systematic non-compliance created a noxious societal cancer that was far and away worse than the demon rum itself (Kyvig 2000). By making the commodity more valuable to sell illicitly, those that sought their drink had to do so with from a more criminal element and at a higher cost. An additional problem associated with a high demand of an illicit product is that those that seek profit do so with little regard to consumer safety and industry standards (Kyvig 2000). Instead of being made in a licensed distillery, the new brew was concocted in bathtubs and farm kettles, to be tested on goats or not tested at all.[iii]

Americans demanded back their drink, and their drink back they received. Being already prepared for the end of prohibition, Budweiser brought new legal beer to the White House in a Clydesdale driven carriage soon after the repeal (Anheuser Busch 2014). It would seem that even those in the highest places of government could scarcely wait for the taps to again flow.[iv] After the institutional failure of alcohol prohibition the record stood at one victory (the Harrison Narcotics Act) and one failure (the 18th Amendment) for legislation concerning the personal, recreational and medicinal use of would be controlled substances. The trial of marijuana would be soon to follow.

Marijuana Around the World Before and After Criminalization  

Production and Export Origins of Marijuana in the European Market

The main narrative of marijuana production and use globally before and after the formation of international treaties was for the most part of local cultivation and specified importation along established trade paths in North Africa and the Middle East (Caulkins et al. 2012).[v] One of the characteristics of marijuana that makes it more akin to alcohol than other internationally traded drugs is the manner in which it can be produced. While certain climates are more contusive to expansive and repeatable harvests of crops, like those of North Africa and the Middle East, marijuana can be grown just about anywhere. Once grown, it can be dried and stored for months or even years. This localization of source has taken more market share in recent years due to leaps and bounds in indoor and hydroponic cultivation methods (United Nations 2013).

In spite of sweeping governmental oversight early in the twentieth century, the major trade routes for condensed products remained relatively stable. The acceptance of marijuana use in these origin areas of Morocco and Afghanistan, combined with other factors such as geographical location and advantageous climate, created a perfect environment, both botanically and logistically, to produce and export marijuana products. Morocco, for example, is located a short distance from the mainland of Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar. This provides a viable entry point into the European market. In addition to its geographical benefits, Morocco has a climate, in the coastal areas, highly suitable to the cultivation of marijuana. That raw marijuana is condensed into products to make the shipment into the European markets as efficient and nondescript as possible. However, the further into the European market the more costly the importation costs become. With the crossing of every national border, new opportunities for prohibition enforcement become an ever increasing risk for the traffickers. Nonetheless, the supply from Morocco and Afghanistan is demanded and thus supplied (United Nations 2013).

However, this process of ever riskier transportation across multiple national borders has aided the shift in recent decades for the localization of the source of marijuana in parts of the European market.[vi] Starting with the changes to the Opium Act of 1976, the Netherlands brought a new way of looking at marijuana production in Europe. For the most part, low level possession and use of the substance is decriminalized (Netherlands 1976). Additionally, so-called “coffeeshops” are allowed to provide the small quantities of marijuana to customers with relative impunity as to the nature of the substance’s source (Netherlands 1976; Buruma 2007).

While import and export of marijuana into and out of the Netherlands is still highly illegal, the government has, over the last thirty plus years, established a process by which the demand for marijuana can be met safely and in a tax producing manner. While other countries, most notably Portugal, have experimented with taking the Dutch Model a step further, the major impact on the totality of marijuana markets in Europe steaming from Dutch acceptance has been the revelation that marijuana can be grown effectively and efficiently in controlled indoor operations at almost any geographic region.[vii] This type of marijuana production and cultivation presents more immediate risk to the local grower, but with the benefit of not having to skirt international borders and thus international border enforcement of marijuana prohibition.

