The Complicated History of Marijuana Use and Attitudes Toward Drugs in the US, Partly According to Tommy Chong | Inside Edition

The Complicated History of Marijuana Use and Attitudes Toward Drugs in the US, Partly According to Tommy Chong

Throughout the years, weed has been a medicine, a crime and now a business opportunity, but one thing stayed the same: Tommy Chong, of stoner duo "Cheech and Chong," is going to smoke it.

Of all the drugs and controlled substances in the United States, weed seems to be the most harmless. Many unwind at the end of the day by lighting a joint or taking some CBD oil instead. Dispensaries popping up across the country offer boutique marijuana shopping experiences and high-end chefs serve catered dinner parties with nothing but the best quality infused foods. 

But that wasn’t always the case. Cannabis has been available in the United States for nearly 200 years, but for much of that history, it has been shunned, feared and villainized. Some believed it to be a dangerous drug that causes murders, and others criminalized it, making it illegal to prescribe, distribute, sell or carry. 

Worse so, many even racialized it, leading to the decimation of many Black and brown communities, and the imprisonment of even more Black and brown men.

But one thing has been constant through marijuana’s ups and downs in American history: Tommy Chong

“I’ve been smoking weed since I was 17 years old,” Chong, most famous for being one-half of stoner comedy duo “Cheech and Chong,” told Inside Edition Digital.

Today Chong is synonymous with cannabis culture and legalization advocacy. He and Richard “Cheech” Marin’s 1978 cult favorite, “Up in Smoke,” along with the many movies, skits and stand-up shows, are credited with having made the stoner comedy genre mainstream.

“It was a Chinese guy that turned me on” to marijuana, he said. “He was a bass player, a jazz bass player. He handed me a joint, marijuana cigarette and a Lenny Bruce record at the same time. I took both, put the joint in my pocket, and so he lit up his own joint. I toked it up and changed my life forever.”

Now 83 years old, Chong has been smoking marijuana almost his entire life, and has been at the forefront of evolving attitudes – from what was considered to be “reefer madness” to growing support around legalization–  and changing legislation in the United States surrounding cannabis.

“It’s a step in the right direction, for sure,” Chong said of the evolving attitude toward cannabis. “We’re heading in such a beautiful, beautiful way.”

But the journey to today’s legalization and decriminalization was a long one, experts and advocates say.

1830s – Cannabis Is Introduced as a Medicine in the U.S.

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Toward the end of the 19th century in the United States, physicians began experimenting with prescribing cannabis as a medicine, and the drug first appeared in the medical literature for the first time in 1850, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

“These are liquid preparations by and large,” Adam Rathge, a historian with the University of Dayton, told Inside Edition Digital. “They’re more like cough syrups, tinctures. Certainly, smoking didn’t really happen until the early 20th century.”

Rathge, who specializes in the history of cannabis legislation in the United States, explained that it was brought over to America by Irish physician Sir William Brooke O’Shaunessy, who had previously worked in India, where cannabis and its byproducts were used in traditional medicine.

“[He] runs experiments – I use the term experiments, obviously, not in the way we would think today. These are not double-blind clinical trials, but he’s testing on patients, he’s testing on animals,” Rathge said. “American physicians are almost immediately skeptical of this.”

But medically, it was used in a similar manner as it would Rathge been today. “There were lots and lots of ailments that cannabis was tested on: arthritis, epilepsy, tetanus,” Rathge said. “I’ve even seen sources that talk about its use in childbirth, really any analgesic use. There was also discussion on the things we might associate it more with, things like increased appetite or helping patients sleep.”

Missing from the discussion then was recreational cannabis use, but Rathge said the same effects recreational cannabis users today enjoy were very much present.

“Physicians were using it on themselves and with other physicians and sometimes hilarity ensued,” he said. “They know they're going to have what they would call cannabis poisoning or cannabis overdose and know that funny things might happen.”

