Many of us grew up with the idea that, although not deadly like some other drugs, marijuana can be a “gateway drug” that leads to the abuse of stronger substances.
In actual fact, the whole reason marijuana was illegal for so long is largely political and racist: After the end of alcohol prohibition in the 1930’s, the American Federal Bureau of Narcotics (headed by Harry Anslinger) needed to find a new substance to demonize in order to not be shut down.
The Bureau ran a propaganda campaign that drummed up Americans’ fears of Mexican immigrants, and since weed was largely associated with Mexicans, they were able to convince the public that cannabis led to more interracial violence.
Even though scientists were able to prove that weed wasn’t connected to violence or insanity as early as the 1940’s, laws had already been passed that criminalized it. In 1973 a bipartisan commission recommended that President Nixon decriminalize the substance, but the president and his advisors decided to rather use it as a scapegoat again.
This is an actual quote from one of Nixon’s aides, John Ehrlichman (White House Domestic Affairs Advisor, 1969 – 1973):
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.
Meanwhile, even though cannabis caused zero deaths per year, alcohol (88,000 deaths per year) and tobacco (480,000 deaths per year) remained legal.