Marijuana in European Culture – A Static and Ultra Fluid Evolution  

Just as in America, European artists, musicians and other counter-culturists shirked the new regulations and obtained their cannabis (typically hash) from the same back-alley channels and dealers that had always flown under the radar of regulators and makers of international treaties. In spite of the almost universal support for the next line of international treaties, specifically the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 that likened marijuana cultivation and distribution to that of opium, some European nations took notice to the minimal harm caused by the use of this illegal substance. It was in these jurisdictional areas that laws began to be scaled back in terms of their relative punitive nature compared to the harms of the marijuana related offenses (Netherlands 1976).

This step by step process is one that is being mirrored in the American charge for localized laws concerning marijuana. The tolerance of the Dutch model led to the decriminalization of all drugs in Portugal, which has led to the totality of the European continent reexamining its stance on marijuana and adherence to international Conventions based on past research.[viii] The major factor in the reexamination of the international status of marijuana conflicting with local demands was the changes in methods by which marijuana has been able to be produced in the last fifty years. Domestic production reduces, if not eliminates, the specter of supporting some foreign warlord or terroristic organization, and replaces it with a source of tax revenue for the government.

The major legal regulation introduced in the 1925 Convention was that cultivating nations of marijuana had to reframe from the exportation to nations that had prohibited marijuana. The most paramount amendment within the 1961 Convention was that all marijuana cultivation was to be equivocally relative to opium cultivation, meaning that it could be grown under only the most stringent conditions that served an official governmental, medical or research need. The primary difference in the cultivation of these plants is that opium remains relatively difficult to grow in most environments. This allowed locales like Afghanistan, and in recent times Mexico, to remain major sources for opium by default of geography and botany. With marijuana, however, a potential cultivator does not need a large field and specific conditions to grow a cash crop. Marijuana cultivation has been moving more indoors and into more local areas. Greenhouses can be easily regulated and maintained with multiple harvests being collected from a relatively small geographic area. This has made the utilization of international treaties obsolete in many areas. If the marijuana being consumed by a population is cultivated, sold and used within the borders of a single nation, what kind of authority does an international organization, with little to no local enforcement power, have to condemn and criminalize this behavior? In places like the Netherlands, Portugal and most recently Uruguay, these sovereign nations have placed the needs and wants of their citizens over that of allegiance to international Conventions.

In much the same way that a few nations questioned and rebelled from the rule of international treaties, two of the American States have gone against the rule of supposedly superseding Federal law in the interest clear wants from their residents.[ix] The European narrative has shown that a conglomeration of social acceptance, harm reduction initiatives, and an evolving scientific understanding of a substance like marijuana can facilitate the reconfiguration of a legal status within a specific jurisdiction. This model for individualistic consideration on the part of sovereign nations can be implemented at this level (as in the case of Uruguay) or at a more local one (as in the case of Colorado and Washington and even in cities like Chicago and  Boston that have decriminalized low level possession in one form or another).

Until a few nations broke from the mold, the European history of marijuana was one that mirrored the United States, a conflict between a widening cultural integration and tightening legal status. Now the direction of the individual United States concerning marijuana is one taken from the recent (last forty years) European legal evolution of reevaluating local priorities over international (Federal) courtesy and custom. Through this process productive and progressive legislation may learn from the past.

Marijuana in America 1937-1970 – An Age of Enforcement

Adjustment to Federal Laws

A look at marijuana before the wave of politicized propaganda in the 1930s would show a substance used in back alleys and musician’s dressing rooms, and that was no more societally problematic or illegal than alcohol or tobacco consumption. It was seen, or rather not seen, as a major problem in America because few Americans had any personal contact with substance users.

The campaign to criminalize marijuana depicted its “spreading” use as an indicator of a creeping Latino and African American influence on wholesome, small town America (National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (NCMDA) 1972; Public Broadcast Service 2014). After the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the substance itself was now under a de facto label of an illegal type of contraband by the United States Government. The act required medical prescriptions of marijuana to have a tax stamp provided by the Treasury Department. Very few of these stamps were ever made or distributed.

