Last updated on: 6/26/2008 | Author:

History of Medical Marijuana and the US Government

(in chronological order – oldest first)



1854 “The US Dispensary of 1854 lists cannabis compounds as suggested remedies for a multitude of medical problems, including neuralgia, depression, hemorrhage, pain relief and muscle spasm.”
1999, Saul RubinOffbeat Marijuana, Santa Monica Press
1870 US Pharmacopoeia lists cannabis as a medicine.”
2002, UK Cannabis Campaigners’ Guide
1906 Mid-1906 saw Congressional passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. “The act banned the interstate transportation of adulterated or mislabeled food and drugs. It set standards of quality and truth in labeling and did lead to the demise of much of the patent medicine industry since the ingredients of such medicines now were required to be indicated.”
1992, James A. Inciardi, PhD The War on Drugs II, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, p. 15
1914 “One of the most influential legislative acts ever passed concerning drugs occurred when Congress approved The Harrison Act (after its main sponsor, Representative Francis Burton Harrison of New York). This act (with a multitude of regulations, court decisions, Supreme Court decisions and amendments) was to become the standard and the basis of narcotic regulation in the United States for the next 50 years. It was based upon the constitutional authority of the Federal Government ‘to raise revenue and to tax and regulate the distribution and sale of narcotics’ (BJS, 1992, p. 76). The Harrison Act ultimately served to make illegal the non-medical use of morphine and cocaine. It ‘required all people who imported, manufactured, produced, compounded, sold, dispensed, or otherwise distributed cocaine and opiate drugs to register with the Treasury Department, pay special taxes, and keep records of all transactions.”
1992, James A. Inciardi, PhD The War on Drugs II, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, p. 15
1922 The Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act is passed by US Congress. It is intended to eliminate use of narcotics except for legitimate medical use.
2003, The Schaffer Online Library of Drug Policy “Drug Law Timeline”
Aug. 2
The Marijuana Tax Act passed by the 75th Congress, Public Act #238. It was signed and became law in December, 1937. This act did not ban marijuana outright. The law called for an occupational excise tax upon dealers, and a transfer tax upon dealings in marijuana. This did not make marijuana illegal, but made it so difficult for physicians to utilize, that it essentially ended its medical use.
Act of Aug. 2, 1937, Public 238, 75th Congress.

“Modeled after the Harrison Act, The Marijuana Tax Act essentially placed marijuana into the same category as cocaine and opium products. It became illegal to import marijuana into the United States (McWilliams, 1991). As predicted by the American Medical Association and others who fought the passage of the bill, it did not serve to curb marijuana use.”
1986 Edward M. BrecherDrug Laws and Drug Law Enforcement – Drugs and Society, p. 14


1938 “In 1938 the US Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) was passed by Congress.”
2003 The Schaffer Online Library of Drug Policy “Drug Law Timeline”

Drugs on the market prior to the 1938 Act were exempted [from having to prove safety] or “grandfathered,” and could be purchased by patients (prescriptions at that time were loosely regulated, and were not codified until 1951’s Durham-Humphrey Amendment). Those drugs on the market prior to 1938 could, and still can be, marketed as long as the product is for the same indication, it’s promoted in the same manner, carries the exact same chemical makeup, and there has been no break in production or marketing since 1938. [For example, morphine is a grandfathered drug which has not changed or had a break in marketing since 1938. One could still market a morphine product today, yet if anything is changed, such as the type of preservative used, then a new IND would be required.]
2002 US Food and Drug Administration Consumer Safety Officer

1941 “Marijuana is officially removed from the US Pharmacopoeia.”
1947 American Medical Association Report 10 of the Council of Scientific Affairs
1951 Congress passes The Durham-Humphrey Amendment, “which defines the kinds of drugs that cannot be safely used without medical supervision [prescription] and restricts their sale to prescription by a licensed practitioner.”
2002 US Food and Drug Administration Consumer Safety Officer
1960 “The year 1960 saw passage of the Manufacturing Act. Its purpose was to tighten controls and restrictions over legally manufactured narcotic drugs. By virtue of the Manufacturing Act a system of licensing manufacturers and setting quotas for classes of drugs, both natural and synthetic, was set in place. The United States became one of fifty-four nations who became party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. (This assumed the status of a US Treaty obligation in 1967)

