Third Party & Independents Archives

The History of Cannabis Prohibition, 1937 - 1962, Part Five

So far this year 362,000 people have been arrested for cannabis offenses (1). That is approximately one arrest every forty five seconds. At this rate by the end of 2006 over 700,000 people in the United States will be arrested for cannabis offenses, the majority of them for non-violent offenses. Since the year 2000 over 4 million people in the United States have been arrested for cannabis offenses (2). And it all began with a racist, bureacratic, poorly researched act, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

The following is part five in a continuing series (see bottom for links to part one thru four).

As the depression set in and the United States economy was not what it once was, the racism towards cannabis use grew. In fact it is likely that the depression is the single largest force in the history of cannabis prohibition. Because Mexican labor was so much cheaper than that of American workers unemployed persons resented Mexicans who worked, wondering why these Mexicans had jobs and they did not, although they themselves would not work for the low wages given to the Mexicans. Through this resentment towards Mexicans came a resentment towards activities of the Mexicans, such as cannabis use. This resentment thus sparked the hostility that led to cannabis use being marked as a creator of many evils in outrageous news publications.

The effects of the depression and the local hysteria, stated earlier, brought upon the national legislation that began the prohibition of cannabis. Indeed this racism can be seen at the highest level of the anti-cannabis movement, the FBN. In a letter to Stephen Gibbons, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department and one of Anslinger’s supervisors, Senator Joseph Guffey showed his anger with the racism of the bureau: “I am being deluged with complaints from our colored population because Mr. Anslinger has been so indiscreet as to refer to one of their race as a “ginger colored nigger…” (Sloman 46). But the racism in the bureau did not end with mere remarks. Anslinger carried with him a collection of horror stories, the same newspaper stories that the bureau consistently used at hearings concerning cannabis throughout the 1930s-1950s, in which offenders were nearly always identified by race, either Mexican or black (McWilliams 52).

Anslinger went even farther in his racist war on cannabis by consistently attempting to perform a synchronized nationwide arrests of jazz musicians. In speaking to the House Ways and Means Committee Anslinger stated, “we have been running into a lot of traffic among these jazz musicians and I am not speaking about the good musicians but the jazz type” (Helmer 183). This attack on jazz musicians can be seen as an attack on black culture as a whole. Since during this time jazz was at the height of its success among black Americans, Anslinger’s attack on jazz was an attack at the black population.

By the 1950s the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under Harry J Anslinger had all but abandoned their older theories of the evils of cannabis. The threat of crime, murder, sexual excess, and insanity stated by the FBN in the 1930s had now been replaced with a new theory that attempted to link cannabis use to heroin use. This new theory named the stepping stone theory puts cannabis as a drug that will inevitably lead persons to heroin use. Yet as was the case with the older theories put forth in the 1930s this new linkage to heroin use is based on hysteria with little factual information.

The most interesting point in this new theory, put forth by the FBN, is not only that the bureau abandoned the crime theory put forth in the 1930s, but instead that the organization testified during the 1930s that cannabis use did not lead to heroin use. During the “reefer madness” of the 1930s Representative John Dingell of Michigan asked Harry Anslinger whether “the marihuana addict graduates into a heroin, an opium, or a cocaine user?” In answering this question Mr. Anslinger stated, “No sir I have not heard of a case of that kind… the marihuana addict does not go in that direction” (Grinspoon 236).

This statement made in the 1930s follows with Anslingers opinion of cannabis at that time, believing that cannabis was the worst of all drugs, and was far more degenerating on a person than is opium (McWilliams 51). This also follows with the opinion of many judges at this time whom believed cannabis was the worst of all drugs, US District Judge J Foster Symes whom convicted the first person under the Marihuana Tax Act stated, “I consider marihuana the worst of all narcotics—far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine” (McWilliams 78).

Despite these previous rants, in 1950 Deputy Commissioner of the FBN G.W. Cunningham testified before Congress stating that heroin addicts gave “a history of having started by smoking marijuana” (Grinspoon 236). And indeed Mr. Anslinger who still led the FBN put forth this same opinion in 1955 when he appeared to testify before a Senate subcommittee investigating sales of illegal drugs. When Senator Price Daniel asked Anslinger, “Whether the real danger there in the use of marihuana is that the use of marihuana leads many people eventually to the use of heroin, and the drugs that do cause complete addiction, is that true?” Anslinger happily replied, “That is the great problem and our great concern about the use of marihuana, that eventually, if used over a long period, it does lead to heroin addiction” (Grinspoon 240-241).

