The Strange Politics & History Behind Why Tobacco Is Legal While Weed (Cannabis Sativa) Isn't

Note: this article doesn't intend to glorify or encourage the use of drugs.

Cannabis isn't a drug criminalised on the basis of empirical evidence that prove that it is toxic enough to once have been in the most prohibited category of drugs (Schedule 4) in the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It is banned despite scientific studies proving that it is far less malignant to the human body than alcohol & tobacco. So why's it banned in most American states? Racism, vested interests, & political stigmatisation.


Drugs have been intertwined with civilisations for as long as history can remember. But while red wine is the blood of Christ, a drug far older - & perhaps more useful - than alcohol hasn't quiet bloomed in popularity. Today, Marijuana (Canabis Sativa) is one of the most polarising drugs in the entire world. Some people enjoy it, some people absolutely despise its existence. Some use it as recreation, some people deem it to be on the same tier as heroin, cocaine, ketamine, etc. & some people want it legalised, some would curse the soil of their country if that day ever were to arrive.


It's rather easy to see why both sides cling onto their beliefs so strongly in today's decisive political climate. American conservatives have branded progressive individuals as 'weed-smoking hippies'. To quite a few Republicans, weed is a quintessential artefact of 'woke-ness' - a symbol of the supposed regression of America. They've lived through the opioid epidemic. Though every conservative may not view marijuana to be on the same tier as cocaine, they reckon that a gateway can go a long way. Rather surprisingly, science appears to agree with this argument. In a New York Times roundtable with experts on the subject, Robert L. DuPont said that "marijuana use is positively correlated with alcohol use & cigarette use, as well as illegal drugs like cocaine & methamphetamine. This does not mean that everyone who uses marijuana will transition to using heroin or other drugs, but it does mean that people who use marijuana also consume more, not less, legal and illegal drugs than do people who do not use marijuana".


Simply put, however, correlation isn't causation; marijuana doesn't lead you to other drugs. This is where the liberals' argument comes in. Scientific studies have proven that marijuana is less destructive to the human body than both tobacco & alcohol, some suggesting that alcohol is more of a gateway drug than marijuana. Additionally, the legalisation of medical marijuana resulted in significant reductions in deaths caused by opioid overdoses, averaging around 25% less per year. Let's not forget the community which is reprimanded most frequently for the use of marijuana: African-Americans. Marijuana use is virtually equal between Black & White Americans, but Black people are more than 3.7 times likely to face charges or imprisonment for marijuana possession. That's a ration of almost 4:1.


Let's get one thing straight: cannabis isn't a drug criminalised on the basis of empirical evidence that prove it is toxic enough to be in the most prohibited category of drugs in the UN Single Treaty on Narcotics. It is banned despite scientific studies proving that it is far less malignant to the human body than tobacco. So why's it banned in most American states & the rest of the world? Racism, vested interests, & political stigmatisation. The process of banning something is - & always has been - inherently political (think about what Republican governors are doing with masks & mask mandates). Cannabis is no exception.

The quest for an answer takes us all the way back to the 18th Century. Buckle up. Ever since its discovery in central Asia or western China, cannabis has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. Naturally, in the 1700s, it was readily available throughout North America in the form of medication. Marijuana enjoyed a 'snake oil' phase in the late 1800s when it was being used in a wide variety of medicines & tinctures - the forefather of Goop, if you will. The potency of the medicines it was used was variable, but it was never viewed as more detrimental than any other plant growing in one's backyard.


Fast-forward to the US's prohibition of alcohol in 1920. Speakeasies - illicit establishments that promised to serve alcoholic drinks of every shape & size - began popping up all across the US, & the arcane bars simultaneously fostered marijuana smokers. This was around the time where the popularity of jazz musicians soared. Marijuana became so ubiquitous that it would be nearly impossible for you to take a stroll down the street & spot at least one cannabis smoker. But given that alcohol was largely illegal, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was losing its raison d'etre (purpose of existence). Displeased with the massive budget cuts his department was facing, Commissioner Harry Ansligner set out on a quest for a new substance to demonise in order to keep a roof above his head. Sounds like a harsh interpretation of history? It isn't; Ansligner himself conceded that the root of his attack on cannabis was to keep his pay checks coming in. But whether that justifies what he did next is in your hands.


Reefer Madness, a campaign backed by the US government & spearheaded by Ansligner, claimed that Mexican & Black people were trying to poison the White youth. Keep in mind that Jazz musicians were predominantly Black. Experts in pseudo-science & falsified documents were used to portray marijuana as the worst substance to touch America. Ansligner proceeded to give a statement to Congress, claiming that "Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality & death". This wasn't one of the most off-colour remarks in his address. In fact, they were all on colour. He went on to say that cannabis "makes White women seek sexual relationships with n*****s", "makes d**kies think they're as good as White men", & "makes Mexicans thirst for White blood".


Within days, entire police departments began claiming that cannabis use underpinned murder. The campaign even had a Hollywood moment. A 1936 film entitled "Reefer Madness" featured a young man who murdered his entire family after smoking a marijuana cigarette given to him by...a Mexican man. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 eventually passed. banning all forms of cannabis in the country. Joints were brutally targeted, & some newspaper advertisements went as far as to declare that even tobacco cigarettes were being spiked with cannabis by Black & Mexican people.

This monumental lunacy & wave of gruelling racism could've been stopped by the US government. They knew that Ansligner's claims were nonsensical & scientists had proved marijuana to be rather futile. But they didn't. They could've atoned for this mistake in 1973, when a bipartisan committee requested President Nixon to decriminalise the substance. In turn, the infamous president requested for the committee to be dismantled & birthed the War On Drugs movement. The following is the real response of Nixon’s aid & the White House Domestic Affairs Advisor from 1969 to 1973, John Ehrlichman, when asked about his reasoning behind the movement:


“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana, and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Yes, the criminalisation of marijuana & the War On Drugs movement were created to bully dissenters & toil marginalised minorities.

We know that marijuana is far less harmful to the human body than tobacco. Then why's marijuana still banned while tobacco smokers face mild societal condemnation, not jail time for 2-10 years? Money, money, & money.


Banning tobacco cigarettes would pose an unbelievable loss for governments. For instance, it's estimated that the American government makes anywhere between $300 billion to a trillion dollars from the taxes levied on cigarettes. In US dollars, the basic sale price of a pack of cigarettes in a true open market would be around $2. But the average cost is almost triple of this amount due to taxes. That's a 200% tax rate! & in cities/states with the highest taxes, the price will go up to $12 or even more - a 500% to 600% tax rate. The bitter truth is that the government needs this money. & charging absurdly high taxes on cigarettes is far easier to justify because governments can claim that they're required to do so under the United Nation's WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control's treaty. Similar levels of benefits cannot currently be reaped from cannabis because, well, the number of legal pharmacies is tiny in comparison to the number of drug dealers who offer the substance at attractive rates in the 32 states where cannabis is completely illegal.


Then there's the other beneficiary of tobacco cigarettes: manufacturers. Tobacco is a massively profitable industry. Market leaders want to keep enjoying high profits (of course), & the emergence of new companies in the industry harms their profitability. This is why tobacco companies lobby with politicians in or order to sustain the barriers of entering the industry, often donating large amounts of money to campaigns or the lawmakers. Again, the money goes in the government's pockets.


To legalise or not to legalise, that is the question. But it isn't for me to answer. It is a fact that cannabis's unlawfulness is the result of government-endorsed racism. It's unquestionable. It is also a fact that tobacco's legality is partly a result of the government's prioritisation of money over public health.


-by Rayansh Singh