A History of U.S. Marijuana Laws

Laws in the U.S. have flip-flopped over time from originally requiring the growth of the cannabis plant to the total ban of it nationwide.

There are many arguments on why marijuana should or shouldn’t be illegal. But in order to gain a full understanding of this very broad and complex issue, let’s first take a look at why this plant is illegal today.

The very first recorded law regarding the cannabis plant actually dates back to colonial Virginia. Surprised? Wait, it gets better. This law stated that you had to grow Indian hempseed. This was such a vital crop for food, rope, fiber, paper, oil, and other uses that during shortage times in 18th century Virginia, you actually could be jailed for NOT growing hemp. So what changed everyone’s tune?

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that Americans began to hear about Mexican “loco weed,” that is, hemp cultivated a special way for use as a recreational drug. The drug was all but unheard of in mainstream America, and of course people fear that which they do not understand. The plant was associated with Mexican immigrants and bandits who came to the States during the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The drug was hastily added to some state narcotics bans, with Utah being the first state to ban its use in 1915. The Montana Standard reported one state legislator’s argument for the prohibition of marijuana: “When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff… he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.” Similarly, a state senator in Texas had this to say about marijuana: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.” I think you can see the pattern here. By 1931 there were 22 states that had banned the substance.

In New England, of course, there were considerably less Mexican immigrants. There was plenty of evil, however, because jazz had made its way from the bayous of New Orleans to the streets of Harlem. Many media outlets editorialized the evils of jazz during the 1930s. The evil, the jazz, the dancing, the fun, all of it was supposedly the fault of marijuana. To tackle the drug problems of America, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed in 1930. Harry J. Anslinger was appointed to run it. Here are a few quotes from Anslinger, just to give you a little snapshot of his views and philosophy regarding marijuana:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”

“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

“Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing”

“You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

Yep. Worst part is, he wasn’t alone. Anslinger had some help in the propaganda department from William Randolph Hearst, the king of  yellow journalism who many blame for single-handedly luring the U.S. into the Spanish-American war. Here’s a few excerpts from some Hearst-owned papers in the 30s:

“Marihuana makes fiends of boys in thirty days — Hashish goads users to bloodlust.”

“By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….”

“Users of marijuana become STIMULATED as they inhale the drug and are LIKELY TO DO ANYTHING. Most crimes of violence in this section, especially in country districts are laid to users of that drug.”

“Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles?… THREE-FOURTHS OF THE CRIMES of violence in this country today are committed by DOPE SLAVES — that is a matter of cold record.”

Anslinger got further lobbying muscle from DuPont chemical company who had recently patented nylon and wanted to remove hemp from the competition. He also had support from pharmaceutical companies who were unable to pinpoint a dosage of hemp and also knew that it would be hard to sell to people when it is so easy and cheap to grow domestically. Aslinger compiled the best and scariest of Hearst’s newspaper stories and brought his plan, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, to Congress.

The hearings for this act were very short lived; in fact, only two days of discussion took place. The lone voice against prohibition was Dr. William C. Woodward, Legislative Council of the American Medical Association (AMA). See the full text from his part of the hearing here. Basically he opens by pointing out that the AMA had been misquoted and misrepresented as being for marijuana prohibition, and that since there was hardly any knowledge about the nature of the drug and its properties, the AMA recommended the drug be further studied before any action was to be taken on its prohibition. He also points out that the name of the plant is ‘cannabis’ and the word ‘marijuana’ was completely made up to demonize the plant and associate it with Mexican immigrants.

Every other witness spoke in favor of passing the bill. Anslinger of course spoke in favor of the Act, and the full transcript can be read here. Also see the transcript of Anslinger’s written statement. I’ll give you the best bits:

“Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes. Other people will laugh uncontrollably. It is impossible to say what the effect will be on any individual.”

“Since the economic depression the number of marihuana smokers has increased by vagrant youths coming into contact with older psychopaths.”

“Those who are habitually accustomed to use of the drug are said to develop a delirious rage after its administration, during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible and liable to commit violent crimes. The prolonged use of this narcotic is said to produce mental deterioration. It apparently releases inhibitions of an antisocial nature whichh dwell within the individual.”

also interesting:

“The addict pays anywhere from 10 to 25 cents per cigarette. It will be sold by the cigarette. In illicit traffic the bulk price would be around $20 per pound. Legitimately, the bulk is around $2 per pound.”

To sum it up, the bill was based on racism and untrue propaganda, backed by companies that had a monetary interest in hemp’s demise, and championed by an ambitious man who was looking for a career boost. It was introduced on August 2nd and passed on October 1st, a blisteringly fast rate for legislation to clear Congress, especially legislation of this caliber. And of course, the American public were kept totally out of the whole process.

Further reading:





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