The following is an excerpt from Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano, and Mason Tvert. It has been adapted for the Web.
Why is it that our state and federal laws embrace alcohol—a drug that is a known cause of a frightening array of adverse health effects and behaviors— while criminalizing the use of marijuana, which is seldom associated with such problems?”
Good question. After all, it wasn’t always like this. Throughout most of America’s history, marijuana and alcohol were both legal. In 1920, the federal government decided to outlaw booze, yet members of Congress had yet to enact any legal restrictions on the consumption of cannabis. However, by the 1930s the political climate had changed dramatically. In 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, repealing alcohol prohibition. Yet just four years later, on August 2, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act into law, ushering in a new form of prohibition—one that remains with us to this day.
So what the hell happened?
The Tide Turns
For the first three hundred years of our nation’s history American farmers cultivated cannabis—then known exclusively as either “hemp” or “Indian hemp”—for its cordage fiber content. Some historians believe that colonists harvested America’s first hemp crop in 1611 near Jamestown, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, The British Crown ordered settlers to engage in wide-scale hemp farming1—a practice that continued in earnest up until the turn of the twentieth century. Even into the early part of the 1900s, the United States Department of Agriculture extolled the virtues of hemp as a high-yield, low-maintenance crop.2 At that time, Americans no more considered the plant to be a recreational drug than someone today would label corn or soy an intoxicant. Domestically grown cannabis possessed very little THC content and was not consumed recreationally. In fact, the term marijuana was not yet a part of the American lexicon.
In addition to its industrial uses, much of the public was also familiar with the plant’s utility as a medicine. While practicing in India in the early 1800s, Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy first began documenting the medical uses of cannabis, which he later introduced into Western medicine in 1839. By the 1850s, the preparation of oral cannabis extracts became available in U.S. pharmacies, where they remained a staple for the next sixty years.3 Typically these products were marketed under the plant’s alternative botanical name, cannabis indica. (Unlike industrial varieties of the crop that were grown domestically, pharmaceutical supplies of cannabis were often imported from other countries, like India.4) Despite the drug’s widespread availability as a medicine, reported recreational abuses of cannabis were virtually nonexistent in the literature of that time. In fact, during Congressional hearings leading up to the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914—the nation’s first federal antidrug act—witnesses argued against prohibiting cannabis, stating that “as a habit forming drug its use is almost nil.”5 Congress heeded their advice and excluded marijuana from the statute.
By the early 1920s, however, public and political acceptance of cannabis had changed significantly. The plant’s popularity as both a commercial crop and folk remedy was on the wane, as competing commercial products like cotton-based textiles and opiate-based medications began to gain a wider share of the market. At the same time, newspapers and law enforcement personnel, primarily in the American Southwest, began reporting on the use of a new, highly dangerous “narcotic” called marijuana (or as it was typically spelled then, marihuana). From the papers’ and police officers’ salacious accounts of the drug’s purported effects, it’s unlikely that most Americans had any idea that the so-called “loco weed” and cannabis hemp were actually one and the same.
The Rise of “Reefer Madness”
Aside from infrequent accounts of hash smoking by East Indian and Lebanese immigrants, there is little, if any, evidence that the recreational use of marijuana had any cultural foothold in America prior to the influx of Mexican laborers in the early 1900s.6 However, the Mexicans’ custom of smoking the flowering tops of the female plant almost immediately drew concern from public officials and law enforcement—who alleged that inhaling the drug empowered users with “superhuman strength and turned them into bloodthirsty murderers.”7
As early as 1913, a handful of cities and states in the American south began prohibiting the use of marijuana, and by the early 1920s, numerous western states—including California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming—had outlawed possessing pot.8 In many of these states, the public rationale for this crackdown was as racially motivated as it was transparent: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff (referring to marijuana) is what makes them crazy.”9 Other regions of the country followed suit—including many states that had virtually no Mexican immigrant population and virtually no reported incidents of marijuana use to speak of—arguing that legislation was necessary to preemptively stop the spread of “the Devil’s Weed” before it reached their borders.
By the late 1920s, lurid newspaper headlines and editorials promoting the alleged dangers of marijuana began sweeping the nation. This excerpt, taken from a July 6, 1927, New York Times story, epitomizes the content and tone of much of the reporting of this era:
Mexican Family Go Insane
Five Said To Have Been Stricken By Eating Marihuana
A widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana plant, according to doctors, who say there is no hope of saving the children’s lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life.
