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The contemporary culture built around marijuana or cannabis usage paints the picture of a lost generation which finds refuge in soft drugs as they shirk from teeming responsibilities by indulging in psychedelic stimulation. While such a narrative might have claimed to an iota of the truth, it oversimplifies an incredibly complex drug history that stretches into medicinal consumption. The first recorded use of cannabis for physiological relief dates back to the early 2737 B.C. and is mirrored by the first known engagement of the state with the narcotic. Under the aegis of Chinese Emperor Shen Neng, the cannabis tea was officially advised as a cure for, “gout, malaria, beriberi, rheumatism, and curiously, poor memory.” (Abel, 1980)

Simultaneously, the popularity of cannabis as a medicine spread to Asia, Africa and then Europe. It’s also to be noted that in India cannabis became a drug for spiritual and recreational excess. In both Chinese and Indian pharmacopoeia, marijuana or bhang came to possess a value that was paralleled by religious esotericism. This development made inroads in America when Christopher Columbus, as per records, “bought cannabis as a rope of hemp into the New World.” Hemp, scientifically known as Sativa Cannabis L, had a tradition of being agriculturally harvested and used for making clothes, paper and ropes for the then-fledgling maritime industry (Bushak, 2016). The first permanent English settlement in Jamestown, Colony of Virginia, legislated law in 1619 that declared it necessary for all the settlers to cultivate the Indian variety of hemp. Similar laws were passed in Massachusetts and Connecticut, to enable the cultivation of hemp as a raw material for practical needs and fibre production, marking the beginning of state interventionism in the American case.

Despite having gained import for its analeptic properties and branding as an over-the-counter medicine, cannabis’ acceptance plummeted during the last few years of the 19th century, almost in tandem with the Temperance Movement which according to authorMike Jay, brought together various authorities, “to condemn the habitual intoxication of previous generations (2014).” This version was also coupled with the rising morphine addicts in American populace and led to the ratification of the Food and Drug Act of 1906. The flooding of Mexican immigrants into America during and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 intensified the culture of recreational smoking and lead to the state adopting several legislations to curb the same, namely through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937which imposed stringent punitive measure for possession or transfer of the drug barring medical or industrial consumption. United States’ political discourse also switched to the advocation of regulations of Indian Hemp or hashish on multiple international drug control forums.

Subsequently, the state began to crack down on cannabis users, sentencing even first-offence possession to a minimum of 2-10 years, with the penalty charge being as high as $20,000. Even as the stringent actions were repealed later, different administrations continued the drive against cannabis through imperatives such as President Regan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act and President George Bush’s televised declaration of the ‘War on Drugs.’ (Wade, 1996: 635-37).  Despite the gamut of measures taken by the state against the all-pervasive cannabis culture, in 1996 medicinal marijuana was legalised in California and as of 2012, Washington DC became the first state to legislate in support of recreational marijuana use and was followed by six other states voting in the favour.

This development although considered positive by legalization advocates remains fraught with complications since the US federal law continues to delineate cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug. Cognizant of its ‘high potential for abuse’ the federal law criminally classifies cannabis, allowing for the users to be federally prosecuted even in states where the drug has been granted legitimacy, for medical or recreational purpose alike. Such a contrary position has also caused the power play between the federal government and state leaders to come to the forefront. The friction is often caused by the hapless condition of local, state-level actors who operate in the cannabis business.

Due to the federally sanctioned illegitimacy of the ‘pot shops’ and cannabis producers, the participants cannot approach banks for loans, concessions or even conventional services. The trading in the drug is forced to remain restricted to cash dealings, making such shops an easy target for theft and the entire business highly risky from both the perspective of cost and manpower.

Pro-cannabis lobby Marijuana Industry Group seeks to link the issue with the larger question of public safety since the susceptibility of the local or state level cannabis businesses to robberies, kidnappings, and shootings puts the common man at risk too. These outlets are further forced to depend on third-party involvement to syphon their sales into investments and to pay taxes due to their lack of access to banking institutions. Such a predicament allows them to be easily victimised by private lenders who are aware of the absence of other means and lend at inflated interest rates that usually range from 16 to 20 per cent. Owing to the federally prohibited status of the cannabis retail, the businesses aren’t allowed tax concessions that are normally present for other legal establishments. Thereby, the effective taxes for cannabis marketers can soar up to as high as 70 to 90 per cent of the profit while regular businesses can maintain it to 30 per cent or less. Many of these shops are forced to shut down due to the unfair federal taxation apparatus, betraying the very stimulus for enacting state-level legalisation norms.

