There seems to be a notion that cannabis was illegalized due to capitalism. I've read some theories as to how this happened, and one of them goes something like this:

Commissioner of the National Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, journalist and media personality William Randolph Hearst and the Dupont trading company, among other industrial parties of interest, were involved in a conspiracy to illegalize cannabis (and therefore hemp). When the decorticator was invented, the industrial parties were afraid their products would be out-competed by hemp fibers.

Marijuana Business News.com mentions this theory, though it doesn't support it. I believe there may be many variations of the theories, and they can probably be generalized as such:

Conspiracy between government (Anslinger), the media (Hearst) and industrial companies seek to illegalize cannabis through demonization and legislation.

One proponent of a theory like this is Hemp Today. Clovis News Journal presents the same theory. This blog points to "industrial theories" in general, but doesn't support them.

The way I see it, any such theory is dependent on the decorticator to make sense. I've read some presentations of the theory where it was the United States' discovery of hemp itself that caused the industrial parties to be afraid. This however, makes no sense, since hemp was known about for a good while before cannabis (and by proxy, hemp) was made practically illegal in 1937 through the Marihuana Tax Act (see Johnson's commission, page 214 and 231). In fact, it was actually illegal to not grow hemp in Virginia due to the plant's usefulness. So, I can't see how it was the United States' discovery of hemp that prompted the capitalistic fear and subsequent illegalization.

However, the theory or theories that involve the decorticator still have some issues.

  1. There's no smoking gun definitively linking the members of the proposed conspiracy.
  2. The Dupont fortune was built largely on explosives, not textiles.
  3. Nylon would likely not be out-competed by hemp fiber because what woman would wear hemp stockings?
  4. Cannabis was made illegal in 30 states before Anslinger became head of the Bureau.
  5. Hemp was a declining crop in the 1930s, making it less scary to industrialists.
  6. Hearst had adequate reasons to post sensationalistic articles that demonized cannabis for the sake of selling newspapers.

These counter-arguments have been taken from this article.

Insider claims that the main reason why cannabis was illegalized in the U.S. was due to Mexican xenophobia and racism. The top comment of this reddit post on r/AskHistorians says that race mattered. This reddit comment also links to an article written by PhD candidate Bob Beach, that doesn't place too much weight on the racial element, but it does say this when describing Anslinger's speeches during the period:

An emphasis is placed on African-American and Mexican users as well as the threat of the drug to young white children.

The idea that cannabis was illegalized due to racism is surely something the pro-cannabis side could have used instead of the conspiracy theories, which confuses me. Instead however, many choose to present or point to these conspiracy theories, which makes me think that perhaps there's something I've missed.

Also, if cannabis was made illegal due to racist reasons, or health concerns (or both), it's still a bit weird that hemp* was illegalized, it has THC concentrations. This could of course be the product of laziness and/or ignorance, and not necessarily be the product of a capitalistic conspiracy.

So, what does the consensus among historians say? Why was cannabis illegalized in the U.S.?


Someone asked if I could specify what I mean with hemp. Hemp is a strain of Cannabis sativa that has a very low THC content. Here's a Britannica article going more into it.

  • 6
    You might want to investigate further. Note that cannabis was made illegal in the same time period that a great many other drugs, both recreational and medical, were made illegal or available only by prescription. That includes alcoholic beverages: see Prohibition. (IMHO, it's neither economic conspiracy nor racism, but ingrained religious Puritanism: those folks wanted, and still want, to ban just about anything that's fun.)
    – jamesqf
    Apr 22, 2021 at 15:47
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    @jamesqf actually, 1937 would be closer to the repeal for Prohibition. But otherwise, yes, the US had clamped down on lots of other stuff including opium-laced "medications". And "losing Prohibition" may have motivated the busybodies to go after other less popular intoxicants. Apr 22, 2021 at 16:01
  • @justCal That is an excellent question I haven't considered before, and could maybe be the reason for hemp being illegalized together with the other, more THC-rich strains.
    – A. Kvåle
    Apr 22, 2021 at 18:44
  • Just as with poppy in EU, the simple reason of regulating hemp can be that it is easier to for forbid all the variations of a plant for legislators. This approach also covers possible untraditional tricks to extract the active ingredient, eg using solvent extraction .
    – Greg
    Apr 22, 2021 at 19:37
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    Can the question possibly be made more compact? You don't have to lay out all the points and counterpoints if they are not directly tied to what you want to see in the answers, and right now it looks like the question is focused on proving (or disproving) the industrial conspiracy angle, so it probably could be somewhat trimmed down? Apr 23, 2021 at 7:58


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