. . . Two hours after the mother and children had eaten the plants, they were stricken. Neighbors, hearing outbursts of crazed laughter, rushed to the house to find the entire family insane. Examination revealed that the narcotic marihuana was growing among the garden vegetables.10
The public’s concern over the supposed marijuana menace grew, and in 1930 Congress responded by establishing the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Selected to head this new agency was a “law and order” evangelist named Harry J. Anslinger. For the next three decades, Anslinger would single-handedly dictate U.S. drug policy. Many of his highly sensationalized views on weed linger in the public mind to this day.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, Anslinger and the FBN launched an unprecedented (for the time) media campaign warning Americans of the alleged perils of pot. By this time, the drug’s use was not only popular among Mexican immigrants, but it had also become vogue among certain segments of the African American community, most notably southern jazz musicians. The Bureau warned that smoking marijuana inspired blacks and Hispanics to commit rape and engage in other acts of uninhibited violence. “His sex desires are aroused and some of the most horrible crimes result,” one widely disseminated FBN news bulletin reported. “He hears light and sees sound. To get away from it, he suddenly becomes violent and may kill.”11 Seizing upon many white Americans’ preexisting racial prejudices, Anslinger often emphasized that these alleged acts of violence were primarily directed toward Caucasian women.
Anslinger further claimed that Mexican “dope peddlers” frequently offered free samples of marijuana cigarettes to children on their way home from school. “Parents beware! Your children . . . are being introduced to a new danger in the form of a drugged cigarette, marijuana,” Anslinger warned in a prominent FBN radio address. “Young [people] are slaves to the narcotic, continuing addiction until they deteriorate mentally, become insane, [and] turn to violent crime and murder.”12
Possessing a flair for the theatrical, Anslinger bragged about keeping a “gore file” consisting of outrageous, unsubstantiated, and sometimes fraudulent newspaper stories that detailed pot’s supposedly mind-altering and behavioral effects. One such account read, “While under the influence of the drug, the subject thrust his hand through his hair, and found that his fingers passed through his crackling skull and into his warm, cheesy brain.”13
Predictably, Anslinger’s and the FBN’s antipot diatribes fueled national headlines and prompted legislative action. By 1935, most states in the country had enacted laws criminalizing the possession and use of pot, and newspaper editors were frequently opining in favor of stiffer and stiffer penalties for marijuana users. As Anslinger’s rhetoric became prominent, he found additional allies who were willing to carry his crusading message to the general public. Among these were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Hearst newspaper chain—the latter of which luridly editorialized against the “insidious and insanity producing marihuana” in papers across the country.14
Members of state and local law enforcement also joined the FBN’s antimarijuana crusade. Writing in The Journal of Criminology, Wichita, Kansas, police officer L. E. Bowery asserted that the cannabis user is capable of “great feats of strength and endurance, during which no fatigue is felt.” Bowery’s overwrought screed, which for years thereafter would be hailed by advocates of prohibition as the definitive “study” of the drug, concluded: “Sexual desires are stimulated and may lead to unnatural acts, such as indecent exposure and rape. . . . [Marijuana use] ends in the destruction of brain tissues and nerve centers, and does irreparable damage. If continued, the inevitable result is insanity, which those familiar with it describe as absolutely incurable, and, without exception ending in death.”15
The Marihuana Tax Act
By 1937, Congress—which had resisted efforts to clamp down on the drug some two decades earlier—was poised to act, and act quickly, to enact blanket federal prohibition. Ironically, by this time virtually every state had already ratified laws against cannabis possession. Nonetheless, local authorities argued that the marijuana threat was so great that federal intervention was also necessary.
On April 14, 1937, Representative Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced House Bill 6385, which sought to stamp out the recreational use of marijuana by imposing a prohibitive tax on the drug. The measure was the brainchild of the U.S. Treasury Department, and mandated a $100 per ounce tax on the transfer of cannabis to members of the general public. Interestingly, a separate antimarijuana measure introduced that same year sought to directly outlaw possession and use of the drug. However, this proposal was assumed at that time to have been beyond the constitutional authority of Congress.
