The War on Cannabis: From Reagan to Now

Written by Aaron Crooke

April 2, 2024

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Since the Reagan era, the United States has been embroiled in what can only be described as a war on cannabis. The policies enacted during this time have had profound implications for society, the criminal justice system, and public health. Let’s take a closer look at the evolution of cannabis policy in the United States from the Reagan era to the present day.

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Reagan Era (1980s): The Beginning of the War on Drugs



The Reagan administration’s War on Drugs marked a paradigm shift in American drug policy, with cannabis at the forefront of legislative and enforcement efforts. Reagan’s anti-drug crusade was fueled by moralistic fervor and a belief in the deterrent power of harsh penalties. The passage of laws such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 ushered in an era of unprecedented federal intervention in drug law enforcement. These laws imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including cannabis possession and distribution, leading to a dramatic increase in incarceration rates, particularly among communities of color. The era saw the militarization of drug enforcement efforts, with aggressive tactics employed to combat cannabis cultivation and distribution both domestically and abroad.

Despite mounting evidence suggesting that punitive measures were ineffective in reducing drug use and dependence, the Reagan administration remained steadfast in its commitment to prohibitionist policies. The rhetoric surrounding the War on Drugs vilified cannabis users and portrayed drug use as a moral failing rather than a public health issue. This approach perpetuated stigma and hindered efforts to implement harm reduction strategies or explore alternative approaches to drug regulation. The Reagan era set a precedent for subsequent administrations to prioritize punitive measures over evidence-based approaches, laying the groundwork for decades of punitive drug policies that would disproportionately impact marginalized communities.

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    Clinton Era (1990s): “Three Strikes” Laws and Continued Enforcement


     The Clinton era saw the continuation and exacerbation of the punitive drug policies initiated during the Reagan administration. The passage of “three strikes” laws, which mandated life sentences for individuals convicted of three or more felony offenses, including non-violent drug offenses like cannabis possession, further entrenched draconian sentencing practices. These laws disproportionately affected communities of color, perpetuating racial disparities within the criminal justice system. Despite growing criticism of the war on drugs and calls for reform, the Clinton administration maintained a tough-on-crime stance, prioritizing enforcement measures over harm reduction strategies.

    The 1990s also witnessed the escalation of the militarization of drug enforcement efforts, with federal resources increasingly allocated to combat cannabis cultivation and trafficking. The era saw the expansion of initiatives such as the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, which aimed to eradicate illicit cannabis cultivation through aggressive law enforcement tactics. However, these efforts did little to curb cannabis availability or use, instead contributing to the criminalization and stigmatization of cannabis users. The Clinton era underscored the entrenched nature of punitive drug policies in American society and highlighted the need for comprehensive reform to address the systemic injustices perpetuated by the war on drugs.

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      Bush and Obama Eras (2000s-2010s): Mixed Signals and Changing Attitudes


      While cannabis remained illegal at the federal level, attitudes towards it began to shift during the Bush and Obama administrations. Several states passed medical cannabis laws, allowing patients with certain conditions to access cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Additionally, some states decriminalized cannabis possession, reducing penalties for minor offenses.

      During the Bush and Obama eras, there was a notable divergence between federal and state attitudes and policies regarding cannabis. While cannabis remained classified as a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level, meaning it was deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, states began to challenge this classification by enacting their own cannabis laws. The passage of medical cannabis laws in various states during this period represented a significant departure from the strict prohibitionist stance of previous administrations. These laws allowed patients suffering from a range of medical conditions, such as chronic pain, epilepsy, and cancer, to access cannabis as a form of treatment under the supervision of a healthcare provider.

      Furthermore, several states took steps to decriminalize cannabis possession, reflecting a growing recognition of the disproportionate impact of punitive drug policies on marginalized communities. Decriminalization measures typically involved reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for minor cannabis offenses, such as possession of small amounts for personal use, and replacing them with civil fines or diversion programs. These reforms aimed to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, alleviate the collateral consequences of cannabis convictions, and redirect resources towards more pressing public safety priorities.

      The shift in state-level cannabis policies during the Bush and Obama eras reflected changing societal attitudes towards cannabis and a growing acknowledgment of its potential therapeutic benefits. Increasingly, cannabis was viewed less as a dangerous illicit substance and more as a legitimate form of medicine for treating various medical conditions. This changing landscape laid the groundwork for broader discussions about cannabis reform at the national level and contributed to a growing momentum towards ending the federal prohibition of cannabis. However, despite these advancements, conflicts between state and federal law created legal uncertainty and barriers to accessing cannabis for medical purposes, highlighting the need for comprehensive federal reform to reconcile these inconsistencies and ensure equitable access to cannabis-based therapies for all who could benefit from them.