Like marijuana legalization today, many of the same conversations were being had about its efficacy, the ethics surrounding prescribing it, and how it should be labeled.

“Is there a lethal dose of cannabis? We're pretty sure now in 2021 that it doesn't exist, but there was a lot of discussion about what that would be and certainly a lot of discussion around the negative outcomes,” Rathge said. “These would be hallucinations or out-of-body experiences, anxiety, these things where people were definitely having that negative outcome from using cannabis medicine. And those were the driving factors around regulations or restrictions in the 19th century.”

The discussions came to a head when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), then called the Bureau of Chemistry, signed into law the Food and Drug Act in 1906 that standardized labeling laws and set restrictions on certain medications. It was also this law that paved the way for marijuana to be classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) describes as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

“It gets put alongside opium and morphine, it gets put alongside chloroform and arsenic,” Rathge said. “Because cannabis was lumped with all these other drugs through the 19th century, it keeps getting lumped with them. Nearly every state in the country by 1937 has a cannabis law that is prohibiting cannabis use in some way.”

1870s – Opium Dens Are Made Illegal, Marking the First Time Anti-Drug Legislations Have Been Passed in the U.S.

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Before marijuana prohibition and legislation surrounding regulating and restricting drugs as a whole entered the conversation, lawmakers sought to specifically outlaw opium dens and opium smoking.

This is also around the same time Chong’s family arrived in North America.

“My dad’s Chinese, his dad’s from Hong Kong or Canton. His dad came over to work the railroad, and got over here to Canada,” Chong explained. “Actually, my name is Chong Buk Hong. I was the only one in the family to get a Chinese name, because when I was born, my dad was overseas.”

In the late 1860s, up to 15,000 Chinese migrant workers were brought to the United States to build railroads. With them came opium, which was introduced to the Chinese Empire the century before by British colonizers.

Opium smoking was considered medicinal by white Americans at this point, but people began associating the drug with Chinese populations and quickly saw it as a threat to American values, according to experts. West Coast states, namely ones with bigger Chinese populations, began making opium dens illegal and smoking opium became a criminal act.

Many lawmakers and physicians used medicine and public health as a basis for the ban, with some tying opium use to the “Oriental menace,” and others having asserted that opium addiction could lead a person to “be like the Chinese.”

Some medical journals even warned that because opium smokers were predominantly Chinese, problems wrongly associated with the Chinese like uncleanliness, disease and the decay of “modern American middle-class values” could follow, according to published research by Harvard scholar Patrick McCaffrey.

“We live in a system that views people through racialized lenses, class lenses, gender lenses. And so all of those lenses are going to determine how you look at the so-called neutral act or drug use,” said Dr. Sheila Vakharia of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It was actually East Asian and Chinese people who were painted as the racialized other, who were bringing drugs into this country and using opium in ways that were very scary to white American populations.”

This, in addition to various other anti-Chinese laws passed in this time, paved the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act just years later, which made it impossible for Chinese railroad workers to seek U.S. citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943, after World War II.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, this was the first drug-related piece of legislation that set the tone for future anti-drug laws that have predominantly targeted communities of color.

“The history of painting drug use ... as a racialized ‘other’ issue has definitely fueled the flames of wanting to put more money into enforcement and to get drugs off the street,” Vakharia said. “But also to provide less sympathy towards users and seeing them as criminals, rather than people, who, in some cases, may be just occasional users.”

1936 – Propaganda Film “Reefer Madness” Popularized Notions That Weed Could Cause Its Users to Become Crazed

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The movie was a cumulation of a belief that “reefer madness” had been circling the United States and Mexico around this period.

“The idea that marijuana caused really terrible effects, particularly madness and violence, became very common in the U.S.,” historian Isaac Campos said. “This is derived from the fact that cannabis does have psychotomimetic effects. That is, people can experience panic attacks or anxiety when they take high doses of cannabis.”