Members of Congress held only two hearings to debate the merits of Doughton’s bill. The federal government’s chief witness, Harry
Anslinger, told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that “traffic in marijuana is increasing to such an extent that it has come to be the cause for the greatest national concern. . . . This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”16 Other witnesses included a pair of veterinarians who testified that dogs were particularly susceptible to marijuana’s effects. “Over a period of six months or a year (of exposure to marijuana), . . . the animal must be discarded because it is no longer serviceable,” one doctor testified.17 This would be the extent of “scientific” testimony presented to the committee.
The American Medical Association (AMA) represented the most vocal opposition against the bill. Speaking before Congress, the AMA’s legislative counsel Dr. William C. Woodward challenged the legitimacy of the alleged “Demon Weed.”
We are told that the use of marijuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit. An informal inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.
You have been told that school children are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children. Inquiry of the Children’s Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and know nothing particularly of it.
. . . Moreover, there is the Treasury Department itself, the Public Health Service. . . . Informal inquiry by me indicates that they have no record of any marijuana or cannabis addicts.18
Woodward further argued that the proposed legislation would severely hamper physicians’ ability to utilize marijuana’s therapeutic potential. While acknowledging that the drug’s popularity as a prescription medicine had declined, Woodward nonetheless warned that the Marihuana Tax Act “loses sight of the fact that future investigations may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.”19
Woodward’s criticisms of the bill’s intent—as well as his questions regarding whether such legislation was objectively justifiable—drew a stern rebuke from the chairman of the committee. “If you want to advise us on legislation, you ought to come here with some constructive proposals, rather than criticism, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the federal government is trying to do,” the AMA’s counsel was told. “Is not the fact that you were not consulted your real objection to this bill?”20
Despite the AMA’s protests, the House Ways and Means Committee approved House Bill 6385. House members even went so far as to elevate Anslinger’s propaganda to Congressional findings of fact, stating: “Under the influence of this drug the will is destroyed and all power directing and controlling thought is lost. . . . [M]any violent crimes have been and are being committed by persons under the influence of this drug. . . . [S]chool children . . . have been driven to crime and insanity through the use of this drug. Its continued use results many times in impotency and insanity.”21
Anslinger made similar horrific pronouncements before members of the Senate, which spent even less time debating the measure than did the House. By June, less than three months after the bill’s introduction, the House of Representatives voted affirmatively to pass the proposal, which was described by one congressman as having “something to do with something that is called marijuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.”22
Weeks later, after the Senate had approved its version of the bill, the House was asked to vote once again on the measure. Prior to the House’s final vote, one representative asked whether the American Medical Association had endorsed the proposal, to which a member of the Ways and Means Committee falsely replied that the
AMA’s “Dr. Wharton [sic]” had given the measure his full support.23 Following this brief exchange of inaccurate information, Congress gave its final approval of the Marihuana Tax Act without a recorded vote.
President Franklin Roosevelt promptly signed the legislation into law. The Marihuana Tax Act officially took effect on October 1, 1937—thus setting in motion the federal government’s foray into the criminal enforcement of marijuana laws that continues to this day.
- Lester Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered, 2nd ed. (Oakland, Cal.: Quick American Archives, 1994).
- United States Department of Agriculture, Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: USDA, 1913).
- Dale Gieringer, The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California, rev. ed. (San Francisco: NORML, 2006), http://www.canorml.org/background/caloriginsmjproh.pdf
- David Musto, “History of the Marihuana Tax Act,” Archives of General Psychiatry 26 (1972): 101–8.
- Ron Mann, Grass: The Paged Experience (Toronto: Warwick Publishing, 2001).
- Gieringer, The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California, 35.
- Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States (New York: The Lindesmith Center, 1999).
- As cited in Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin’s/Griffin, 1998).
- Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered, 17.
- Grass: The Movie, directed by Ronn Mann, 2000.
- Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 60.
- Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 100–101.
- As cited by Rowan Robinson, The Great Book of Hemp: The Complete Guide to the Environmental, Commercial, and Medicinal Uses of the World’s Most Extraordinary Plant (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1995), 147.
- Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 66.
- Ibid., 68.
- Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 165–66.
- Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 76.
- Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 172.
- Ibid., 172–73.
- Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 80.
- Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 174.