Those that came under investigation for marijuana related activities by federal agents and agencies could be subjected to harsh penalties in the form of thousand dollar fines and imprisonment (NCMDA 1972). In addition to the formal punishments handed out by governmental institutions, marijuana users, distributors, and producers faced stigmatizing ostracization in their social and professional lives (NCMDA 1972). The general public believed the information told to them about high addiction rates and extreme intoxication effects, and then juxtaposed those defining characteristics upon those found to be associated with the substance (Public Broadcast Service 2014).

From a policy standpoint, criminalizing marijuana arguably created more problems (e.g., long prison sentences, social stigmatization, criminal organizations) than the ones supposedly solved by prohibition. The initially perceived social harm was isolated in niche and ethnic cliques that had a demand for use. There was no push by these communities to spread the use of marijuana beyond anyone that sought it out. There was no massive profit to be made, no political agenda to satisfy. There is a saying in American popular culture that is as true today as when first orated: there is no such thing as bad publicity. Ironically, it was the demonization that brought marijuana into the homes and minds of those living in Any-town America. Few, if anyone, can try a psycho-active substance if they do not know of the substance’s existence or methods of use. The feverous inquisition of marijuana in the film Reefer Madness (Gasnier 1936) served to pull back the curtain and show Americans a world, as skewed as it may have been, that they might have gone their whole lives without seeing. By making marijuana illegal, the United States government created an avenue by which non-conformists could take to rebel against society (Polk 1969). In addition, based on the disjunction between the propagandized effects of use and the actual effects of marijuana use, opinions about the governmental legitimacy related to marijuana prohibition, and other issues, continued to degrade until coming to a head with the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s (Sherman 2001).

During the 1960s, the combination of exposure through media-inflated propaganda and forbidden enticement contributed to something that marijuana markets in the United States had not experienced before: a growing demand for product (NCMDA 1972). This demand was met the same way that all demands for products are met in the United States, namely with the help of free enterprise and competitive entrepreneurialism. The suppliers for this new American marijuana appetite remained relatively the same as they had in times of less demand. Most of the marijuana consumed in America during the early days of prohibition and policy making came from Mexico (Caulkins et al. 2012). Some marijuana was imported from other sources like Canada and, to a lesser degree, Asian and African hash that found its way across an ocean.

Additionally a small proportion was domestically cultivated as farming practices and materials became more readily available (Caulkins et al. 2012). This process of population awareness, rebellion, and increased demand was mirrored in many local municipalities in the United States during the time following the federal prohibition. The migration of marijuana use from city jazz clubs, to beat poetry readings, to Main Street was facilitated and driven by the formal, ineffective prohibition of the substance (NCMDA 1972). This created an environment wherein an otherwise clean cut youth of college age could face a decade or more in prison for the simple possession of a flowering plant. One marijuana cigarette could carry punishments greater than those faced by operators of speakeasies in the 1920s (United States Congress 1951; NCMDA 1972). Sale of that same plant material could net an individual a prison term equal to, if not longer, that for murder (United States Congress 1951; NCMDA 1972).

For the majority of the country, these sanctions were societally palatable. That is to say that the same people made anxious and fearful by the propaganda of the past were passively accepting of harsh sanctions against the undesirables highlighted in reports of reefer heads and freak-power hippies (NCMDA 1972). However, a problem arose when those same middle- and upper-class citizens found themselves having to bail out their college attending children, and then see those youths face potentially life defining punishments alongside of the “riffraff” of society (Becket & Herbert 2009).

State laws dealing with possession and lower level sale and distribution were unfit to adjudicate those brought to the government in violation of these laws. Those laws were based on federal restrictions and punishment scales that sought to address national level trafficking and/or international importation (NCMDA 1972). The eye test for fairness and equality was being failed in thousands of courtrooms across the United States (Becket & Herbert 2009; Caulkins et al. 2012). It was with these mounting injustices in mind that the government commissioned a report about the state, nature, and scale of marijuana use and prohibition in America. The first report, “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding”, was issued in March of 1972 and contained all manner of recommendations and guidelines from which to create a more balanced and just system by which to control and monitor marijuana use as opposed continuing ineffective, inefficient and unjust prohibition.  

