Third Party & Independents Archives

The History of Cannabis Prohibition 1937-1962: Part One

Just because an issue is not discussed or understood in the mainstream, does not mean it does not deserve to be. The illegal status of marijuana serves as a perfect example. While many may have strong feelings for or against marijuana prohibition, the fact remains very few understand why the plant is illegal today. Party platforms, as well as opinions of politicans do very little without a historical assurance on the facts. Whether you are for or against the legalization, at least know what occured to bring upon the prohibition.

We are all well aware of the current controversy surrounding the reform of cannabis laws in the United States, but how many among us realize the history behind these laws? Few of us have any knowledge on the foundation of the criminalizing of cannabis nationally, which took place in the years from 1937 to 1962. It is these years in which laws regulating cannabis first sprouted, laying down the illegal status of cannabis that still remains today.

This is truly a sad fact that so few Americans have knowledge on such an important era. If it were not for the laws that began in this period it is possible that the criminalizing of cannabis would never have occurred. In this paper I aim to focus on these critical years in cannabis related legislation to bring forth the motivation for what is the foundation for the plants current legal status.

To truly analyze the years in which cannabis first became illegal I believe that we must first briefly discuss the history of the plant as used in the United States. The plant, cannabis sativa, has played an important part in the history of the United States. Indeed by 1630 half of all winter clothing in the United States and almost all summer clothes were made from the hemp fiber of the male variety of the plant (Grinspoon 11). Hemp was one of the first major cash crops grown by early settlers of the United States. At this time the plant was used for everything from paper to birdseed.

The plant was so important to these early settlers that many legislative bodies greatly encouraged its growth; in 1762 Virginia penalties were imposed on persons who did not grow hemp on their land (Sloman 21). Besides industrial uses we can also see that the plant was an extremely important medicine for Americans. During the middle of the 19th century the United States Pharmacopoeia recognized the plant as an important medicine. At this same time the United States Dispensatory recommended cannabis for a great variety of disorders including depression, tetanus, gout, and cholera (Sloman 22).

Yet despite this great history of medicinal and industrial uses the smoking of cannabis with the intention of changing consciousness was seen as a problem, beginning in the late 1910s. This sudden change in mood came upon curiously as most at this time knew little of the plant or its effects on humans. Indeed during this early stage of hysteria few outside of Mexican immigrants and southern blacks smoked cannabis. From this first citing of the plant as a nuisance national hysteria would soon follow and from the period of 1937-1962 the federal government would take extremists actions through the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN).

The first national legislation concerning cannabis sativa was passed in 1937. This key piece of legislation was dubbed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The Marihuana Tax Act provided that any person wanting to use the plant for specific defined purposes register and pay a tax of $1 per ounce, much more than the actual price of the plant at that time, and that persons wishing to use the plant for undefined purposes, such as smoking, register and pay a $100 per ounce tax (Grinspoon 21).

Although this legislation was bolstered as a means for raising revenue and not one to officially make cannabis illegal it had the effect of doing so. By charging such a large tax for persons who wanted to smoke the plant, the legislation effectively forced individuals to buy cannabis through underground sources and thus not register. Upon doing so the person who did not register and pay the tax would put himself or herself in a much deeper dilemma than a $100 tax. This is because the penalty for unregistered transactions was a fine up to $2000, prison for up to 5 years, and risk of penalties for tax evasion (Grinspoon 21).

Thus we see that from the beginning of criminalizing cannabis strict penalties were imposed. This act also effectively stopped the use of cannabis as a medicine and greatly reduced the use of hemp. This is because by forcing physicians to register and pay a $1 an ounce tax on all transactions physicians began to inevitably prescribe other medicines in its place, as there would be less hassle associated with them.

The strict penalties under the Marihuana Tax Act were imposed despite there being little knowledge on cannabis. This particular piece of legislation is marked by a distinct taste of authoritarianism by the FBN whom completely controlled the legislative hearings. At these hearings the FBN drowned Congress in their propaganda, claiming that cannabis was directly related to murder, sexual excess, insanity, among other ills.

Chilton Hester, assistant general counselor in the treasury department, testified at hearings that the major criminal in the United States was the addict, despite having no reliable figures to back this assertion (McWilliams 68). When Congressman John McCormack asked Harry J Anslinger, commissioner of the FBN, of marihuana’s effects Anslinger replied, “some people will fly into a delirious rage and many commit violent crimes” (McWilliams 70). Again this statement was backed up with no reliable data, but instead by a set of newspaper articles which Anslinger kept chronicling stories of the drugs linkage to crime (McWilliams 52). Indeed one must immediately question the knowledge Anslinger and the bureau had on the linkage between cannabis and crime, as newspapers were used quite often. In fact in circular letter #458 Anslinger requested all supervisors to mail him any information from newspapers that suggested any connection between cannabis use and the commission of any type of crime (Bonnie and Whitebread 195).