Campos, author of “Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs,” explained that the idea that cannabis addiction could cause “madness” originated in Mexico in the late 1800s.

“There was almost no counter discourse in Mexico,” he said. “Marijuana actually was not very widely used in Mexico; very few people had actual personal experience with marijuana. All they knew were the stories that were coming out about the users of marijuana.”

Eventually, the idea spread north of the border, where, at times, the fear mongering was used as a tool in legislation.

“Elites at the upper levels, when they wanted to prohibit marijuana, harnessed those ideas in order to get marijuana prohibited,” Campos explained. “But they certainly didn't invent those ideas and they weren't the first ones to spread around.”

Around the same time, medical cannabis was under scrutiny, and the declining interest among physicians and new anxiety surrounding the drug made it an opportune time for fear and misinformation to spread.

“One of the main problems with cannabis was that they had a really hard time standardizing it,” Rathge explained, “The narrative of marijuana being the most dangerous drug coming from Mexico comes into the United States … at a moment when cannabis or medicinal cannabis really has very few defenders left and very few medical uses left. 

“But what you do have is 70 years of medical literature talking about all these frightening and alarming symptoms,” Rathge continued. “Just as soon as they start to make [the] connection that this Mexican marijuana is the same as cannabis, you start to just see the two meld together without a lot of pushback because there's not medical doctors still attempting to use cannabis or prescribe cannabis by that point.”

Chong, who was born shortly after this period, said those ideas were part of his initial exposure to marijuana.

“I was scared of it, to tell you the truth,” Chong explained. “My mother would talk about … some guy got high on marijuana and then killed his family with an ax.”

The 1936 film was later re-released as a parody of some of the fears it touted, and is today still seen as an ironic cult classic.

1955 – Beginning of the Vietnam War

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Drug use by soldiers during the Vietnam War skyrocketed, and while most using drugs were smoking marijuana, a significant portion of soldiers reported using other drugs like psychedelics, heroin and prescription pills, according to the Department of Defense.

For many, drugs were preferred over alcohol, as a hangover from drink could hinder a soldier from being able to perform his duties the following day, according to research published by the University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

While some experts speculated heavier drug use might have led to fewer negative side effects of war among soldiers – with only 1% suffering mental episodes while serving in Vietnam versus 10% of those who suffered mental episodes while fighting in World War II, according to History.com – it still sparked concern for lawmakers in the United States, with some blaming drug use for some of the atrocities committed in Vietnam.

“There was a lot of concern about soldiers using cannabis during Vietnam,” Campos said. “There’s those famous film shots from newsreels of a soldier smoking marijuana through the barrels of guns and that kind of thing.”

Despite commanders reporting in 1968 that marijuana and other drug use had not “degraded the military’s combat effectiveness,” according to research by a UNI scholar, attitudes during and after the Vietnam War toward marijuana solidified its role in society.

“For Nixon, the connection between marijuana and the Vietnam war was seen as a kind of an almost anti-American or subversive connection,” Campos said. “This was very much a concern of the Nixon Administration, that somehow the Vietnam war effort was being undermined by drugs.”

Even from a civilian’s point of view, Chong said the Vietnam War’s role in marijuana usage back home was clear.

“You couldn't get good weed up in Vancouver until the Vietnam War,” he said. Chong had been living in Vancouver up until his move to Los Angeles to further his career in comedy and acting.

And, so marijuana’s connection to the Vietnam War was solidified.

“Back in the day, the fear of marijuana was that it opened your mind,” Chong mused. “That’s how you got your anti-war protesters. They’d smoke a joint and say, ‘This war sucks, man. They’re killing us for what? Why are we over there?’”

1971 – President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs Begins

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“Marijuana was such a symbol of the '60s and on the left and of the counterculture,” Campos said. “And that in many ways inspired [Nixon] to escalate the war on drugs in the early 1970s.”

In a famous address to the nation, President Richard Nixon declared that “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.”

