Before jumping into the specifics of marijuana, it is worth highlighting American drug policy before the bans of the early 20th century. Before then, many banned substances were unavailable or were not widely used. That changed first the introduction of opium, its derivatives heroin and morphine, and finally cocaine, marijuana, and amphetamines.

According to PBS, Americans have used drugs since the colonial era. In the 19th century, marijuana was widely available in pharmacies, and no one seriously questioned its medical utility. According to the Lancet, morphine (mostly used on the battlefield) and its cousin heroin were used as child cough suppressants. Medical societies even advertised heroin as a safer, less-addictive morphine alternative. Meanwhile, German doctors noticed that soldiers high on a white powdery drug derived from coca leaves suffered less fatigue. Soon, cocaine graced wine bottles and early Hollywood sets.

With the ubiquity of drugs, addiction rates skyrocketed, particularly among the urban poor and upper and middle-class women both in America and in Europe. In response, a handful of governments, per the Office of Justice Programs, entered into a compact to regulate the drug trade. In meeting its treaty obligations, Congress went beyond with the sweeping 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which forbade unregistered parties from producing, importing, or distributing cocaine and certain opiates outside of medical purposes. But these were not drug bans. Those came later in the 1920s. Marijuana, which was not targeted under the legislation, soon found itself in Uncle Sam’s crosshairs.

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