At the time of the hearings the knowledge of the FBN concerning cannabis was not to the point that it should have been to push such important legislation. In fact at the time of the proceedings the FBN was well aware that knowledge of cannabis was not to the point that it was when similar legislative actions were taken regarding opium or alcohol. Six months after the passage of the act the consulting chemist of the treasury department advised Anslinger to start research, stating, “ that virtually nothing is known concerning the nature of the narcotic principle, its psychological behavior, and the ultimate effect upon the social group” (Bonnie and Whitebread 187). We can now see that this legislation was forced upon the legislature by an overwhelming bureaucratic machine, the FBN, whom knew very little about cannabis yet still portrayed it as “The Killer Drug ‘Marihuana’- a powerful narcotic in which lurks Murder! Insanity! Death” (Grinspoon 19).

Works Cited:

Grinspoon, Lester. Marihuana Reconsidered. Oakland, CA: Quick American Archives, 1972.

Sloman, Larry. Reefer Madness: Marijuana in America. NYC, NY: Grove Press Inc, 1979.

Mcwilliams, John C. The Protectors: Harry J Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of
Narcotics 1930-1962. Newark, NJ: University of Deleware Press, 1990.

Bonnie, Richard J and Charles H Whitebread. The Marihuana Conviction. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1974.

Posted by Richard Rhodes at May 28, 2006 6:24 AM
Comment #152086

smok’em peace pipe -oh how the world would mellow out and get along!

Posted by: buzz4peace at May 28, 2006 9:02 AM
Comment #152102


Didn’t William Randolf Hearst have something to do with it’s banning?

Posted by: Rocky at May 28, 2006 10:03 AM
Comment #152118

Just saw a show about this last night and wanted to add that the drug was made illegal in part to deport Mexicans from the southwest. Also the Marijuana tax act was challenged and overturned by Timothy Leary.

Anyway just last night was thinking that this was a good topic so thanx for the write-up.

I believe that the legalization and regulation of cannibus, would be great for the country in that it could be used for paper, clothing, and a million other uses.

Legalizing it for recreational use would probably (I am convinced, but have been wrong before)be far less harmful than alcohol to society at large.

Posted by: darren159 at May 28, 2006 11:44 AM
Comment #152132

On the topic of Hemp, this might be of interest:

Hemp Industries Association

Posted by: Lisa Renee at May 28, 2006 12:23 PM
Comment #152150

Racism back then, like now was a motivating force behind this legislation. And just like back then, goevernment bureaucrats were rewarded with expanded budgets, lifetime careers and cushy retirements. Politicians won votes being “law and order” canditates, just like today.

Victimizing the young, the poor, the social outcasts and the infirm has always been a win-win for politics. The ignorant wag their collective sheep tails and smile about what a good thing they’ve done. I give you Rush Limbaugh.

Posted by: gergle at May 28, 2006 1:12 PM
Comment #152154

We should probably make marajuana legal and tax it as we do booze. But I always find the love some people have for it touching. Like booze, pot is not a bad thing in moderation, but it is not a good things and pot heads, like boozers, are losers.

Posted by: Jack at May 28, 2006 1:18 PM
Comment #152170

Richard, on this issue I side with the Libertarians for the following reason:

For example, discriminatory enforcement of the law on speed limits, and almost complete lack of enforcement in many places around the country, especially during rush hour, creates a psychology in which breaking the law a little, 5 or 10 miles over the speed limit, becomes acceptable and tolerated. It communicates that it is OK to break the law under some circumstances and not in others. This breeds contempt for the law. Which for a nation of laws, not people, is a precursor to enormous growth in lawless behavior in many other ways.

It leads to criminal prosecution of crack use, but, turning a blind eye to upper-middle class cocaine use. It leads to busting pot smugglers but, giving a pass to prescription drug peddlers.

The worst mistake a nation of laws can make, is to pass laws they don’t intend or, cannot enforce. It breeds contempt and disregard for the law in general as a mass psychological effect in the society. After decades of passing laws we don’t enforce, we now elect politicians who act according to the belief they grew up with, that it is OK to break the law under some circumstances, or not enforce it under others. This spells the downfall of a nation of law.

Presidents Clinton and both Bush’s did not enforce our laws regarding illegal immigration. We bust ATM thieves in hearbeat but, insure with tax dollars corporations like GM who cheat their employees out of their pensions. Bush, uses signing statements to change laws he does not want to comply with which is utterly unconstitutional, and the Court’s justices so far, selected by Executives, will not enforce the Constitutional constraints on these signing statement practices.

Libertarians believe it is foolish to pass laws we cannot or will not enforce for these reasons. And I agree with entirely.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 28, 2006 2:25 PM
Comment #152233

darren: very good, the racism inherent in this prohibition movement was blatant and will be the highlight of later parts in this series.

Posted by: Richard Rhodes at May 28, 2006 6:01 PM
Comment #152234

Lisa Renee saw your link on hemp. If you want to read one of the best written most interesting books on hemp check out: “The Emperor Wears No Clothes”, by Jack Herer

Posted by: Richard Rhodes at May 28, 2006 6:03 PM
Comment #152281

Interesting reading. I’m lokking forward to the next part.

