Why Is Marijuana Illegal?

For almost a century, these seven lines of reasoning have been the most commonly applied justifications for the criminalization of marijuana across the U.S. The origins and facts behind these reasons have succeeded in keeping marijuana illegal, no matter how marijuana legalization advocates respond.

01
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Unconvincing Advocacy

A marijuana cigarette or joint on a bed of buds
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Advocates for legalization rarely make a convincing case. To hear some advocates of marijuana legalization tell it, the drug cures all diseases while promoting creativity, open-mindedness, moral progression, and a closer relationship with God and the cosmos. That sounds thoroughly unrealistic and too good to be true for people who don't use the drug themselves—especially when the public image of a marijuana user is, again, that of a loser who risks arrest and imprisonment so that he or she can artificially invoke an endorphin release.

02
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Unfashionable Lifestyles

Marijuana is often thought of as a drug for stoners, burn-outs, and potheads. Since it's hard to feel enthusiastic about the prospects of enabling degenerate activities associated with hippies and losers, imposing criminal sanctions for marijuana possession function as a form of communal "tough love" for undesirables and slackers.

03
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Lack of "Acceptable Medicinal Use"

Marijuana seems to yield considerable medical benefits for many Americans with ailments ranging from glaucoma to cancer, but these benefits have not been accepted on a national level. Medical use of marijuana remains a serious national controversy, with lively legalization debates and many skeptics. In order to fight the argument that marijuana has no medical use, legalization advocates are working to highlight the effects it has had on the lives of people who have used the drug for medical reasons. Meanwhile, highly addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco do not have to meet the same burden of positive evidence.

04
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Addictive Perception

Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug on the basis that it is perceived as addictive, with "a high potential for abuse." This classification comes from a suspicion that people who use marijuana get hooked and become "potheads," and it begins to dominate their lives. This unquestionably happens in some cases, and in others, it doesn't. It also happens with alcohol, which is perfectly legal.

In order to fight this argument for prohibition, legalization advocates have made the argument that marijuana is not as addictive as government sources claim. So how addictive is marijuana after all? The truth is we really just don't know yet, but it looks like the risk is relatively low, especially when compared with other drugs.

05
of 07

Historically Racist Associations

The intense anti-marijuana movement of the 1930s dovetailed nicely with the intense anti-Chicano movement of the 1930s. Marijuana was associated with Mexican-Americans, and a ban on marijuana was seen as a way of discouraging Mexican-American subcultures from developing. These racist associations were often closely tied to degeneracy as described above, often stemming from economic depression rather than drug use.

Today, thanks in large part to the very public popularity of marijuana among whites during the 1960s and 1970s, marijuana is no longer seen as what one might call an ethnic drug. Still, the groundwork for the anti-marijuana movement was laid down at a time when marijuana was seen as an encroachment on virtuous majority white culture in the U.S. by black and latino people, generally oppressed ethnic minorities.

06
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Link to Heavy Narcotics Like Heroin

Historically, early anti-drug laws were written to regulate narcotics like opium and its derivatives, such as heroin and morphine. Marijuana, though not a narcotic, was described as such, along with cocaine. This association stuck, and there is now a vast gulf in the American consciousness between "normal" recreational drugs, such as alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine, and "abnormal" recreational drugs, such as heroin, crack, or methamphetamine. Marijuana is generally associated with the latter category, which is why it is convincingly misrepresented as a "gateway drug."

07
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Inertia in Public Policy

If something has been banned for only a short period of time, then the ban is seen as unstable. If something has been banned for a long time, however, then the ban—no matter how ill-conceived it might be—tends to go unenforced long before it is actually taken off the books.

People tend to be uncomfortable challenging the status quo—and the status quo, for nearly a century, has been a literal or de facto federal ban on marijuana. Some are actively invested in maintaining the business as usual, while others merely fall victim to the powerful force of inertia.