This complete turnaround of logic by the FBN could be justified if evidence showed that cannabis use was linked directly to the later use of heroin, yet this is not the case not even in the FBN’s own files. The FBN’s own files contained information that directly contradicted the new stepping stone theory the bureau was attempting to advance. In 1950 the FBN ran a random study of 602 cases involving opiate convictions from their own files. This study found that only a mere 7 percent of these cases started on cannabis (Grinspoon 244).

But this was not the only information that the FBN had that directly contradicted their theory. In looking at opiate arrests by the FBN between 1940-1949 we see a rise from 3009 to 3779, a 26 percent increase. If we look at cannabis arrests by the FBN during this same period we see an increase from 950 to 1643, a 73 percent increase (Grinspoon 240). This information taken from the FBN’s own arrest files shows that although use of opium was on a rise, cannabis use was rising at a significantly higher rate, if arrests rates are to be used as a signal of use in the population. Thus we can conclude that if cannabis use leads one to heroin use, as put forth by the FBN, heroin use would show an increase at least as great as that of cannabis which is not the case shown by the FBN’s very own figures.

Is it possible that the FBN brought this theory forward because of sensationalistic newspaper accounts of cannabis leading to heroin use, similar to the news reports that flamed the crime theory during the 1930’s? In a study by J Mandel of major articles dealing with cannabis during the period of 1920-1948 it was found that more than 70 percent made no mention of the danger that cannabis would potentially lead a user to heroin, or use of other opiates.

Mandel also found this to be true in professional literature, finding no mention of the stepping stone theory in 18 papers on law enforcement and criminology, in 8 lay books, and 18 other publications. Overall there were only fifteen works published between 1931-1948 that advanced the stepping stone theory (Grinspoon 236). Indeed in this case we see the exact opposite of that which occurred during the madness of the 1930s. It was only after the FBN began advancing the theory in the 1950s that the media began to tell stories linking cannabis to heroin. In fact from the period of 1950-1953 there were at least nine mass media articles that suggested the only significant danger of cannabis use was that it would lead one to use heroin, although none of these articles provided any supporting data to back up these claims (Grinspoon 238).

Works Cited:


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

Helmer, John. Drugs and Minority Oppression. NYC, NY: Sansbury Press, 1975.

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

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

Past parts in this series can be found at:
Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:

Posted by Richard Rhodes at June 27, 2006 9:41 PM
Comment #162564

Nearly a trillon inflation adjusted dollars spent on marijuana prohibition and its as widely used as ever. America learned nothing from the Volsted Act and prohibition era, though history has repeated itself oh so clearly.

Instead of the Purple Gang, Scarface, and the Cosa Nostra, we have the chinese connection, the Mexican underground, and midwestern meth labs, and the border shoot ‘em ups to our South are just like the border shoot ‘em ups to the North during the 1920’s.

Nothing has changed, except the tax payer is far, far deeper in debt than during the 1920’s Prohibition era.

Posted by: David R. Remer at June 27, 2006 11:32 PM
Comment #162578

And how many of these were illegal aliens?

Posted by: Dave at June 28, 2006 12:11 AM
Comment #162580

Honestly I don’t know. But I am pretty sure that somewhere or another NORML(National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) has that information.

Posted by: Richard Rhodes at June 28, 2006 12:21 AM
Comment #162614

Is there more than one way to use marijuana other than smoking it?

Posted by: Aldous at June 28, 2006 2:56 AM
Comment #162615


What amazes me about this article is the black and white attitudes in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, toward the drug.

I have to admit I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and though I did use pot I had no interest what so ever in the use of heroin.
I didn’t associate with folks that used heroin, and the crowd or family I did associate with didn’t tolerate needle drugs of any kind.

Curiously my “pot addiction” has led to a love of Single Malt Scotch.

Go figure.

Posted by: Rocky at June 28, 2006 3:00 AM
Comment #162616


“Is there more than one way to use marijuana other than smoking it?”

