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Times change: Don’t let old school marijuana law harsh your buzz on 4/20

You probably grew up being told that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads to harder substances and violent crime. But anyone who has even a passing familiarity with pot knows the only thing most marijuana users want to attack is a bag of Cheetos.

With 4/20 representing America’s unofficial pot holiday, ’tis the season for marijuana. Now is the perfect time of year to gain some insight into the complex history of pot use as a drug crime in America, particularly with the recent shift in modern attitudes toward legalization.

The dubious history of pot prohibition

For hundreds of years, cannabis cultivation was a flourishing enterprise in North America. The first cannabis laws in the United States were labeling requirements that came about in the early 20th century. A number of patent medicines containing cannabis were sold with misleading labels or secret ingredients; requiring accurate labels was akin to what we now call consumer protection laws.

It wasn’t long, however, before xenophobia, ignorance and a healthy dose of stuffy Puritanical values found a new outlet in the cause of marijuana prohibition. The first major anti-cannabis laws came as waves of immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution of 1910 entered the United States. The newcomers brought with them a willingness to work cheaply and an affinity for smoking cannabis.

Fear and prejudice against the Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants was pervasive. Anti-drug crusaders campaigned with religious fervor to link the smoking of cannabis to the immigrant fieldworkers and their supposed violent crimes; in fact, a massive marketing campaign that sought to label the drug with its more “Mexican sounding” name is the reason we refer to cannabis as “marijuana.”

When the Great Depression arrived, resentment against cheap labor and the drug that was now associated with it reached a tipping point. Marijuana was outlawed in 29 states by 1931.

It was a downhill slide from there. Bogus studies on the dangers of pot proliferated, along with other types of propaganda like the ridiculous filmReefer Madness. Everyone conveniently ignored a meticulously researched 1944 report from the New York Academy of Medicine that definitively found marijuana use does not lead to other drug use or addiction and does not induce violence, sex crimes or insanity.

Mainstream politicians again found a reason to enhance drug laws in the 60s as marijuana become popular in the counterculture movement. While some of these enhancements were rolled back in the 70s, it was just a few short years before parents’ groups began a new anti-marijuana movement, culminating in the War on Drugs and ushering in a modern era in which over half of the federal prison population is serving time for a nonviolent drug offense.

Honor 4/20 in your own way

Ironically, California, the first state to label marijuana as a “poison” in 1907, was also the first to legalize it for medicinal use in 1996 in defiance of archaic, failed federal law. Today, 21 states permit some form of marijuana use. Few realists doubt that legalization will eventually spread throughout the country, although the South might be a little slow on the uptake.

Thomas Jefferson, himself a hemp grower, once wrote, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” While not advocating any illegal behavior, independent thought and patriotic obligation might compel you to blaze one in honor of 4/20. Should you get caught, contact a defense lawyer to ensure that cutting a little grass doesn’t land your ass in jail.