Summary of Findings from Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding (1972)

Federal Recommendations

  • Possession of marihuana for personal use would no longer be an offense, but marihuana possessed in public would remain contraband subject to summary seizure and forfeiture.

  • Casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration not involving profit would no longer be a crime.

  • A plea of marihuana intoxication shall not be a defense to any criminal act committed under its influence, nor shall proof of such intoxication constitute a negation of specific intent. (pp. 152)

State Recommendations

  • Cultivation, sale or distribution for profit and possession with intent to sell would remain felonies (Although we do recommend uniform penalties).

  • Possession in private of marihuana for personal use would no longer be an offense.

  • Distribution in private of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration not involving profit would no longer be an offense.

  • Possession in public of one ounce or under of marihuana would not be an offense, but the marihuana possessed in public would remain contraband subject to summary seizure and forfeiture.

  • Possession in public of more than one ounce of marihuana would be a criminal offense punishable by a fine of $100.

  • Distribution in public of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration not involving profit would be a criminal offense punishable by a fine of $100.

  • Public use of marihuana would be a criminal offense punishable by a fine of $100.

  • Disorderly conduct associated with public use of or intoxication by marihuana would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail, a fine of $100, or both.

  • Operating a motor vechicle or dangerous instrument while under the influence of marihuana would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both and suspension of a permit to operate such a vehicle or instrument for up to 180 days.

  • A plea of marihuana intoxication shall not be a defense to any criminal act committed under its influence, nor shall proof of such intoxication constitute a negation of specific intent.

  • A person would be absolutely liable in civil court for any damage to person or property which he caused while under the influence of the drug. (pp. 154-155)

A Final Comment

In this Chapter, we have carefully considered the spectrum of social and legal policy alternatives. On the basis of our findings, discussed in previous Chapters, we concluded that society should seek to discourage use, while concentrating its attention on the prevention and treatment of heavy and very heavy use. The Commission feels that the criminalization of possession of marihuana for personal use is socially self-defeating as a means of achieving this objective. We have attempted to balance individual freedom on one hand and the obligation to the state to consider the wider social good on the other. We believe our recommended scheme will permit society to exercise its control and influence in ways most useful and efficient, meanwhile reserving to the individual American his sense of privacy, his sense of individuality, and, within the context of an interacting and interdependent society, his option to select his own life styles, values, goals and opportunities.

The Commission sincerely hopes that the tone of cautious restraint sounded in the Report will be perpetuated in the debate which will follow it. For those who feel we have not proceeded far enough, we are reminded of Thmas Jefferson’s advice to George Washington that ‘Delay is preferable to error.’ For those who argue we have gone too far, we note Rosce Pound’s statement, ‘The law must be stable, but it must not stand still.’

We have carefully analyzed the interrelationship between marihuana the drug, marihuana use as a behavior, and marihuana as a social problem. Recognizing the extensive degree of misinformation about marihuana as a drug, we have tried to demythologize it. Viewing the use of marihuana in its wider social context, we have tried to desymbolize it

Considering the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marihuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high. We would deemphasize marihuana as a problem.

The existing social and legal policy is out of proportion to the individual and social harm engendered by the use of the drug. To replace it, we have attempted to design a suitable social policy, which we believe is fair, cautious and attuned to the social realities of our time. (pp. 167)

Across the board all of these recommendations were ignored, and instead the Presidential Administration of Richard Nixon pushed for, and gained, appropriations to conglomerate various federal drug enforcement operations under the new Drug Enforcement Agency, officially in operations as of July 1, 1973. Since then marijuana has remained a Schedule 1 drug. This label has preempted emerging research on the substance since that time.[x]

Marijuana and American Crime Control – Age of the DEA

With the formation of the DEA, the place of drug prohibition in American culture became much clearer. Drug use, addiction, and related commerce were all crimes that the government of the United States was willing to commit vast resources toward policing and punishing. Listed at the top of this most wanted list, as Schedule 1 drugs, were marijuana, heroin, LSD and peyote. In spite of the National Commission Report, the growing size of the population of users during the preceding twenty years, and the lack of individual and societal harm of long term or heavy use (cited in the 1972 National Report), marijuana was still labeled and publicly perceived as an inherently dangerous societal problem (Morgan & Zimmer 1997).