In the course of his administration, Nixon founded the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and introduced mandatory minimum sentencing and no-knock warrants for drug offenses. He also enacted the Controlled Substances Act, which lists marijuana in the Schedule I category of drugs, alongside methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

“President Nixon said … that doing drugs will fundamentally change your brain, will fundamentally change your character, makes people violent, makes people dangerous. That drugs have unpredictable effects on your psyche that can lead to lasting damage,” Vakharia said. “More Americans than not have experimented with drug use, and many have experimented with marijuana. And a lot of us can say that what we were educated to fear didn't translate to the reality of what we experienced.”

Despite a crackdown on cannabis during this time, Chong began making a name for himself in the space. He and Cheech Marin are hailed as founders of modern stoner comedy.

“When we came in there with weed … they really didn’t know what to do,” he joked. “It was all new and we introduced it to them.”

Chong and Marin first met in a topless nightclub in Vancouver that Chong co-founded, and quickly the two were joined as a comedy duo. “Our act really was more ‘TNA.’ A lot of that, a lot of sex jokes,” he explained.

When they brought their act to Los Angeles, they quickly found that pot jokes were resonating more with the local audience and they quickly shot to fame as Cheech and Chong.

“That evolved into us sharing a joint on stage, and the response was incredible,” he recalled. “Like a teenage fashion, if you don't shock the parents then it's not working, and that was the same thing with us. Ass soon as Cheech became a Chicano and as soon as I became a stoner, it was like, ‘Whoa, where have you guys been all our lives?’ And it was like almost [we] shot to the top.”

1978 – Cheech and Chong's Debut Movie "Up in Smoke" Is Released, Paving the Way in Stoner Comedy

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With the release of Chong and Marin's cult classic film came warnings for cinephiles to take heed of unlike any before. 

“We invented the ‘Watch out, excessive drug use’ warning for the motion picture industry,” Chong said.

While Cheech and Chong had been known in comedy circles for their stand-up show, they released their first feature film in 1978, directed by Lou Adler, who had earlier produced “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Their film was considered revolutionary, and is still today celebrated as a cult classic in stoner comedy.

“’Up in Smoke’ changed so many lives,” Chong said. “We did a ton of ad-lib, but the weed, I wrote more into it. We came [into the industry] with weed and not being like someone dying or cartels or anything like that, they really didn't know what to do.”

They shot to fame not long after, catching the attention of everyone, including famous Muscle Beach and Gold’s Gym body builders in Los Angeles.

“I got to hang out with Arnold [Schwarzenegger], with Zabo [Koszewski], all these great bodybuilders,” Chong recalled. “They get stoned and they would go to these all-you-can-eat buffets, after they were there the first time, the second time the owner would come, ‘No, no, we’re closed. We’re closed.’ When you get a stoned bodybuilder and turn them loose in a buffet, especially after the contest when they've been starving for the contest… But they were in great shape. They would work it off the next day anyway.”

Koszewski died in 2009, and Schwarzenegger did not respond to Inside Edition Digital’s request for comment.

1986 – President Ronald Reagan's Anti-Drug Abuse Act and First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" Campaign

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While in office, President Ronald Reagan doubled down on Nixon’s War on Drugs. Many believe the move was an overreaction against liberalism and the left from the Democrat-turned-Republican president.

“Marijuana was such a symbol of the ‘60s and of the left and of counterculture,” Campos said. “When the Reagan Administration comes into power in the 1980s, there’s kind of a pushback against really all things associated with the ‘60s.”

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 included the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and heavier sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine. Reagan also vowed that “by next year, our spending for drug law enforcement will have more than tripled from its 1984 levels.”

But a widely criticized consequence of the fight against drugs was that it disproportionately targeted communities of color and led to skyrocketing incarceration rates. 

“Our communities have seen, unfortunately, too many jail cells because of this plant,” said Eric Range, of Minorities for Medical Marijuana. “Blacks and Hispanics use at the same rates as whites do, but those communities are oftentimes sent to rehabilitation programs, they’re given opportunities for community service, versus an actual arrest, which then becomes something that follows you for the rest of your life.”