You’ve never heard of pot brownies?

Posted by: Rocky at June 28, 2006 3:01 AM
Comment #162619

Nope. I was hoping to broaden my knowledge of illegal substances in this Thread.

So what are pot brownies?

Posted by: Aldous at June 28, 2006 3:18 AM
Comment #162643

There is the pot bomb, Aldous. The Defense department is doing research on it now. There is a theory that it renders the enemy into pacifists.

I understand it’s a billion dollar black budget item. Rummy has been doing private research on it, but it only has led him to delusions so far.

Posted by: gergle at June 28, 2006 7:38 AM
Comment #162653

Aldous, there are billion dollar industries in pot production. Everything from rope, to clothing, to medicines. There are a myriad of uses for pot. None of which the U.S. economy, capitalists, or farmers are permitted to profit from except through secondary market imports.

Posted by: David R. Remer at June 28, 2006 8:11 AM
Comment #162668

——“There is the pot bomb, Aldous. The Defense department is doing research on it now. There is a theory that it renders the enemy into pacifists”

Interesting concept. Instead of using bullet and killing thousands of innocent people in the “war” on terror, lets use a weapon the will inject the enemy with doses of pot. The will get the munchies and become lazy underachievers, and at last they will be happy. As the Prez has demonstrated, there is nothing wrong with being a underachiever. :D

Posted by: nick at June 28, 2006 9:25 AM
Comment #162678

The Pot Bomb is so out of data! They’re already up to the two component Hash-Opium Superbong. It goes off and you’re too tired to eat, so it saves on the food bills.

But, I tend to agree with Richard. The pot laws, enforcement, and resultant criminailzation of mostly kids is a waste of time, money, people, and focus.

Posted by: Dave1 at June 28, 2006 10:18 AM
Comment #162724

Hey aldous,

pot brownies are where u take like a half ounce of pot, boil in vegetable oil and then use the oil to make the brownies. The THC (the active ingredient in mary jane) is extracted by the boiling and then when u eat it its absorbed by the body. Takes longer to get high but u get REALLY high. Ive also heard there are THC pills that are prescribed to cancer patients but Ive never seen them so who knows if thats true or not.


Posted by: Neil at June 28, 2006 12:41 PM
Comment #162856

Aldous - The descriptions of viable usage are based entirely on what we’ve been told or media representation, and by no means suggest first hand knowledge.

Hows that for a disclaimer?

Posted by: DOC at June 28, 2006 4:35 PM
Comment #162867

Last night when I wrote this the number of arrests was approximately at 362,000. Less than 24 hours later the arrest number is almost at 364,000. That is well over a thousand increase in a day, everyday.

Posted by: Richard Rhodes at June 28, 2006 4:51 PM
Comment #162870

Moreover with the huge number of arrests yearly, think about what this cost the taxpayer in the time the police have to spend on this, and moreover the time the courts have to spend on this.

Posted by: Richard Rhodes at June 28, 2006 4:52 PM
Comment #162914

Whats funny is all the stereotypes about marijuana users all being lazy stoners. This is absolutely not the case, I know many people who use marijuana casually or more than casually and are succesful in school and at work. The drug has a lot of misinformation surrounding it. If a person is a lazy idiot before they start using, things get worse, but you don’t lose the ability to do anything you could normally do by using pot.

As well, marijuana prohibition pushes it from a potentially profitable (read: taxable) industry, in the same way as ciggarettes are, to a very costly opperation for our government. To top it off, the prohibition funnels money from farmers to dealers, who often have connections to dangerous people. If pot was legal, anyone could grow an acre of it, so you could buy it in a gas station or a farmers market. When it is illegal you have to go through someone who is likely doing other illegal things. As well, it is well documented through scientific research, that marijuana doesn’t even cause cancer, it appears THC has cancer fighting properties.

The last real argument in favor of prohibition is the gateway drug argument, but the most popular gateway drugs are cafine, tobbacco, alcohol, marijuana, and aderol, all of which can be acquired legally, with the exception of marijuana. Its all nanny state BS, but then again, what isn’t these days.

