August 2, 1937, was a black day for marijuana. It was on this day that the Marihuana Tax Act was enacted. Also known as H.R. 6385, the act was drafted by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger, and on April 14, 1937, it was introduced into the 75th Congress by Robert L. Doughton, a Republican from North Carolina.
It was redrafted as H.R. 6906 and remained in effect until 1970 when Congress repealed it, a year after Leary v. United States, a case heard by the Supreme Court which ultimately concluded that it was unconstitutional.
According to the new law, importers had to register and pay $24 per annum in tax. Sellers had to purchase marijuana stamps but would simply be arrested if they actually tried to buy any. It is also probable that very few, if any, stamps existed at that stage (they were made available during the 1940s).
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 is often misunderstood. In theory, it wasn’t total prohibition of cannabis. Instead, it implemented a host of taxes, restrictions, and regulations that made it almost impossible to purchase or sell weed in practice. As a result, when the Act became law on October 1, 1937, arrests followed swiftly. Moses Baca was arrested in Denver within a day for possession, while Samuel Caldwell was arrested a couple of days later for sale.
The interesting thing is that marijuana was not classified as a major health issue in the early 1930s, even though those who wanted to get rid of weed had begun their propaganda campaign much earlier. So how come the Marihuana Tax Act was pushed through so quickly, despite opposition from the American Medical Association (AMA)? Read on to find out.
Marijuana has been used for its healing properties for thousands of years. However, the ‘West’ was slower than most to reach this conclusion. In the 1830s, an Irish doctor, by the name of Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, learned that cannabis extracts were effective against symptoms of cholera such as vomiting, while he was in India.
Within a few decades, marijuana was widely used to treat conditions such as insomnia, inflammation, migraines, and stomach aches in the United States. There was no such thing as regulations until the early 20th century. As there were no illegal drugs, heroin, cocaine, and other illicit substances were widely available.
Things began to change with the implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act, signed into law on June 30, 1906,by President Theodore Roosevelt. On the surface, it was a good decision because it ensured accurate labeling. The aim was to improve the health and safety of food and to educate people. However, it also helped lay the groundwork for a series of prohibitions. Cannabis was classified as one of the drugs that required special labeling.
The 1914 Harrison Act helped make opiates illegal by placing a hefty tax on prescriptions, it also allowed for federal regulations. Once the federal government got started, it didn’t stop. The Volstead Act of 1919, enforced in 1920, prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.
It was also at this time that the public’s attitude towards marijuana changed. In 1907, the Poison Act in California classified cannabis as a poison. In 1911, Massachusetts became the first state to prohibit marijuana. It was followed by New York, Maine, Wyoming, and Texas before 1920.
At the International Opium Convention in 1925, the United States supported the regulation of hashish, also known as Indian hemp. The Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act was first drafted in 1925 and finalized seven years later. The FBN encouraged states to adopt the act, which included uniform safeguards for trafficking narcotics in all states.
The FBN itself was formed in 1930 and its boss, Harry Anslinger, was tasked with outlawing all recreational drugs. In 1936, the United States refused to sign the final version of the Geneva Trafficking Convention act because it was deemed too lenient. Even so, weed was not completely outlawed across the United States.
In 1930, only 16 states had passed laws prohibiting marijuana, yet seven years later, there was no state opposition to the Marihuana Tax Act. The AMA was against the act and even argued against it in court. The AMA did not believe that weed was the killer drug of lore and suggested adding it to the Harrison Act instead. So, why did Anslinger find it so easy to implement his precious act?
Prejudice, Propaganda, and Power
It was an old-fashioned fear of immigrants that helped drive marijuana prohibition. As most people know, there was a significant increase in Mexican migrants into the United States from 1910 onwards. The violent Mexican revolution began in that year and claimed millions of lives.
Families fled across the northern border into the relative safety of the United States. From the very beginning, state and national media tried to turn public opinion against the immigrants. They were branded as violent, lazy criminals bent on destroying the American way of life.
Marijuana was a popular recreational drug amongst the immigrants, so it was easy to include it in the various character assassinations that appeared during this era. According to the media, cannabis was the main reason why the immigrants committed so many violent crimes. The drug was associated with African-Americans who were also on the receiving end of terrible treatment.
Even so, cannabis use was on the rise in states where it was legal in the 1930s. Something had to be done. It was at this stage that wealthy tycoons with a vested interest in outlawing weed came on the scene. There was Andrew Mellon, America’s wealthiest man, who was the Secretary of the Treasury and also had a significant investment in the DuPont company. The Treasury was behind the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
The DuPont’s developed nylon in the 1930s. Hemp fiber was a significant rival to nylon, so it benefitted the DuPont’s and Mellon to remove weed from the scene. Then there was William Randolph Hearst, the media magnate. He also made a fortune in the logging and timber industry. As hemp was fast becoming seen as a cheaper and more effective substitute for paper pulp, Hearst was worried that his assets would take a major hit. What he didn’t know was that hemp lacks the cellulose concentration to be an effective substitute for paper.
Hearst used the power of the media to wage a propaganda war on marijuana. Soon, readers were told stories of how cannabis made people go crazy and murder their families. All of these ‘reports’ were complete works of fiction, but they had the desired effect.
The nadir of the propaganda effort, and perhaps the low point in movie history, was the 1936 release of Reefer Madness. It is an appalling piece of garbage that told lies about the damage marijuana could do. Its $100,000 budget was a fortune at the time. In the film, a group of teenagers is lured into trying cannabis by a shady dealer and commit all manner of atrocities including attempted rape, manslaughter, and suicide.
It was one of a long list of anti-marijuana releases at the time which also included Marihuana in 1936, Assassin of Youth in 1937, and Devil’s Harvest in 1942. Despite the poor quality of these movies and the laughably transparent narrative in print media, the propaganda war was a success. There was minimal opposition to the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, and it ensured that cannabis remained underground for decades.
Prohibition and Beyond
Oddly enough, the U.S. Government did not strictly enforce the act during World War II, when it suited them. When Japanese forces took the Philippines in 1942, the U.S. Army and Department of Agriculture urged farmers to grow fiber hemp. The mysterious tax stamps soon appeared and were given to farmers.
In the final three years of the war, 400,000 acres of land were cultivated with hemp even though the Marihuana Tax Act remained unchanged. Commercial hemp was grown in the United States until the middle of the 1950s. When Leary v. United States ruled the Act unconstitutional, it was repealed in 1970. Alas, the Controlled Substances Act was introduced in its stead, and cannabis remained prohibited.
During the 1960s and 1970s, public opinion was overwhelmingly against marijuana legalization, even as the drug became popular amongst the white middle class. In 1996, California became the first state in the modern era to legalize medicinal marijuana. It took over a decade before Washington state, and Colorado became the first to legalize recreational cannabis in 2010.
As at the beginning of 2020, 33 states plus D.C. allow medicinal marijuana, while 11 of these states, plus D.C., allow recreational weed with limits on possession ranging from an ounce to 2.5 ounces in Maine. Even as marijuana becomes legal in various states, it remains illegal on a federal level. In theory, the government could ignore states’ rights and arrest users and sellers in every state. The war on marijuana may have begun a century ago, but its legacy is still felt today.