The primary purpose of the Single Convention was to modernize and coordinate international narcotic control. Provisions were made within the Single Convention for the control of cannabis thus, in some of its features, the Convention singled out cannabis in much the same fashion it singled out opium and coca bushes (the source of cocaine). The Drug Abuse Control Amendments of 1965 revisited the Manufacturing Act of 1960 and tightened controls and increased penalties as found under that act. It was aimed specifically at barbiturates, amphetamines and hallucinogens (US News and World Report, 1970, pp. 85-89).”
1995 Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies “Cannabis Use in the United States: Implications for Policy,” University of Delaware

1962 “In 1962 Congress passed The Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments, which ensures drug efficacy and greater drug safety. For the first time, drug manufacturers are required to prove to FDA the effectiveness of their products before marketing them.”
May 3, 1999 US Food and Drug Administration FDA History, FDA Backgrounder
1970 In October 1970 President Richard M. Nixon signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention and Control Act of 1970 into law. “This popularly became known as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. It consolidates over fifty federal narcotic, marijuana and dangerous drug laws into one law designed to control the legitimate drug industry and to curtail importation and distribution of illicit drugs throughout the United States (US News and World Report, 1970, p. 90).” Notably, the act compressed the Harrison Act and its five decades of amendments, modifications and interpretations into one law.”

One aspect of the Controlled Substances Act defines a schedule for drugs. Schedule I lists those substances which have no accepted medical utility but have substantial potential for abuse. Found on this schedule are heroin, marijuana, and various other hallucinogens. Schedule II lists substances having a high abuse liability but also having some accepted medical purpose. Found on Schedule II are morphine and cocaine. It is worth noting that, under the scheduling provisions of the act, marijuana is seen as needing to be grouped with heroin while cocaine with its significant abuse liability and very limited medical use still falls into Schedule II. The Act did, with respect to criminal penalty, select out ‘marijuana from other drugs and lowered the maximum penalty for possession of an ounce of marijuana to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine, with the option of probation or a conditional discharge at the judge’s discretion’ (Slaughter, 1988, p. 421).”
1995 Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies “Cannabis Use in the United States: Implications for Policy,” University of Delaware

1976 “In November, 1976, a Washington, D.C. man (Robert Randall) afflicted by glaucoma employs the little-used Common Law Doctrine of Necessity to defend himself against criminal charges of marijuana cultivation (US v. Randall). On November 24, 1976, federal Judge James Washington ruled Randall’s use of marijuana constituted a ‘medical necessity.'”
1976 Patients Out of Time
“With the Carter years came a very clear distinction between narcotics and marijuana. Testifying before the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control in July 1978 two high ranking Carter officials made several statements of note:

  1. It was admitted the Federal Government did not have a specific treatment program for marijuana and in fact, the Administrator of the Federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Agency said, ‘There is no treatment required for the use of marijuana as such,’ believing that a marijuana addiction was not possible.


  2. The Associate Director of the Domestic Policy Staff, The White House, while stating the Administration’s position to discourage marijuana use went on to say, ‘…we have talked about the propriety of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, under Federal statute only. This would, in effect, merely codify what is already occurring, since Federal law enforcement efforts should not be directed at people who possess small amounts of any drug, particularly marijuana’


  3. The Federal position under the Carter Administration was that this move towards decriminalization was a state-by-state choice and should not be mandated by the Federal establishment. This tolerance was not a totally new point of view as the period 1973-1978 saw eleven states decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.”
    1995 Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies “Cannabis Use in the United States: Implications for Policy,” University of Delaware

