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  • From Killer Weed to Popular Medicine:The Evolution of American Drug Control Policy, 1937–2000
  • Kathleen Ferraiolo (bio)

Here we have a drug that is not like opium. Opium has all the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde. This drug [marijuana] is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.

—Harry J. Anslinger, Hearings on the Marihuana Tax Act, U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, 1937

If you're undergoing cancer chemotherapy, severe nausea and vomiting are common side effects. And they often fail to respond to available medications. Fortunately, there is a medicine that can help. It's marijuana. Question 2 allows dying and suffering patients to use small amounts of marijuana. Non-medical use remains illegal. Morphine helps; marijuana helps. Vote yes on 2. We want to be able to offer you every medicine that helps.

—"Doctor" with Richard Baldwin, M.D., Television Ad Aired in Support of Question 2 in Maine, 1999

On November 2, 2004, Montana voters made two critical but seemingly contradictory electoral choices. First, along with their counterparts in thirty other states, they voted to reelect George W. Bush as president. Second, they approved a medical marijuana ballot initiative by a margin of 62 to 38 percent—the second largest margin of victory for such measures to date. In fact, in this paradigmatic "red state," Montana voters backed medical marijuana in greater numbers and by a greater percentage than they supported the reelection of the president.1

The ratification of Initiative 148 in Montana was the latest in a string of victories for the statewide medical marijuana movement. Despite [End Page 147] staunch federal opposition, 56 percent of California voters approved the first medical marijuana measure in 1996. Proposition 215 permitted patients with illnesses ranging from AIDS and cancer to anorexia and migraine to use medical marijuana with a physician's recommendation.2 In the four years after the passage of Proposition 215, seven additional states followed in California's footsteps.3 From 1995 to 2005, no state has rejected an initiative that solely addressed medical marijuana. By the early twenty-first century, over one-fifth of the American public lived in states where the use, possession, and in some cases cultivation of medical marijuana was permitted under state law.4

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Table 1.

Statewide Votes for Medical Marijuana, 1996-2000

Factors Affecting the Evolution of Drug Control Policy

The medical marijuana movement represents an effort to reform one important aspect of marijuana laws, yet scant attention has been paid to the reasons for its success. This article has two primary objectives related to that oversight. First, it analyzes the creation and entrenchment of federal institutions and elite attitudes that for decades supported a tough-minded approach to drug policy. Medical marijuana initiatives have been successful in spite of the federal government's wishes, but in order to understand that success we must place it in the historical context of federal drug control policy. The aggressive implementation of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 along with a concerted public information campaign hardened antidrug attitudes and brought about near-total prohibition. While legislation passed during the 1970s ushered in a softening of state and federal drug laws, many of those laws were ineffectual or impermanent. Throughout much of the twentieth century, negative stereotypes about drugs and users helped justify the federal emphasis on law enforcement, interdiction, and punishment as the primary weapons in the war against drugs. [End Page 148]

The second part of this article argues that shifts in institutional venue and frameworks surrounding marijuana and its users were the key factors in the electoral success of the medical marijuana movement of the 1990s. The shift in venue was spearheaded by a group of drug policy reformers who exploited their prolific skills and resources to achieve success through the ballot initiative process, in part by transforming the way in which drug policy debates were framed. For years, drug policy reformers had been aware of opposition from federal and state representative institutions. Medical marijuana proponents were successful in large part because they were able to use...


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pp. 147-179
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