Drug Policies

Why drugs are prohibited

Have you ever wondered why drugs were banned? Come with us to dive into a post that unravels the history of prohibitionism and the complex phenomenon that was, and still is, the War on Drugs.

History of Prohibitionism

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why drugs were banned? Was it soon when they were discovered, when society created laws or after some great scientific study? In fact, the history of drug use in society is very old and prohibition is a policy of modern society. This is the reason why we decided to write content that contemplated part of this complex historical process and that pulsates with life today – and goes far beyond the simplistic statement: “but drugs are bad…”

The debate on health problems resulting from drug use and on policies that criminalize users is extensive. So, we ask: what is worse for the user of psychoactive substances, the drug itself or the prohibitionist policy?

Come with us and let’s throw light on that theme!

Cannabis was already present in ancient civilizations

There is evidence of the use of cannabis and hemp derivatives in several civilizations since the emergence of mankind. The history of marijuana shows us that the use of cannabis was both medicinal, advised in case of insomnia, muscle pain and also in cases of paralysis and seizures, as well as religious or in sacred rituals. A National Geographic report tells of evidence found of weed use in a Central Asian cemetery 2,500 years ago.

Hemp, on the other hand, was used to make fibers in general, such as boat sails, ropes and clothing. With hemp, it is possible to produce many things – from paper to fuel, and it can be the sustainable solution to many problems in modern agriculture. An interesting curiosity is the extent to which hemp played an important role in the arrival of the first Portuguese in Brazil (we know that there was nothing of a discovery, as a matter of fact). Yes, in times of the great sails, it was under the hemp sails that the winds brought Pedro Álvares Cabral to Brazil. It’s almost as if cannabis has discovered Brazil, isn’t it?

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were not enough studies to understand the short and long term effects on the effects of cannabis on the human body. The most famous was one made by English doctors and published by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1894, which concludes that the occasional use of hemp can be beneficial and that there is virtually no harmful effect produced by the substance. An interesting tip for those who want to dive into a more historical study of cannabis and drugs in general, we recommend: General History of Drugs (1996), written by Spanish philosopher and professor Antonio Escohotado.

Bringing a little bit of the historical look from the perspective of a Brazilian, Henrique Carneiro is a professor at USP and author of the book “Drugs: the history of prohibitionism” (2018). According to the historian, “the use of drugs is as natural and normal in human societies as it is to eat”. The cannabis historian is, in addition to being the embodiment of an encyclopedia, has an extensive study of the history of food and drugs – and shows us how spices, psychoactive herbs, foods and other spices were all part of the same category called “Druug” in Dutch. This shows how much society and its historical course have built this relationship and opinion that we have with marijuana and other drugs until today. The professor also claims that all human cultures have always used substances to alleviate pain, improve performance or have a more intimate connection with the divine. “The use of psychoactive substances is and has always been a structural and indispensable part of the survival of human populations.”

Ancient cannabis illustration from China
Ancient cannabis illustration from China

And why was marijuana banned?

The first prohibitionist mention that happened internationally was in 1912, at the International Opium Convention. Italy and the United States ensured that the concern about the substance would be mentioned in an annex to the Convention. Next, Egypt also took a stand against cannabis and classified it as a substance as dangerous and addictive as opium.

Thinking of cannabis, there was disagreement within such a committee, as India claimed that there was cultural and religious use of the substance in its country. Thus, in the 1925 Geneva Convention, the herb was discouraged and its export for non-medical use prohibited internationally, but leaving the creation of more specific laws to the signatory States. More than 100 years ago, the wave of prohibitions began, taking place in different ways in the most diverse countries.

The first decades of the twentieth century were marked by increasing immigration – mainly Mexican, legal and illegal – in different regions of the United States. Arizona, Texas, Florida Louisiana, California, Colorado and Utah were some of the states to receive Mexicans en masse. The American economy was booming and immigrants were migrating in search of money. Soon they were associated with drug use: the Irish with alcohol and the Mexicans with cannabis. It is facts like this that demonstrate how far the prohibition goes beyond drugs, and it can be a way to prohibit rituals of habits of specific populations, to prohibit their culture and practices.

Dry Law

In 1919, in the United States, Alcohol Prohibition was created. This was the first instrument of prohibitionism, which is still the front line in the strategy in which most governments adopt to deal with the complex phenomenon that is the use of drugs. This Law had the objective of prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of “intoxicating drinks”. The law intended to end crime, use and demand, but the reality was quite different. Drunkenness and crime rates rose. The population of American prisons rose from 3,000 to 12,000 between 1920 and 1932.

The 1920s in the USA also came to be known as the decade of contrasts, or the decade of social inequality. Along with the economic acceleration, the huge gap between social classes had deepened, and about 50% of the population lived in conditions below the poverty line. Along with this, there was no control over alcohol sold on the illegal market, putting countless people from all walks of life at greater vulnerability to alcohol use. Yes, certainly those who suffered most from this measure are not new to us, are they?

The poor quality of the drinks has caused thousands of deaths and other negative side effects in the portion of the American population that used alcoholic beverages. Such consequences caused the law to be repealed in 1933.

History demonstrates the failure of prohibitionism since the beginning of its implementation, causing it to be questioned what were the real intentions through such a political measure as its internationally.

Researchers argue that the motivations of the dry law were to control the immigration movement, as well as religious reasons. There are some interesting films, like “The untouchables” and “Os Infratores”, that portray as well as the law that reached the United States.