This mantle was not universally seen as a negative trait. In fact, the slandered reputation of marijuana actually served a purpose in some exploits of popular culture. Various movies, works of music, and literature harnessed the “evil spirit” of marijuana and used it as a creative advantage. The use of marijuana in certain contexts could convey to the audience a sense of rebellion against small town America, an association to poor down-to-earth communities and their plight, or in the satirical context of a horror movie could serve as an example of sin and recklessness that would be soon punished by a masked man with a machete or chainsaw.

Marijuana as a Gateway Drug

Each step toward more interdiction efforts in policing and punishing marijuana use only caused an equal and opposite increase in the integration of marijuana into American popular culture. This cause and effect process has precipitated the necessity to define reasons for the continued steadfast governmental prohibition of marijuana. Perhaps the most flawed and dangerously influential of these characterized attributes of marijuana was that of the substance being a gateway drug to hard drug abuse.

The basis for this classification was that the need for a greater and greater high would lead those that started marijuana use to eventually become dissatisfied with the level of intoxication offered by marijuana (Golub & Johnson 1994). Those high-seekers would drift toward harder drugs, some of which have a lower level of DEA scheduling (Golun & Johnson 1994; DEA, 2014). This progression can be accurate for a subset of individual drug use narratives. What is left out of this “causal” chain is that for most users of drugs, marijuana is not their first drug (Morral, McCaffery & Paddock 2002). The more common progression through the early stages of mind-altering substance use is one that begins with tobacco and/or alcohol. This is because those are the two most commonly used and widely available substances that bear some form of governmental restriction (Morral, McCaffery & Paddock 2002). Recent reexaminations of this process have also placed caffeine at the forefront of substance use instigation (Reissig, Strain & Griffiths 2009).

The other, and possibly more scientifically sound, argument for marijuana’s gateway potential concerns the association of those obtaining marijuana coming into contact with other drugs through their marijuana dealer (Hogan 2011). Drug dealers sell drugs. Often times, individuals in sales occupations seek to expand their repertoire of commodities offered. In most forms of commerce the dealers are beholden to the market demands of the customers. While it is false that most marijuana users take a formal gateway path to harder drug use, it remains that most users of hard drugs also partake in marijuana.[xi]

 For some marijuana dealers the lure of profits, and possible customer service considerations, drive them to offer other products for sale. Therefore, someone that might not otherwise try cocaine, for example, might be given the opportunity to acquire access to the substance through his or her marijuana dealer. The fallacy with attributing this process to marijuana is that this process is not inherent to marijuana, but this is instead a product of the legal status of marijuana being equivalent to cocaine and other hard drugs. The marijuana users are forced to obtain marijuana from an illegal source. This association characteristic could be attributed to alcohol or tobacco if these substances were placed under legal restrictions similar to marijuana. A heavy association of alcohol to heroin trafficking began to form in the latter years of alcohol prohibition (United States Commission on Organized Crime 1986). This guilt-by-association was also attributed to marijuana in the 1980s when cocaine and marijuana importers used many of the same routes to street level market locations in the United States and abroad (United States Commission on Organized Crime 1986).

The contextualization of marijuana as the St Peter of substance use did little to disentangle the substance from its place in popular American culture. However, when contextualized within the greater market of illegal drugs, the association of marijuana to other illicit substances brings violence and social plight into viable consideration. A crude metaphor for the legal status of marijuana is akin to a review of a close football play with video replay. For a change to be made that review must display conclusive evidence, otherwise the initial call must stand. Because the ruling on the field is that marijuana is illegal, the comparison to alcohol is not enough to overturn the present rule of law because of the association to other illegal drugs.