According to research published by the Justice Department, the amount of nonviolent drug offenders incarcerated in state prisons went from 6% in 1979 to almost 21% less than 20 years later in 1998.

Additionally, Black men are at least 13 times more likely to be sent to state prison than their white counterparts relative to population, Human Rights Watch reported.

But over-incarceration is just the beginning of many ways the War on Drugs has negatively impacted Black and brown communities. “The War on Drugs was actually more pervasive than that,” Range said. “This initial arrest dealing with marijuana plant really impacts people’s lives for decades, even after they have paid their debt to society.”

Many people arrested in connection to marijuana have ended up facing hefty fines as a result of charges or imprisonment, Range said. It becomes significantly more difficult to find good employment with a criminal record. Social welfare programs, like subsidized housing or financial aid for further education, are also unavailable to those with a criminal record, making it all the more difficult to have a true chance at starting over.

“You couldn't get funding from a bank in order to purchase a home,” Range explained. “You can't get student loans to be able to go to college to reinvest in yourself so that you can go and become a taxpaying contributing member of society to your community. So the tax base in our communities has disappeared, thus there's no money to rebuild roads and schools. Our schools are overpopulated, all of these things really and truly have been a part of the War on Drugs.”

Additionally, the social bonds broken when Black and brown men are taken away from their homes as a result of incarceration, leaving kids to be raised without fathers, cause long-lasting impacts, making it harder still for marginalized communities to recover from punitive legislation.

The Justice Department also noted in their study that communities former felons return to after incarceration saw increased rates of HIV/AIDS and unemployment as a result of the War on Drugs’ over-incarceration.

“If anything, the drug war and the ripple effects of the drug war only laid bare some of the real structural and racial inequalities of the country,” Vakharia explained.

And ultimately, this and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, which was launched in tandem, laid the ground for drug use to be viewed as a criminal issue, rather than a public health one.

“If you tell people to ‘just say no,’ when they say, ‘yes,’ they have no information to go off of, they have no tools for staying safe,” Vakharia said. “There's going to be a small percentage of people who sometimes will develop problems because of their use. And how do we, as a society, not push them to the margins, but welcome them in and offer them tools and resources to stay safe rather than shunning them or locking them up or in some way, deeming them as abnormal, when perhaps they just need some extra help and support?”

1996 – California Legalizes Medical Marijuana, and Several Other States Followed

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Just 10 years later, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

“People's opinions have changed pretty dramatically recently,” Vakharia said. “And I think part of that is also due to the amazing research that we've seen in recent years, really documenting and tracking the medical use of marijuana. The evidence has become pretty clear in its use for various conditions such as glaucoma, for spasticity, for wasting syndrome associated with HIV/AIDS diagnoses. And we've also seen some really promising results when it comes to pain.”

Megon Dee is a cannabis chef based in Portland, Oregon. While Dee’s business, Oracle Wellness Co., began and continues to operate in the recreational space, she explained her research into the healing properties of cannabis is what to focus her company more on wellness. “I create wellness solutions for a higher quality of life, for those who have chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, a whole list of ailments,” she said.

She explained that it began when she met a cancer patient who asked her for some products to help with her chemotherapy-related side effects.

“She was an artist and her hands were closed. She couldn't paint anymore,” Dee explained. She developed a topical tincture for the inflammation in her client’s hands that helped alleviate her symptoms. Thanks to her treatment plan, Dee said, “She can move her fingers again. She can paint again.”

“It’s a medicine,” Chong said. “There’s no other way to look at it.”

2003 – Tommy Chong Begins Prison Sentence on Federal Drug Paraphernalia Charges

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Years after building a name for himself around a stoner persona, Chong became caught up in a federal investigation, known as Operation Pipe Dreams, of the illegal sale of drug paraphernalia.