Posted by: Ron Brown at May 28, 2006 10:15 PM
Comment #152298

i tried it once, and yes i did inhale , at 19 years old , it was not so pleasant , the crap according to the hospital had a very high THC content, i had developed ventricular tachycardia, with a heart rate of over 230 beats a minute, the paddle is not very fun when you are WIDE awake! that was my great and only experience with maryjane.

Posted by: Rodney Brown at May 28, 2006 11:23 PM
Comment #152344

Hi Rodney Brown, Thats interesting, as I also have VT along with Bradycardia. I have also been on the receiveing end of the paddles. I currently have an ICD implanted (same thing Chaney has implanted)and have been zapped with 800 volts from it over 16 times in the past 5 years. But you know what? Every time I got zapped I was sober and at work. I have never been zapped while smokeing pot. My heart works better when I’m high then when I’m straight. I have the medical EKG records to prove it. I thought I would pass that along…
This Bud is for you. Hi Hi :)
P.s. ICD’s only cost about $45,000. Installation and Room and board extra.

Posted by: Papioscar at May 29, 2006 3:23 AM
Comment #152345

thanks papioscar,one time was quite enough for me,never had it since, knock one wood. my uncle has a ICD. and it has gone off twice at wall-mart!so i said uncle Harold, stay out of wall-mart.i do drink a glass of wine every day for medicinal reasons of course.! sounds like it gives you a edge, so fire it up!

Posted by: Rodney Brown at May 29, 2006 3:54 AM
Comment #152363


Where did your free market ideals go? Tax marijuana? Another tax and spend Republican. I see, your ideals only apply to things you actually like.

I agree potheads who promote marijuana as a cure-all or superior to other medicines or intoxicants as a bit chemically addled.

On the converse, I have asthma and once had a discussion with someone who believed it was purely a psycological disease. He told me of how he chatised a nephew to be a man, made him run, and throw away his asthma drugs. He beleives he cured the lad of asthma. There are also many addle brained people who don’t use drugs.

Posted by: gergle at May 29, 2006 8:56 AM
Comment #152425

I personally think that weed should be legal and … ummm… phhheeeeeew… I had a thought…

Wow - has anyone else ever maxed out their credit card at a Ziffy Mart?

Posted by: tony at May 29, 2006 12:39 PM
Comment #152494


We tax cigaretts and booze. This is the same sort of product. I would also envision the same no smoking prohibitions (it smells as bad as tabacco) and DWI.

Posted by: Jack at May 29, 2006 7:00 PM
Comment #152500

Yes, and tobacco is a totally controlled market. My grandparents were from Kentucky and tobacco farming backgrounds. The is no free market for tobacco. It is a completely subsidized and controlled market. Mind you, a cancer causing, drug delivery sytem. Kentucky is also famous for it’s moonshiners, bourbon and I suppose these days, hemp growers. Mountain men are notoriously independant. Perhaps that is why I find G-men and their so called legal issues so offensive. It seems to me to be less about freedom and free trade as to power and control of capital flow.

There is still an illegal trade in cigarettes because of this government sanctioned monopoly market. These kind of stamp acts were the genesis of our revolution. Many of our forefathers were smugglers, in fact. I think a lot of Kentuckians identify with that. My ancestors came across the Cumberland Gap from Virginia with Daniel Boone.

So much for free trade, freedom and supply and demand. So much for core values.

I also think restricting smoking is one of the most politically correct and anti-democratic policies of our generation. Second hand smoke in bars and restaurants is more junk science.

Sometimes I think about moving to somewhere deep in the Appalachians and rejecting society altogether. There are still remote places there. I always enjoyed stories of the old-timers about life in the hills.

Posted by: gergle at May 29, 2006 7:29 PM
Comment #153069

I’m with Jack. Tax it. Why not? Republicans surely aren’t against saving money? And this would be an easy way. Also, by taxing it, the government could regulate it. The marijuana out there today is like the old poisonous wormwood alchohol of yore. Through taxation you get a safer, milder drug that would help us pay down our debt.

The only hurdle is the incredible demonization of the drug.

Posted by: max at May 31, 2006 4:19 PM
Comment #235963

weed is great let us smoke

Posted by: shane sanders at October 12, 2007 1:08 PM
Comment #237932

Hey. I am in high school and am writing a paper over why we should produce hemp paper instead of tree paper. I would like to use this paper as a reference if that is okay. It is really good and it gave me alot of info that I needed for hemp history. Thanks.


Posted by: Meghan at November 9, 2007 12:12 PM
Comment #298421

i have smoked pot for over 20 years.i have contacted hundreds of medical facilities,questioning how many people were actually admitted for the use or overdose caused by marijuana alone there was absolutely none,this tells me marijuana is in no way a dangerous compare this to alcohol.which should be legal?

Posted by: jerrid at April 3, 2010 12:26 PM
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