Push for American Legalization, Decriminalization and Compassionate Use – 1996-2013

During the same time that the United States cracked down on virtually all forms of crime, the so-called crime-control era of the 1980s and into the 1990s, marijuana was being seen more and more in popular American culture (Gledhill-Hoyt, Lee, Strote & Wechsler 2000) Revolutions in filmmaking following the removal of “code standards” in the early 1970s changed the way that American films could depict controversial topics and subject matter like violence, sex and drug use (Jacobs 2014). Instead of just being a marker of the next victim of a maniac killer, marijuana use could be shown as a way a character winds down from their day, in much the same way alcohol is often shown in neither an explicitly positive or negative light. An example is in the 1993 movie by Robert Altman, Short Cuts. In one scene a character played by Chris Penn smokes the roaches[xii] of old joints after a long day of cleaning pools. This character is a family man, and one can infer from the usage of the scraps of marijuana that this character must weigh the monetary cost of the marijuana with the needs of his family, while at the same time finding something positive for his own wellbeing in smoking just a little bit of marijuana.

Another example of the way marijuana began to be framed in the light of the 1990s is in the film True Romance. This movie centers on a large parcel of cocaine and all the blood and turmoil that goes along with it. Various characters are driven to homicides and other acts of violence, but perhaps the most intrinsically good character in the whole film is a marijuana user. Floyd, played by a young Brad Pitt, spends all of his scenes smoking marijuana from a bong on his couch in an apartment he shares with the local cocaine deal facilitator. His interactions with the other characters are limited to asking what is going on, and if they would like “to do a bong?” Even when the organized crime representatives track the drugs to the apartment, Floyd is passed over for violent reprisal based on his status as a harmless pothead. This neutrality projected on the marijuana user in this film displayed the evolving popular perception of marijuana users of the past and toward the harmless Floyd on the couch.

Later in the decade, the innuendos and coded terminology were all but cast aside with even more cavalier portrayals of marijuana users and marijuana markets in the United States. The 1930s saw the propaganda film Reefer Madness. The code-era of filmmaking all but removed marijuana from the equation of American filmmaking. That is until the late 1960s at which time movies like Easy Rider and Cheech and Chong: Up In Smoke showed the world highly stereotyped and utterly fantastic pairs of marijuana users. Even this leap forward in cultural display still relegated marijuana users to the fringes of outlaw life and the Los Angeles music scene. In 1998, two years after the passage of Proposition 215 in California,[xiii] a movie was released that tore back the veil from the marijuana using population of New York.

Half Baked can be described only as a stoner comedy. It tells the tale of three friends that must raise bail money for their kindergarten teaching roommate that has been jailed for killing a diabetic horse with junk food on a snack run following a session of marijuana smoking. They do this by stealing research-grade marijuana from one of the main character’s workplaces and selling it to a wide variety of customers. This film shows marijuana users in all forms: those that smoke to kick start creative inspiration, those that have smoked since the free-love days of the 1960s, those that smoke to pass the time at work, a father that smokes while contemplating a way to bond with his son all the while his son is smoking in the next room, and finally the grandmother of the son that smokes for medical purposes. In spite of all slapstick and toilet humor, this film shows a truer picture of the American marijuana user than anti-drug public service announcements produced to this day. That a movie company would spend $8,000,000 to make this film highlights a societal want for this type of story. Two kinds of characters that people want to see in popular films are (1) characters that are too outlandish to be believed – super heroes, serial killers and the like, and (2) characters that are like them – the businessman that has three kids and a mortgage, the underpaid janitor or fast-food worker that struggles all day at work, and even the pothead that sleeps on the couch to avoid the morning walk from his bed.

The journey of marijuana in popular culture was not universally scrutinized across different mediums. Film and television depictions of marijuana in America faced intense censorship due to the oversight in the production of these art forms, formally in the case of television and informally for films produced under the Hollywood “code” of morality (Jacobs 2014). The sphere of popular music was less influenced by systematic restrictions and boundaries of subject matter.[xiv]

Music in America has been able to incorporate all manner of drug and other controversial topics into the Billboard Top 100. While early incorporators used innuendo and lyrical devices to mask their marijuana references, many soon embraced the growing demand for more blunt anthems of marijuana use. Marijuana in song had been able to offer a glimpse into what the future direction of formal marijuana policy, based on public perception and popular vote, might be.