The switch of government from Obama administration to Trump has also intensified the clampdown on cannabis circulation in the US to mark a clear-cut departure from the former President’s relaxed approach towards the state level marijuana laws. The occurrence has had wide-ranging ramifications especially concerning private actors in American run for-profit prison and pharmaceutical industry. Anti-cannabis campaigns became a centric point of agenda and funding during the 2016 Presidential elections, with private prison and pharmaceutical companies and shelling out hefty political donations to promote their self-interests.

The Obama era’s direction to phase out the use of private prisons was repealed early into President Trump’s term and was previously punctuated by the prison enterprises funding pro-Trump campaigns alongside the anti-marijuana drive. For private prisons to be profitable, they must realise a certain quota annually as per their tender. Almost half of the number of inmates serving time in such prisons are arrested on the count of cannabis possession in small quantities for personal use, with the number being disproportionately ambled towards the African-Americans. A report produced in 2015 by Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union pinned the number of possession arrests at 574,641 and the rate of arrest as 13.6 per cent higher about other grievous charges. Understandably, the private prisons stand to lose out a significant amount of revenue through the legalization of cannabis and have been backing the campaigns against the same. The biggest companies in the industry, CoreCivic, and Geo Group spent large sums on lobbying and saw a sharp jump in their stocks the day after Trump’s win at 43% and 21% simultaneously, and the number has since then doubled, attesting to the thriving private prisons.

Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry made large donations to support Trump’s candidacy and anti-marijuana legalization agendas ranging from incrementally extreme advertising on televisions to raising official concerns about growing children and cannabis culture, big pharmaceutical companies engaged in heavy-handed lobbying as, either or both, recreational and medicinal marijuana smoking would necessarily undercut their profit by providing an alternative course, allowing for new players to come into the field of medicinal manufacturing.

The primary lobbyist Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA)spent as much as 19 million dollars on the congressional contestation in 2015 alone to protect its market-centric interests. The threat of cannabis use overtaking the booming pill market pushed the giant Big Pharma into opposing legalisation because of the potential of cannabis to be substituted for nausea curbing drugs, spanning from the cheaper options of Advil, Ibuprofen to the more expensive Vicodin and similar opioids. According to a study undertaken by theJournal of the American Medical Association 2014, the death rate from prescribed drug overdose is 25 per cent less in those states where medical marijuana is permitted as opposed to the states where it is illegal. 

Another study shows that Cannabis Laws can provide a much safer alternative to narcotic painkillers such as Oxycontin and Zohydro. Relatedly, big pharma company Insys Therapeutics Inc participated in a $500 million campaign against relaxed laws in Arizona in 2016 to protect its market share via trading in Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid responsible for more than 20,000 deaths every year in the United States. Fang Leeat the Nation Institute draws the attention to the curious funding of Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA). As one of the premier institutions in the US geared towards the protection of the common public from the drug menace, it’s odd to find that it receives a major chunk of its funds from Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories, self-anointed healthcare companies that are responsible for the sale of addictive painkillers opioids in the American market. Therefore for the pharmaceutical industry, eliminating competition in the form of marijuana production aligns with President Trump’s unfavourable view of the cannabis legalisation and hints at the close nexus between the state and grounded interests of the private players spread across the medical business sector.

The federal prohibition of cannabis in the United States is coterminous with the artificial arrangements in place amongst the different interest groups that seek to preserve their capitalistic gains by fighting against revisionist legislations. The systemic prosecution of both recreational and medicinal marijuana users by the federal government is indicative of a conflict of interests on the part of the state since figures show that about 64% of Americans support the legalisation. Hence, the constellations of power in both public and private sphere shape the political economy behind America’s ‘War on Drugs,’ often to the benefit of selected interest groups, at the expense of the masses.



  • Room, Robin, Fisher, Bendikt, et al., 2010. Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate. Oxford University Press, pp. 152-158.
  • Serrano, Alfonso, October 22, 2016, Guardian. “Inside Big Pharma’s Fight to Block Recreational Marijuana,” https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/oct/22/recreational-marijuana-legalization-big-business.
  • Siff, Stephen, May 2014, Origins: Ohio State University, Vol. 7, Issue 8, “The illegalisation of Marijuana: A Brief History,” http://origins.osu.edu/article/illegalization-marijuana-brief-history
  • Tramèr, Martin R., et al., 2001. “Cannabinoids For Control Of Chemotherapy Induced Nausea And Vomiting: Quantitative Systematic Review.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 323, no. 7303, 2001, pp. 16–21. 
  • Wade, O. L., et al., 1996. “The War On Drugs.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 312, no. 7031, pp. 635–637
  • Wilkins, Chris, and Scrimgeour, Frank, 2000. “Economics and the Legalisation of Drugs.” Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform, vol. 7, no. 4,  pp. 333–344.

Image credit: Harvard Medical School 

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Written By Shatakshi Singh

Currently pursuing her Master's in International Relations and Area Studies.

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