1978 “In 1978, as a result of a settlement agreement in a lawsuit against the US Government (Randall v. US), a procedure is devised to allow patients to receive medical marijuana from the US government (NIDA).” Single individual patients were admitted, one patient at a time, into separate treatment studies. Each patient and their corresponding physician admitted is considered a separate Investigational New Drug research program. The patient is given a prescription for marijuana, which is filled by a local pharmacy licensed (by the DEA) to dispense Schedule I drugs. The marijuana is grown on a US Government farm in Mississippi.
1978 Patients Out of Time
1981 “In 1981, the government agreed to sell the patent for Marinol, a synthetic form of one of marijuana’s active ingredients, to Unimed Pharmaceuticals, now in Buffalo, IL. Unimed applied to the FDA for permission to market the pill as a treatment of the nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy in patients who have failed to respond adequately to conventional anti-emetic (anti-nausea) treatments. In November 1984, the FDA rejected Unimed’s application because clinical tests that had been done on the drug were deficient. But Unimed hustled up some more data, and by June 1985 the FDA delivered its approval. The DEA placed it into Schedule II.”
July 1994 High Times Magazine pp. 18-21
1988 In September, the DEA’s administrative law judge, Francis Young, “after taking medical testimony for 15 days and reviewing hundreds of DEA/NIDA documents positioned against the evidence introduced by marijuana reform activists, concludes that “marijuana is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” He recommends that marijuana be rescheduled to permit medical use.
2000 Jack HererThe Emperor Wears No Clothes, Chapter 6
1989 On December 30, 1989 DEA Director John Lawn, ignoring the September, 1988 recommendation by DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young, orders that cannabis remain listed as a Schedule I narcotic – having no known medical use.”
2000 Jack HererThe Emperor Wears No Clothes, Chapter 6
“The Compassionate IND Program for medical marijuana was suspended after the number of applications surge in response to the AIDS epidemic.”
1997 American Medical Association Report 10 of the Council on Scientific Affairs
The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (Louis W. Sullivan, MD, under President George Bush, Sr.) decides that NIDA would not provide marijuana for single-patient INDs except to those patients who were already receiving marijuana at that time. 27 additional single-patient INDs that had received FDA approval are canceled and the patients are not supplied with marijuana.
1997 American Medical Association Report 10 of the Council on Scientific Affairs
July 10
A legal challenge to marijuana’s schedule I prohibited status was filed by Jon Gettman (and High Times Magazine), former National Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), 1986-1989. The 55,000-word petition “was filed with the DEA requesting proceedings to have marijuana and all cannabinoids removed from Schedules I and II of the Controlled Substances Act because they do not have the abuse potential required by statute for inclusion in those schedules.”
1995 High Times Magazine
Oct. 29
“Ballot measures to legalize marijuana for medical purposes could increase drug use among youths, three former US presidents asserted in a letter released Tuesday.

Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush said in the letter that they ‘categorically oppose’ Proposition 200 in Arizona and Proposition 215 in California on next week’s ballot. The letter was released by the White House drug policy chief, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

‘Given the resurgent drug use by our youth, these measures pose enormous threats to the public health of Arizonians, Californians, and all Americans,’ the letter said. The letter warned that the measures imply that the illegal drugs are safe and would undermine youth drug prevention programs.

‘Their passage would presage further increases in drug use by our children,’ the letter said.”
Oct. 29, 1996 Associated Press “Ex-Presidents Oppose Marijuana”