By the early 2000s, the marijuana scene in the United States had drastically changed from just a decade before. The direct association to cocaine markets of the 1980s was dissolved as emerging cultivation methods allowed domestic production to gain market share. More importantly, from 1996-2013 forty percent of states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia permitted the use of marijuana in some medical capacity,[xv] and two states in 2012 passed measures to allow for legal recreational use of marijuana.[xvi]

During this time the tone of marijuana inspired music shifted from the idealistic glorification of the past and toward activism trying to influence a fluid time for legislation. In a 2009 single, John Mayer asked the question, “Me in my house alone/Who says I can’t get stoned?” With much of the inflammatory propaganda disproved and more discarded, and with legislation changing to suit the wants of local jurisdictions, individuals could now feel more free and open about asking such questions.

The manner in which marijuana was utilized as a plot device changed with the societal understanding and experience with the substance. The manner in which and the nature of songs that Americans heard about marijuana changed ahead of laws and in conjunction with opinions, injustices, victories, and defeats. It seems that marijuana activists had been quietly waiting, bidding their time for the change occurring in the last decade. The public now sees a typical marijuana user as a typical American, showing homoscedasticity of demographic characteristics across most age, economic and cultural groupings (Caulkins 2012; United Nations 2013).

Concluding Remarks

Americans use drugs. Americans use legal and illegal drugs. When taking into account the history of drug interdiction in America, and worldwide, it is seen that governments are starting to understand that adherence to the blind faith of international treaties might not be what is best for their own legitimacy of power or the liberty and pursuit of happiness on the part of their citizens. In the past most Americans have disapproved of the legalization of marijuana. As can be seen in the Gallup Poll presented in Figure 1, that is now not the case. Where will America, and in tow the rest of the world, take marijuana into the future? The answer is in art, informed debate, medical and scientific research and most importantly in public opinion.


Following policy success in the Netherlands, Portugal, and California, and with wants and needs based policy implementation in Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay, the future place of marijuana in American and international culture is being redefined. This localized reconfiguration of marijuana’s legal status is occurring at the same time that the substance is finding itself more visible in movies and on television and being heard more in popular music. Modern day users are carving out pockets in today’s litigious society that act as marijuana safe zones. While the demand for illicit marijuana will remain as long as the prohibitive laws, those governments that permit marijuana use can rely on a locally sourced, tax producing product thanks to advancements in cultivation methods.

The need and desire to curb drug use behavior can be seen as an honorable and stemming from the patriarchal responsibility that our governments take for every citizen. The result of using the criminal justice system to accomplish this task has proven to be steeped in problems. Prison populations in America, and around the world, for drug related offenders continue to grow exponentially while resources for prohibition are becoming more and more scarce and in competition with institutions like schools and healthcare.

The decision to prohibit marijuana use and related activities is not something that necessarily should be made at the international level, or even at the national level. Today’s marijuana markets could be, in the absence of national and international laws, centered around localized wants and supplies meeting the needs and demand of a specific population. Marijuana use is not something that should be advocated or advertised any more than alcohol use, but as said by Barrack Obama in a recent interview when asked about the comparison of marijuana to alcohol he responded that, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol” (Remnick 2014). It is the duty of democratic policymakers to make the laws of a particular land fair, just, and in congruence with desires and best interests of the constituency. Marijuana has a place in almost every human culture, and thus it should be left to each culture to define marijuana as it deems fit: as a medicine, as a recreational drug, as a criminal behavior or as a source of revenue. 