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      Trump Era (2010s-2020): Conflicting Policies and State Legalization

      The Trump administration took a somewhat ambiguous stance on cannabis. While then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era guidance that allowed states to legalize cannabis without federal interference, President Trump himself expressed support for states’ rights to decide their own cannabis policies. Despite federal opposition, several more states legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use during this time.

      The Trump era marked a period of uncertainty and conflicting signals regarding federal cannabis policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a staunch opponent of cannabis legalization, rescinded the Cole Memorandum, an Obama-era guidance that provided some protection for states with legal cannabis programs from federal intervention. This move cast doubt on the future of state-legal cannabis markets and raised concerns among industry stakeholders and advocates. However, despite Sessions’ anti-cannabis stance, President Trump himself expressed support for allowing states to determine their own cannabis policies, signaling a departure from the more aggressive enforcement approach advocated by his attorney general.

      Amidst this ambiguity at the federal level, several states continued to push forward with their own cannabis legalization efforts. Despite the threat of potential federal intervention, voters in several states approved ballot measures to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational use during the Trump administration. These victories underscored the growing public support for cannabis reform and demonstrated that cannabis legalization had become a bipartisan issue with widespread appeal. Furthermore, the continued expansion of state-legal cannabis markets highlighted the economic potential of the cannabis industry, creating jobs and generating tax revenue in states that embraced legalization.

      Overall, the Trump era was characterized by conflicting policies and shifting attitudes towards cannabis at the federal and state levels. While the administration’s actions, such as the rescission of the Cole Memorandum, created uncertainty and posed challenges for the cannabis industry, the continued momentum towards legalization at the state level reflected a growing consensus in favor of reform. Despite the lack of significant federal action on cannabis during the Trump presidency, the era set the stage for continued debates and discussions about the future of cannabis policy in the United States

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      Biden Era (2021-Present): Calls for Federal Reform

      President Joe Biden’s stance on cannabis has evolved over time. While he has stopped short of endorsing full legalization, he has expressed support for decriminalization, expunging prior cannabis convictions, and allowing states to set their own policies. With Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, there is renewed momentum for federal cannabis reform, including efforts to deschedule cannabis and address social equity issues.

      The Biden era has brought renewed attention to federal cannabis reform, with President Joe Biden signaling a shift in approach compared to previous administrations. While Biden has not embraced full legalization, his administration has shown openness to certain reforms aimed at addressing the harms of cannabis prohibition. One key aspect of Biden’s stance is his support for decriminalizing cannabis possession at the federal level, which would remove criminal penalties for individuals found in possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. This approach aligns with growing recognition of the disproportionate impact of drug enforcement on communities of color and the need to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

      Additionally, President Biden has expressed support for expunging prior cannabis convictions, acknowledging the long-lasting consequences of criminal records for individuals convicted of non-violent cannabis offenses. Expungement efforts aim to provide relief to those burdened by past convictions and help facilitate their reintegration into society. Biden’s advocacy for expungement reflects a broader recognition of the need for criminal justice reform and efforts to address the collateral consequences of punitive drug policies.

      Furthermore, President Biden has signaled his willingness to respect states’ rights to enact their own cannabis policies, consistent with his previous statements advocating for a federalist approach to cannabis regulation. This stance acknowledges the diversity of opinions and approaches towards cannabis across different states and allows for experimentation with various regulatory models. With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, there is growing momentum for federal cannabis reform, including legislative efforts to deschedule cannabis and address social equity issues within the industry. These developments signal a potential shift towards a more rational and evidence-based approach to cannabis policy at the federal level, though the exact trajectory of reform efforts remains to be seen.

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      Conclusion: The Need for Comprehensive Reform


      The war on cannabis, initiated during the Reagan era, has had far-reaching consequences. It has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, contributed to mass incarceration, and failed to curb cannabis use or availability. As attitudes towards cannabis continue to evolve, there is growing recognition of the need for comprehensive reform at both the state and federal levels. This includes ending the criminalization of cannabis, expunging prior convictions, and implementing policies that prioritize public health and social equity.

      In summary, the war on cannabis, which began during the Reagan era, has been characterized by harsh penalties, racial disparities, and a failure to achieve its intended goals. Moving forward, there is a pressing need for evidence-based policies that address the complexities of cannabis regulation while promoting justice and equity for all.