Dec. 12
McCaffrey and Dept. of Transportation Secretary Federico Pena hold a joint press conference stating, “The law is clear. If you are a safety-sensitive worker and you’re caught using drugs [including medical marijuana], these propositions don’t mean a thing. You’re out of a job.”
Jan. 1998 Paul Armentano “The Fight for Medical Marijuana,” Liberty Magazine Vol XI, No. 3.
Dec. 30
The Clinton administration announces its plan to institute criminal prosecution of physicians who prescribe or recommend marijuana in California and Arizona, and to deprive them of their right to write prescriptions of any kind. The plan further recommends that such physicians be excluded from Medicaid and Medicare.
Jan. 1998 Paul Armentano “The Fight for Medical Marijuana,” Liberty Magazine Vol XI, No. 3
Aug. 8
White House spokesman Mike McCurry tells the Associated Press that the administration continues to oppose the use of marijuana to treat sick people despite the NIH findings, but supports continued scientific study of this issue, stating, “We’re always open to factual information.”
Aug. 8, 1997 United Press International “NIH Panel Reports on Medical Marijuana.”
Nov. 2
The FDA Modernization Act of 1997 was passed. “The act reauthorizes, for five more years, the Prescription Drug User Fee Act of 1992 (FDUFA). In the previous five years, the program has enabled the agency [FDA] to reduce to 15 months the 30-month average time that used to be required for a drug review before FDUFA.
May 3, 1999 US Food and Drug Administration FDA History , FDA Backgrounder
Mar. 20
US DEA denies a petition by Jon Gettman to reschedule marijuana to permit medical use, saying “the evidence overwhelmingly leads to the conclusion that marijuana has a high potential for abuse.” Mr. Gettman and High Times Magazine file an appeal.
published Apr. 18, 2001 in the Federal Register (volume 66, pg.0038) US Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Control Program
May 14
The United States Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative, rules; “There is no medical necessity exception to the Controlled Substances Act’s prohibition on manufacturing and distributing marijuana.”
2001 US Supreme Court Syllabus of United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative ET AL
June 17
US Department of Health and Human Services, on reviewing a petition by Jon Gettman and High Times Magazine to reschedule marijuana forwarded to them by the US DEA in 1997, recommends that marijuana “continue to be subject to control under Schedule I,” because “current scientific and medical evidence demonstrates that marijuana continues to meet all three statutory criteria for placement in Schedule I.”
2001 US Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Control Program
Oct. 29
The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rules 3-0 in Conant v. McCaffrey that “the federal government may not revoke a doctor’s license to dispense medications, or investigate a physician, for recommending marijuana to sick patients.” The government’s appeal with the US Supreme Court was denied without review.
Oct. 29, 2002 The Los Angeles Times
Apr. 20
“Thus, the court of appeals’ conclusion that the possession, manufacture, and free distribution of marijuana for purported personal ‘medicinal’ use justify excluding those activities altogether from the reach of the CSA is flatly inconsistent with the fundamental premises and purposes of the CSA.

Indeed, far from suggesting that the purported medical use of a drug is a basis for excluding it from the scope of regulation under the CSA as a matter of constitutional law, the medical setting for the use of a drug that is subject to abuse provides further justification for its regulation.”
Petitioner’s brief to the US Supreme Court, filed on behalf of US Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in Ashcroft v. Raich

Sep. 27
John P. Walters, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, wrote:

“In fact, smoked marijuana, a Schedule I controlled substance (Schedule I is the government’s most restrictive category), has no medical value and a high risk of abuse. The Food and Drug Administration notes that marijuana has not been approved for any indication, that scientific studies do not support claims of marijuana’s usefulness as a medication, and that there is a lack of accepted safety standards for the use of smoked marijuana…

The truth is, there are laws against marijuana because marijuana is harmful. With every year that passes, medical research discovers greater dangers from smoking it, from links to serious mental illness to the risk of cancer, and even dangers from in utero exposure.”
Sep. 27, 2004 John P. Walters “No surrender: the drug war saves lives,” National Review

June 6
“The question before us, however, is not whether it is wise to enforce the statute in these circumstances; rather, it is whether Congress’ power to regulate interstate markets for medicinal substances encompasses the portions of those markets that are supplied with drugs produced and consumed locally. Well-settled law controls our answer. The CSA is a valid exercise of federal power, even as applied to the troubling facts of this case. We accordingly vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals.”
6/6/05 US Supreme Court majority opinion in Gonzalez v. Raich (formerly Ashcroft v. Raich)
June 6
The US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Gonzalez v. Raich against medical marijuana proponents. Commenting the on the ruling, John Walters, Director of the ONDCP stated:

“Today’s decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue. Our nation has the highest standards and most sophisticated institutions in the world for determining the safety and effectiveness of medication. Our national medical system relies on proved scientific research, not popular opinion. To date, science and research have not determined that smoking marijuana is safe or effective.”
June 6, 2005 John P. Walters ONDCP