Posted by: iandanger at June 28, 2006 6:52 PM
Comment #162941

landranger - I have to disagree on one point. Marijuana does impair ones ability to operate vehicles and heavy machinery. A more accurate statement is that it has no worse affects on your ability than alcohol.

Posted by: DOC at June 28, 2006 8:02 PM
Comment #163130


I actually misstated myself, marijuana impares your short term memory and reaction time while intoxicated, I was more talking about the rest of the time, there is this impression that smoking pot three times a week will make you a dim witted stoner, and thats really not the case, though it is possible, depending on the person’s personality, work ethic, etc.

Posted by: iandanger at June 29, 2006 2:07 AM
Comment #163131



Posted by: iandanger at June 29, 2006 2:08 AM
Comment #163132

DOC, as pot user of the 1960’s, I can attest that your claim is accurate though only up to a point. I have never heard or met anyone that passed out due to pot. That is a frequent occurence for drunk drivers. So on balance, pot smoking vehicular drivers are a somewhat less public risk than heavy drinkers. That’s not to say they should be driving at all under the influence. Them cravings can cause sudden lane changes without blinker near donut shops and McDonalds.

Posted by: David R. Remer at June 29, 2006 2:10 AM
Comment #163133

iandanger, there is also evidence of long term learning and memory disfunction for some even after quitting from prolonged daily use of pot. Someone close to me also shows these same symptoms, and I knew them before their years of daily use. Their learning potential shrank and memory will never be what it once was, though they are still capable of holding down a job and doing very well at it.

I did not however research the reliability and validity of the research I am recalling here.

Posted by: David R. Remer at June 29, 2006 2:17 AM
Comment #163136

One of the positive effects of pot use is reduced tendencies toward violence of word or action. Our society could use a bit of that, I think. I know some employers would agree that it would not be a bad trade-off to have slight productivity drops in return for a mellower easier going workforce. Depends a lot of the nature of the work, of course.

Posted by: David R. Remer at June 29, 2006 2:19 AM
Comment #163302

David R.
>>>”Them cravings can cause sudden lane changes without blinker near donut shops and McDonalds.”

Yes. But as you can attest, most would only appear sudden to the driver and would in all actuality be very very very slow.

>>>there is also evidence of long term learning and memory disfunction for some even after quitting from prolonged daily use of pot. Someone close to me also shows these same symptoms, and I knew them before their years of daily use. Their learning potential shrank and memory will never be what it once was, though they are still capable of holding down a job and doing very well at it.

In certain circumstances the same argument may be made for marriage.

Posted by: DOC at June 29, 2006 4:04 PM
Comment #163410

Richard, everone is having fun with this, but I thank you for this piece, I think it shows the way government really works and the dangers of reactionary politics.

Posted by: gergle at June 29, 2006 8:00 PM
Comment #163486

“In certain circumstances the same argument may be made for marriage.”

Hot damn that made me laugh.

Posted by: iandanger at June 30, 2006 2:35 AM
Comment #163771

iandanger, me too! Good one, DOC.

Posted by: David R. Remer at June 30, 2006 8:36 PM
Comment #178625

DISCLAIMER: The following statements are not in any way to be interpreted as personal reflection on college life in a small town with nothing to do before I was mature enough to actually study.

The US government reversed alcohol prohibition because they knew they couldn’t defeat the black market and figured they might as well profit from it.

Marijuana provides no such compromise. Alcohol manufacturing is a generally complicated process, while anyone can grow marijuana in a few containers and some red-spectrum flourescent lighting…or HPS lights for the truly motivated.
If marijuana were legal and the government artificially inflated prices through taxation, consumers would immediately start growing themselves.

So…for now marijuana shall remain the evil demon weed.
Should you like to partake of illicit substances, the US government would likely suggest that you seek out your state-approved dealer/doctor and use one of many LEGAL substances which alter consciousness. The exorbitant prices can be passed on to others through insurance scams and the numerous side-effects are a small price to pay for the security of social approval.

Anything but marijuana.

Posted by: Matt Goldseth at August 31, 2006 7:26 PM
Comment #216677

Is there more than one way to use marijuana other than smoking it?

Posted by: Alex Connor at April 15, 2007 1:06 PM
Comment #229812

no you can only smoke it!!

Posted by: replica watch at August 18, 2007 8:54 AM
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