Chong was arrested for financing and promoting his son Paris Chong’s company, Glass Works/Nice Dreams, which sold high-end bongs as collective works of art. Chong’s arrest came after a large quantity of merchandise, ordered by undercover federal agents, were shipped to Pennsylvania, where a law prohibiting the use of the mail to transport drug paraphernalia was strictly enforced.  

While more than 100 separate homes and businesses were raided as part of Operation Pipe Dreams, and more than 55 people were named in indictments, only Chong, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to prison. Chong agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia in a deal that would protect his wife and son from being prosecuted. 

Neither Paris Chong nor his company were charged in the investigation. Those that were were sentenced to house arrest or probation. 

"The defendant has become wealthy throughout his entertainment career through glamorizing the illegal distribution and use of marijuana," prosecutors said of Chong in court papers. "Feature films that he made with his longtime partner Cheech Marin, such as 'Up in Smoke,' trivialize law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use."

But rather than fame, Chong believes that being a person of color made him a bigger target in the eyes of the prosecution. “It was a racist law that put me in jail,” he said. “The name ‘Chong’ put me in jail, because had I been ‘Bergman’ or anything else, I would have got house arrest like everyone else did.”

But Chong approached his prison sentence with a positive attitude. “When I was in jail, I had some of the best laughs I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

Chong spent his time playing practical jokes on his fellow inmates, including one who tried to give everyone legal advice. “We got a form, and so we filled it out with John’s name on it and we accused him of giving unlawful advice to the prisoners,” he said. “There’s no sense to it. John was literally crying … then he found out I was involved in it, and he tried the rest of his term to get me back.”

By the end of his stint, Chong often spent his evenings with fellow inmates. Together, they’d watch the sun set. “The last three months of my sentence, we watched every sunset,” he recalled. “People on the street now, a lot of them maybe see one or two when they go on vacation. Every day for three months. Incredible.”

2012 – Colorado and Washington Legalize Recreational Marijuana

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“I'm not the least bit bitter about it, because I see the natural progression,” Chong said of the recreational use of marijuana being legalized less than a decade after he finished his prison sentence.

In fact, he travelled to Denver to celebrate the first day dispensary businesses were allowed to operate.

“The lineup to get into the pot shop, it looked like a lineup to see Jesus,” he said. “I don't think there was one hippie in the bunch. Well hippies, what are we going to go to a pot shop to buy our weed? We know who grows it. We grow it.”

While marijuana legalization for recreational purposes makes weed more accessible to consumers, there are still significant hurdles and red tape that make it difficult for marginalized communities to enter the industry, especially if they have any felony charges on their record, Range said.

While the rules vary from state to state and business to business, many positions in the industry – from budtender to grower to cashier – require a special license and a criminal record could disqualify or prohibit people from getting approved. And individual businesses are allowed to reject job applicants if a background check turns up with former convictions.

Dee, the cannabis chef, said she knows firsthand the difficulty of trying to reinvent oneself after facing charges. “The odds are against you, and you could literally lose your life at any second If you don’t have means to get out of that situation,” the Baltimore, Maryland native said.

Dee said she doesn’t know where her life would be if she wasn’t able to have her six cannabis-related charges expunged. She said her partner at the time, whom she had lived with, had been a drug dealer. “We attempted to keep our lives very separate but I got caught up in the whirlwind of his actions,” she said.

She said it was impossible trying to get a job with a record, yet fighting to have her charges expunged without a lawyer wasn’t easy, either. But she credits having stuck through the process to how she was able to have a new start in Portland in the legalized marijuana industry.

“That's not the same way for a lot of people, unfortunately.” Dee said.

That’s where Minorities for Medical Marijuana steps in. Range, who serves as the board chair of the nonprofit, with chapters both around the country and internationally, explained that the organization offers a variety of services for those with cannabis-related charges, including supporting those through expungement.

