Most citizens would assume that both marijuana prohibition has been a part of our legal system for at least a century and that Americans are more drug-addicted than ever. While a staggering approximation of between two and five percent of U.S. adults were addicted to drugs in 1900, marijuana reform came in the shape of swift, racially charged laws passed from between 1914 and 1937 and a tax scheme devised to give the federal government the power to impose a general criminal law.
The Harrison Tax Act of 1914
Opium, cocaine and morphine were all once legal in the United States before Harry Anslinger, the man who could be equated to the nation’s first Drug Czar, began to build his career as the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics by taking taking certain substances off of the streets and into smear campaigns. Lawmakers had stated that their goals for the bill were to regulate the medicinal usage of these three substance while imposing prohibition onto the non-medicinal usage, but during the early 1900s, it was widely acknowledged that Congress did not possess the power to create general criminal laws, and bill backers knew that backlash could present itself in the form of unconstitutionality. They devised a plan to masquerade the regulation and persecution as a tax and thus created what we know now as the Harrison Tax Act. The first tax would require doctors to pay into and thus enter a regulatory system in order to prescribe the substances, the second levied a preposterously proportioned tax upon the non-medical exchange of the drugs. Though law enforcement would technically enforce tax evasion, the Harrison Tax Act effectively imposed prohibition. This criminal law masqueraded as a tax would be the layout for the bill passed in 1937 that would condemn marijuana to the same prohibited fate, which was so coincidentally entitled the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
State Marijuana Prohibition 1914-1937
During the years after the Harrison Tax Act and prior to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, 27 states passed laws prohibiting the usage of cannabis. The first state to make such laws was Utah, who did so under pressure from the Mormon populace. Doctor Charles Whitebread notes that an influx of Mormons returning from religious missions in northwest Africa brought back marijuana, which was subsequently condemned by the remaining Mormons and primary church:
…in August of 1915 the Church, meeting again in synod in Salt Lake City decreed the use of marijuana contrary to the Mormon religion and then — and this is how things were in Utah in those days — in October of 1915, the state legislature met and enacted every religious prohibition as a criminal law and we had the first criminal law in this country’s history against the use of marijuana.
The first wave of states to enact criminal laws against marijuana were the southwestern and Rocky Mountain states. An influx in migrant Mexican workers had also brought marijuana with them, and racial tensions lead to representatives and senators defaming Mexicans as violent criminals and accused marijuana of making them so. One Texas lawmaker said on the senate floor, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy”; Whitebread emphasizes the racial allegations mirrored by legislators in Montana and other states as laws were passed to prohibit the substance:
And so what was the genesis for the early state marijuana laws in the Rocky Mountain and southwestern areas of this country? It wasn’t hostility to the drug, it was hostility to the newly arrived Mexican community that used it. …
The last set of states to ban the drug would lack both a prevalence of marijuana users and a large Mexican population. States in the northeast such as Connecticut would hear about prohibition in the southwest and banned marijuana before it could take hold. Privy to information about the increase in violence and the troubles surrounding Mexican immigration into the United States as well as the drug that they had brought with them, fear blossomed that marijuana would become a substituted drug for users cut off from other narcotics by the Harrison Act, as explained in an editorial by the New York Times in 1919:
No one here in New York uses this drug marijuana. We have only just heard about it from down in the Southwest, but we had better prohibit its use before it gets here. Otherwise all the heroin and hard narcotics addicts cut off from their drug by the Harrison Act and all the alcohol drinkers cut off from their drug by 1919 alcohol Prohibition will substitute this new and unknown drug marijuana for the drugs they used to use.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
While officials decried “marihuana” and its usage, the public as well as lawmakers were familiar with and accepted the medicinal usage of cannabis. The fear campaign that began to smear the plant adopted the Mexican word “marihuana” in order to avoid association with the medicinal cannabis plant already in use in the United States. Like the Harrison Tax Act of 1914, this bill had the similar goal of both criminalizing a substance and masquerading itself as a tax. The hearings for the act lasted only two hours and consisted of federal testimony by Commissioner Anslinger, testimony from the industrial sectors that used cannabis and medical testimony. Anslinger told Congress from a pre-written statement that “marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death” (Whitebread). As the whole of government testimony in support of the bill, the next round of input came from the rope industry, who used hemp; the varnish and paint industry, who used hemp oil as a base; and the birdseed industry, who used cannabis seeds in their mixes. Ropemakers mounted the testimony that hemp imports from the Far East would satiate the requirement; thus, they would remain unaffected by this prohibition. In similar accounts, manufacturers associated with paints and varnishes testified that they could use substitutions to replace hemp oil. The last industry to produce testimony, associated with birdseed, maintained that they could not do without cannabis seeds in their mixes. Whitebread alleges that this testimony in 1937 is the reason birdseed companies still receive an exemption for the use of so-called “denatured” seeds to this day.
The final round would consist of two medical testimonies: one from a pharmacologist at Temple University and one from the Chief Counsel to the American Medical Association. With allegations that he had injected 300 dogs with the active ingredient in cannabis despite the fact that it would not be synthesized in a laboratory until after World War II, the pharmacologist’s testimony has been the subject of extreme skepticism and scrutiny, as Doctor Whitebread notes:
The first came from a pharmacologist at Temple University who claimed he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died. When asked by the Congressman, and I quote “Doctor, did you choose those dogs for the similarity of their reactions to that of humans?” The answer of the pharmacologist was, “I wouldn’t know, [sic] I’m not a dog psychologist.” Well, the active ingredient in marijuana was first synthesized in a laboratory in Holland after World War II. So what it was this pharmacologist injected into those dogs we will never know, but it almost certainly was not the active ingredient in marijuana.
Lastly appeared the testimony of Doctor William C. Woodward, who was then the Chief Counsel to the AMA. During the 1930s, a series of bills passed by a vastly Democratic government called the New Deal had received criticism and unyielding opposition from the American Medical Association, who had unrelentingly refused to back any of their bills through Congress. Doctor Woodward testif
ied that “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug”. Congressmen replied, “Doctor, if you can’t say something good about what we’re trying to do, why don’t you go home?” while another cajoled, “Doctor, if you haven’t got something better to say than that, we are sick of hearing you” (Whitebread).
Since the writers of the legislation had used the Mexican term “marihuana”, officials were unaware what the bill was attempting to ban. By using a little-known colloquialism, lawmakers had failed to associate the term “marihuana” with the known and accepted cannabis and its medicinal usage.
They were getting ready to pass this thing on tellers without discussion and without a recorded vote when one of the few Republicans left in Congress, a guy from upstate New York, stood up and asked two questions, which constituted the entire debate on the national marijuana prohibition.
“Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?”
To which Speaker Rayburn replied, “I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called marihuana. I think it’s a narcotic of some kind.”
Undaunted, the guy from Upstate New York asked a second question, which was as important to the Republicans as it was unimportant to the Democrats. “Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?”
…a member of the committee who had supported the bill leaped to his feet and he said, “Their Doctor Wentworth came down here. They support this bill 100 percent.” It wasn’t true, but it was good enough for the Republicans. They sat down and the bill passed on tellers, without a recorded vote.
- Whitebread, Charles (1995). “The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States”. DrugLibrary.org. Retrieved July 30, 2012.