Will History Repeat Itself? Supreme Court: Cannabis Prohibition Unconstitutional

Summary and opinion by John Fouts.

Did you know that the US Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that cannabis prohibition was unconstitutional?  I certainly didn’t until learning more about the issue.  Most people do know by now that the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 is what led to prohibition in the first place, and most know who Harry Anslinger was, and the speculation that surrounds what motivated Anslinger to focus on making the plant illegal.  Because the focus of this summary is not on prohibition, I will not get into the detail behind the act itself – perhaps that can be covered in a separate summary.  Suffice it to say that the film Reefer Madness depicted the herb how Anslinger wished it to be viewed by the public. 

Timothy Leary in the 1960s was arrested for possession of cannabis in Texas.  Most people probably think of other things aside from cannabis when they hear his name.  Leary was a PhD and considered to be very bright.  He argued in Leary v. United States that the 1937 Tax Act required self-incrimination which citizens are protected against by the Fifth Amendment.  Not only did the Supreme Court side with Leary that the act was unconstitutional, but the vote was unanimous. 

For several months afterward, cannabis was made legal in the United States until Richard Nixon became involved.  Nixon was a proponent of classifying the drug as a schedule I substance with no medicinal value despite his own commissioned studies showing that it caused the death of cancer cells.  Cannabis has remained illegal federally ever since Nixon got together with the DEA to list cannabis as schedule I.

My Opinion:  I feel like I never know which way things are going to go with this topic and politics.  I have reached a new level of cautious optimism in terms of how the federal government has chosen to take a hands-off approach in regards to states where legal markets exist.  I am nervous about what is going to happen with a new administration when a new President takes office.  There is definitely momentum right now, however, towards reclassification or rescheduling at a minimum of cannabis.  In time, although I am not certain how many years away we may be from it, I am certain national legalization will be achieved.

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