The group also supports people in acquiring licenses, whether to grow cannabis or start a business, and connects those in adjacent industries to dispensaries.

“There are tremendous opportunities for minorities in this industry,” Range said. “Very few generations can say they’ve had a large industry come online and an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Minority communities need this type of economic benefit and development to go back into our communities, to rebuild that infrastructure that has been failing as a result of the War on Drugs.”

2020 – Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act Is Introduced

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The federal legislation seeks to remove marijuana's classification as a controlled substance and to help those unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs. 

On Friday, Rep. Jerry Nadler reintroduced the MORE Act in the House of Representatives. This comes after much anticipation asthe bill originally made history when it was approved in the House of Representatives in December 2020 as the first time a pro-marijuana legalization bill was backed at a federal level, despite having not advanced in the Senate then.

The basis of the MORE Act seeks to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, expunge records of those with marijuana convictions including for immigrants denied citizenship as a result of federal charges, create a path for those incarcerated for marijuana offenses to be resentenced and allow for federal loans to marijuana business.

Even so, the Drug Policy Alliance continues to lobby for equitable policies.

“Some of the things that we at the Drug Policy Alliance are trying to do in terms of legislation … is building racial equity into it from the beginning,” Vakharia explained. “If you are going to collect revenues from a legalized market, some of those tax revenues have to be earmarked for communities most impacted. Putting all of that tax revenue into a big bucket that the state can use … is well and good, but we also need to make sure to earmark that money to go back and reinvest in the communities that were most impacted.”

That includes the possibility of setting aside grants to communities most impacted by the War on Drugs, which will fund things like parks, job training programs and childcare programs.

Additionally, as a legal cannabis industry becomes part of the conversation, Vakharia said it’s important to include opportunities for those who have always been a part of the marijuana business to enter the legal market.

“How do we make sure to set aside licenses and opportunities for communities of color and low-income people and people who've already been incarcerated to get into the industry?” she said. “And if we don't build out those provisions early, it's hard to come back and break them in.”

In addition to streamlining expungements, Dee said her biggest hope is that the legalized marijuana industry introduces lower entry costs to make participation more accessible. “I don’t know many Black and brown people who have sustained generational wealth or are able to throw $60,000 on a business that may or may not work,” she said.

Range added, “We need to be part of that conversation. How you can be a good ally to communities of color [is to] create an inclusive industry, as well as create impact that goes back into those communities.”

2021 – Marijuana Can Now Be Legally Used Recreationally in 15 States, and Used for Medicinal Purposes in 36 States. What’s Next?

(Inside Edition Digital)

Experts agree that as the initial hurdle to undo marijuana criminalization is overcome, a more holistic conversation surrounding safety, regulation and side effects must take place.

“You’ve got 50 years or so of people realizing it’s not a harmful drug,” Campos said. “It doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Not everybody should take it. Some states are putting regulations on the amount of THC that can be in an edible, for example. These kinds of regulations are important and hopefully we can continue to have a more honest relationship with drugs.”

Rathge explained that nearly a century of anti-cannabis legislation means many years where comprehensive research was not possible. 

“We don't know nearly as much as we need to know, because the federal government has prevented us from doing that since 1937,” Rathge said “Doing the research on medical marijuana or even recreational marijuana is either really, really hard because of all the red tape, or impossible. We have very limited, good, high quality research that we could have otherwise had. The unfortunate part is that, I think our 19th century fore-bearers would have agreed, is we need the research.”

Vakharia agreed that emphasis on marijuana, not as a miracle drug, but as one that has both benefits and pitfalls, is the key to supporting all consumers.

“There's going to be a small percentage of people who sometimes will develop problems because of their use. And how do we, as a society, not push them to the margins, but welcome them in and offer them tools and resources to stay safe rather than shunning them or locking them up or in some way, deeming them as abnormal, when perhaps they just need some extra help and support?” Vakharia said. “That's the kind of world that I would like to live in.”

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