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Why Is Weed Illegal?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently came out in favor of pot policy reform, announcing Monday that he wanted to decriminalize public displays of just less than one ounce of weed.

As we reported then, the move was heralded by pretty much everyone, except maybe Republicans in Albany. Just today, the Wall Street Journal suggested that Cuomo might cave to G.O.P. pressure and scale back his proposal -- a move that the Gov's office vehemently denied.

We have been closely following developments in marijuana measures in New York and the U.S. -- even offering a list of the best places to smoke weed in the city. But one question keeps coming up: How did weed wind up illegal in the first place?

To answer that, we have to travel back more than 400 years -- before the United States was even a country -- to the 17th century to check out policies about.

From 1600-1890s, PBS reports, domestic production of hemp (a low-THC variety of cannabis sativa, in short) was heartily encouraged "for the production of rope, sails, and clothing."

The Virginia Assembly decided in 1619 that every farmer had to grow hemp -- which was "allowed to be exchanged as legal tender in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland."

Hemp's domestic heyday declined after the Civil War. Then, other fibers from the U.S. and elsewhere took over its share in the textile market. But marijuana -- hemp's high-THC containing, close cousin, came to be used as a medicine. You could buy it in public pharmacies without a prescription. Around the same time, hashish took hold in France and some parts of the U.S., PBS reports. And when Mexican immigrants fled to America after the revolution, many brought with them recreational marijuana use. The practice quickly became stigmatized -- a lot of people didn't like Spanish-speaking "newcomers" and wrongly claimed they brought with them a "marijuana menace."

The first attempts to regulate reefer began around this same time. NPR notes that in 1906, Congress gave the greenlight to the Pure Food and Drug Act, which mandated labeling cannabis on meds and food.

As the Great Depression wreaked economic and sociologic havoc on America, anti-immigrant sentiment grew, along with negative attitudes toward the plant. This prompted the creation of The Federal Bureau of narcotics, headed by Harry Anslinger.

One year after the release of anti-pot propaganda flickReefer Madness, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, pretty much prohibiting the plant.

The 1951 Boggs Act added a punitive component to this policy: now, penalties for possession or distribution included mandatory minimum sentences. The Narcotics Control Act, which came five years after, toughened these guidelines -- your first pot conviction could land you up to 10 years in the slammer and $20,000 in fines, the network details. Those rules were largely repealed in the 1970s.

While all of this was going on, of course, a lot of people disagreed with these policies. Though New York historically had a hardline stance toward all things hemp -- reportedly passing in 1860 an anti-cannabis poison law after a spate of suicides, a publication from this state's Academy of Medicine put to question marijuana fear-mongering. The 1944 La Guardia report determined that the drug "did not lead to morphine, heroin, or cocaine addiction; and was not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes, and that 'publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York is unfounded,'" according to New York Magazine.

These skeptical sentiments reverberated nationally, culminating in 1972 with a report to President Richard Nixon, which recommended decriminalizing weed for personal use. He didn't listen; instead, he started up the Drug Enforcement Administration a year later.

This approach proved popular with Republicans -- Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush pushed narcotics control efforts, too. The Empire State, however, decriminalized small amounts of weed in 1977.

The national tide truly started to turn in 1996, when California approved medical marijuana. Since then, many state congresses have considered similar legislation.

Which brings us back to today! Hooray! Medical marijuana is still up for debate in New York. While Gov. Cuomo is cool to therapeutic pot, he wants to lessen restrictions. What remains to be seen is how this will play out in the state legislature, as this seemingly popular push still faces stiff opposition.

Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.


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