Media and cannabis

In 1936, an advertisement from the International Narcotics Education Association began to circulate in the United States, informing about the risks of this plant causing rapid physical and mental degeneration, an increase in sexual desire and inclinations to violence and unreasonable murder in human beings. humans. It seems absurd that a substance, which does not numb you as intensely as alcohol, does this to us, doesn’t it?

This fact shows how much the media played an essential role in shaping popular opinion regarding drugs and the population that uses them.

Social control mechanism

With the prohibition in mind, the media and advertisements were a great tool to stimulate public opinion against the habits of these immigrants and, consequently, of immigration itself. When the economic crisis began in the United States, immigrants were no longer welcome and the negative stigma of Mexicans was essential for the government to criminalize this population.

Brazilian historian Luisa Saad has several studies on prohibition as a tool to control a certain population. In her book “Fumo de Negro”: the criminalization of cannabis in the post-abolition period, she discusses how this phenomenon occurred in Brazil, which prohibited cannabis, as well as other Afro-descendant practices such as candomblé and capoeira, in 1830. In this scenario, despite slavery becoming illegal, the aristocracy wanted to stigmatize and exclude the black population and its culture. But we will dedicate a post just for that. We deserve a study to understand our history more deeply – in the meantime, read here about a current approach to this data in Brazil.

Returning to the international scene, in 1930 important organs for the control of drugs were created. The famous FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) and FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics, or Federal Narcotics Agency). The FBN was run by Harry J. Anslinger, police commissioner during Prohibition.

Prohibition poster
Prohibition poster

Business interest

Anslinger was also married to the niece of Andrew W. Mellon, owner of the oil giant Gulf Oil and an investor in Du Pont, both companies that developed various products from oil: fuel additives, plastics, synthetic fibers and even paper. We know another way to obtain paper other than hemp since antiquity is through eucalyptus, and Hearst, who owns a large American newspaper, owned huge eucalyptus farms. The hemp industries were in competition with the industries of the powerful Americans. The advertisements were also present in Hearst’s newspapers. The role of the media was fundamental in any prohibitionist process and shows that it took sides to change the course of history and politics.

In 1937, American President Franklin Roosevelt created the Marijuana Tax Act, a law that prohibited the cultivation and marketing of cannabis derivatives on American soil. American pressure for an international ban grew stronger, but only after World War II did the country get enough influence to consolidate the American prohibition model.

Geopolitical power

In 1961, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs took place in New York, where a treaty was established by the United Nations classifying marijuana as a dangerous substance with no therapeutic value, which should be banned internationally. It is curious how a plant that had widely recognized therapeutic powers was banned in such a violent and intense way.

Many countries, where marijuana-based drugs existed, had to withdraw their products from pharmacies. Users, hitherto medicinal, have become criminals and prohibition has in fact become a war. The term “War on drugs” came to light when in 1971, President Nixon determined that “drugs are our number one public enemy” and started the campaign with the name “war on drugs”.

In the United States, the prison population increased by 140% between 1971 and 1981. Mass incarceration is one of the main consequences of prohibition and is directly linked to the mechanism of social control. In Brazil, the second most important reason is related to drugs. This figure corresponds to 26% of detainees (45% of women and 24% of men). You can see how far the ban is beyond drugs, right?

Currently, we are sailing a tide against anti-prohibitionism, not only for cannabis but also for other drugs. Done without scientific basis or studies that actually proved the risks that these substances could cause, prohibitionism was guided by commercial and political interests, supported by the media and strengthened American influence and control, under the pretext of the war on drugs, in several Latin American countries.

Over the years, several scientific and anthropological studies demonstrate the lack of grounds for the prohibition of cannabis and the establishment of prohibitionism. The main issues are the therapeutic and medicinal principles of cannabis and the fact that treating a public health issue (the use of psychoactive substances) as a crime.

Harm Reduction is the drug policy resulting from this anti-prohibition debate. There are many definitions of Harm Reduction. It is a way of thinking opposed to the war on drugs, but it is also a “health policy that aims to reduce the biological, social and economic losses of drug use”.

Many countries rely on Harm Reduction and scientific studies to deal with drugs. After all, drugs should be treated as a health issue, not a safety issue. The consequence of this is a change in the international panorama. Many countries, including the United States, have decriminalized or regulated the medical and recreational use of cannabis for a variety of reasons, including economic ones.

So, did you get here? The history of prohibitionism is really long, but it is important for us to understand the origin of our laws and we will learn more about the history of what we consume. It is important to create this space for us to question ourselves and not believe everything they tell us or see on TV!

In the next post, we’ll talk more about how some countries deal with cannabis and prohibition.

We’ll wait for you! Till the next post.


Movies and videos

“Lawless” 2012, John Hillcoat, Estados Unidos

“The Untouchables” 1987, Brian De Palma e David Mamet, Estados Unidos


Digital periodics







Oficial platforms



Digital books


Antonio Escohotado, História general de las drogas.  Madri: Alianza Editorial, 1996.

Júlio Delmanto, Camaradas caretas: a esquerda e as drogas. São Paulo: Alameda, 2015.

Luisa Saad, Medicina Legal: o discurso médico, a proibição da maconha e a criminalização do negro. História e-história, São Paulo, Unicamp, 4 maio 2010. Disponível em: <http://www.historiaehistoria.com.br/materia.cfm?tb=alunos&ID=292>. Acesso em: Abril de 2020

Tarcisio Matos de Andrade; LURIE, P.; MEDINA, M.G. et al. The opening of south america´s first needle exchange program and an epidemic of crack use in Salvador, Bahia-Brazil. AIDS and Behavior, San Diego, vol. 5, p. 51-64, mar, 2001.

Printed periodics

CAÑAMO, Barcelona, MAIO 2014

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