America's First Media Tycoon Helped Usher In Weed Prohibition

So, how did the United States go from a place that allowed people to use cannabis freely to one of the harshest anti-marijuana laws in the world?

by Rowan Nathan · July 07, 2023

As the amount of states with legalized cannabis grows close to a tipping point in the US, prohibition has been around for as long as most of us can remember, but there was a time when cannabis was legal and widely available and accepted. So, how did the United States go from a place that allowed people to use cannabis freely to one of the harshest anti-marijuana laws in the world? Let's take a look at the facts and story of how weed prohibition started.

The earliest attempts to regulate cannabis in the United States date back to the early 1900s. At the time, cannabis was primarily used medicinally and was widely accepted. In the 1910s some states began to pass laws criminalizing the possession and sale of cannabis. However marijuana prohibition gained momentum during the Great Depression, when Mexican migrants, and their affinity for weed, were no longer welcome. With a lack of jobs available, American politicians proposed banning weed as a way to get the migrants to return to Mexico.

They soon found a powerful ally. William Randolph Hearst, owner of America's newspaper empire, was worried that the introduction of hemp-based paper would drastically reduce the demand for his own timber-based paper products. Acting preemptively to protect a significant portion of his income, the first media tycoon is widely considered to have been one of the leading figures behind the cannabis prohibition movement of the early 1900s.

Hearst used his newspapers to spread fear and misinformation about cannabis, perpetuating "Reefer Madness" by painting pot as a dangerous drug that was responsible for numerous social ills. He also funded anti-cannabis propaganda campaigns and supported the drafting of laws that criminalized cannabis.

Anti-migrant sentiment, a bad economy, and Hearst’s unrelenting anti-cannabis efforts proved successful, and in 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, effectively criminalizing cannabis in the United States. The act was eventually overturned in 1969, but the lasting effects of Hearst’s campaign and the stigma it created are still felt today.

In the 1960s, marijuana use began to rise among the youth of the United States, tied to Vietnam war protests and the rise of hippie culture. This sparked an even greater fear among the public and led to the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This act classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug, identical to cocaine, heroine, and methamphetamine- making it illegal to possess or sell.

In the 1990s cannabis advocates began making progress in California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado- which became the first state to legalize weed for adults in 2014. Since then, more than 30 states have passed laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana, and 23 states plus Washington D.C. have passed laws allowing for the recreational use of cannabis.

In the 2020s weed has reached unparalleled acceptance in our culture, with nearly 60% of Americans in favor of legalization.

Yet pot prohibition is still in tact. And migrants are still not welcome.

Meanwhile Hearst Corporation, now a multinational mass media conglomerate chaired by William Randolph Hearst III, recently launched "Green State", a cannabis focused news website and media service for weed businesses.