Then, in 1961, the UN deemed cannabis to possess no medical value and having “particularly dangerous properties”. It became a schedule one drug and research, and medical use was stopped in its tracks (though this was recently reversed). A former aide of “war on drugs” architect, ex US president Richard Nixon, later admitted that “by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana … and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities” amid a campaign against the antiwar left.
However, reefer madness narratives increasingly crumbled as miraculous tales of the use of cannabis for serious medical conditions which had not otherwise responded to treatment. “In the 1970s, Holland was one of the first countries to diverge from prohibitionist policies and permitted medical use of cannabis,” says Dr Jessica Steinberg, who recently received a PhD from Oxford University on the history of legal cannabis markets.
“There was already relaxed law enforcement, including an adopted harm reduction approach. At the time, youth movements were gaining force. There was a need to acknowledge younger generations and prohibitionist policies did not align with these groups’ interests.”
Then US states, beginning with California in 1996, legalised medical use; amid growing suggestions of its usefulness for epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, anorexia and even cancer. “There have been other state laws labelled as ‘compassionate use’, which highlights the role of advocacy and patient’s lived experiences of struggle in advancing reform,” adds Steinberg.