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Table & Figure

Table 1 – Major American and International Legislation Related to Marijuana and Other Controlled Substances


American Legislation

International Legislation




Hague International Opium Convention


Harrison Narcotics Act – opium and coca regulated




First International Opium Convention


Marihuana Tax Act – marijuana regulated for use



Boggs Act – formal federal criminalization of marijuana




Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs


Controlled Substance Act of 1970




Opium Act of 1976 (Netherlands) – tolerance for use


Prop 215 (California) - 1st medical state




Portugal decriminalization of all drugs


Initiative 502 (Washington State), Amendment 64 (Colorado) – recreational legalization




Uruguay Legalization of Marijuana



[i] In film, television and music marijuana develops a presence similar to the role that it plays in the culture of origin for the media. Past standard restrictions had preempted the use of marijuana in film and on television in America (Jacobs 2014).

[ii] Colorado and Washington passed voter based initiatives in 2012 to permit the personal use and distribution; other various municipalities have removed the criminal penalty for the possession of marijuana to varying degrees (Colorado General Assembly 2012; Office of the Washington Secretary of State 2012; Mack 2012; Marijuana Policy Project 2014; Sunshine 2011)

[iii] The uncertainty of quality control is an argument poised by both sides in the marijuana legalization debate. Opponents of marijuana point to pesticides and other pathogens that might be transferred on or with raw, unregulated marijuana. Proponents argue that this is a systematic problem caused by the inability to regulate any market define illicit.

[iv] Similar public celebrations were held in Washington and Colorado following those states passage of marijuana legalization legislation in 2012 (Curry 2013).

[v] Much of the European marijuana for consumption came from these two localities, specifically Morocco and Afghanistan in the form of condensed products like hash or oils (Caulkins et al. 2012).

[vi] This is a combination of reducing the number of opportunities for governmental interdiction at border crossings and changes to the way that some societies have redefined marijuana as a less serious social ill.

[vii] This would allow adherence to the original intentions of international treaties that made export of marijuana to locations that did not permit its use illegal, but that allowed for domestic cultivation if the independent nation saw fit to allow the use of marijuana (First International Opium Conference 1925).

[viii] In the summer of 2013, France took steps toward allowing the medical use of marijuana (Weller 2014).

[ix] Both States, Colorado and Washington, passed legalization initiatives for marijuana by popular vote during the Presidential election of 2012.

[x] Schedule 1 substances are defined as having no accepted medical application and having a high risk of addiction (DEA 2014). At present all FDA approved or federally funded research on marijuana must use marijuana grown for the United States government at contracted facilities at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford, Miss. Court challenges to this requirement have been universally rejected by federal courts (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies 2014).

[xi] This distinction between hard and soft drugs in the foundation of the Dutch Model for tolerance. While marijuana is readily available in coffee shops, hard drugs like heroin are still only available in street markets. However, State sponsored needle exchange programs, and other prevention measures, keep the line between hard and soft drugs defined, but show a progressive understanding as to the nature and effects of addiction and use across the spectrum of substances.

[xii] These are the small ends of joints and blunts that are often times saved by users to be smoked at a later date than the majority of the marijuana.

[xiii] This was the first legislation to allow marijuana to be legally used for medical purposes (California Office of the Secretary of State 1996). Although it was several years after the passage of this proposition that the marijuana markets in California began to achieve commercial and community legitimacy.

[xiv] Ironically enough, the early 1990s were when restrictions began to emerge as to what could be played over open radio (Cole 2010). These restrictions did little to curb the content of the music being produced but changed the way in which American music was censored once created.

[xv] California (1996), Alaska, Oregon, Washington (1998), Maine (1999), Colorado, Nevada, Hawaii (2000), Montana, Vermont (2004), Rhode Island (2006), New Mexico (2007), Michigan (2008), Arizona, New Jersey, Washington D.C. (2010), Delaware (2011), Connecticut, Massachusetts (2012), Illinois, New Hampshire (2013). (Medical Marijuana ProCon 2014).

[xvi] Colorado and Washington passed popular vote based measures to allow adults to produce, distribute, possess and use marijuana within state guidelines (most notably the necessity of eliminating the distribution of Colorado grown marijuana outside of the State (Ingold & Gorski 2013).

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