After years of propaganda, Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), pulled the trigger on the Marihuana Tax Act on August 2, 1937. It placed a tax on the sale of cannabis, and criminalized the sale and possession of the drug in the U.S. Although the act was deemed unconstitutional and was overturned in Leary v. United States in 1969, and repealed the following year, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified weed as a Schedule I drug which meant it remained illegal.
Although being convicted of a cannabis crime now carried a maximum sentence of five years in prison, it was never going to prevent weed lovers from getting their fix. As a result, it was inevitable that arrests would follow and the first one happened within two days of the Act being passed into law on October 1, 1937.
Background to Marijuana Prohibition
The Marihuana Tax Act was far from being a spur of the moment decision. It was a law that was over 25 years in the making. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 and lasted over nine and a half years, taking anywhere from two million to 3.75 million lives. The violence resulted in mass migration to the United States which soon became inundated with Mexicans.
The American media quickly began to demonize the immigrants, and as the Mexicans used weed, it became easy to link the herb to violent behavior as extreme prejudice took hold. Cannabis was also associated with African-Americans who at that time were treated as second class citizens and erroneously perceived to be an ‘inferior’ race.
Meanwhile, alcohol prohibition had been a disaster and was finally repealed in 1933. The government needed a new target and cannabis was low hanging fruit. They used the same tactic as they did to ban Tommy Guns in 1934. The National Firearms Act decreed that you needed a federal government printed stamp to sanction the sale of a Tommy Gun. However, they didn’t print the stamp!
When it came to prohibiting weed, the new law allowed you to legally sell weed if you purchased a marihuana tax stamp. Sounds simple right? Wrong! To get the stamp, you had to show up with your marijuana to get the stamp and would subsequently be arrested for possession! Also, there was no official place to purchase a stamp, probably because they didn’t exist.
Not So Innocent
There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the story of the first men to be arrested for marijuana crimes. Moses Baca was the first to be arrested for weed possession, while Samuel Caldwell was the first to be arrested for marijuana sale. Over the years, it has been assumed that Caldwell was caught selling weed to Baca because both men were arrested in Denver.
In reality, they were separate arrests, and it is likely that Caldwell never had dealings with Baca. We owe this information to the sleuthing of a man named Uncle Mike, who performed detailed research into the case and uncovered an array of discrepancies in reports of the time.
We also must point out that neither man was an innocent victim of a crazy law. Yes, the Marihuana Tax Act was a ridiculous addition to the justice system, but both Caldwell and Baca were known to the police. At the time of his arrest, Baca was 23 years old and was a man of Mexican heritage, although he was born in Colorado.
Baca was first arrested at the tender age of 16, and within a year, he had a conviction for theft under his belt. He spent time in prison for burglary aged 20 and received further convictions for burglary and larceny. Baca was also wanted for assault and robbery. Add in his arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct, his crime of beating his wife, and the fact he was Mexican-American, Baca was the ideal ‘profile’ for police looking to make their first marijuana arrest.
As for Samuel Caldwell, he was 57 years of age at the time of his arrest. Today, you can find all sorts of merchandise bearing his image and adorning him as the first POW of cannabis. Like Che Guevara, Caldwell does not deserve his ‘saintly’ status. If you see his mugshot at the time of his arrest for marijuana sale, Caldwell is clad in overalls and looks like an innocuous individual.
In reality, the farmer was a career criminal with all manner of convictions and arrests. Caldwell had previously spent time in prison for the illegal sale of whiskey. In many ways, he seems to have been an unlucky criminal. His arrest for bootlegging came less than a year before prohibition ended. Moreover, he had only been selling weed for a few months before the Tax Act came into law!
According to an article from the Denver Post in October 1937, Baca and Caldwell were arrested together at the Lexington Hotel. In reality, they were arrested miles apart with no known connection. It also seems as if the Lexington Hotel never existed in Denver!
Denver was by far the biggest Western city for several hundred miles and made for a great location for a high-profile arrest. Although Baca was certainly ‘targeted’ by the police, he gift-wrapped his arrest. In the early hours of October 3, 1937, police arrived at his home to conduct a search. Baca was drunk and had beaten his wife once again.
The police found a quarter of an ounce of weed in a drawer and arrested Baca for marijuana possession. The time of the arrest was 3:15 am. Once again, embellishments and outright lies fill the story. Anslinger claimed that there was gunplay involved in the arrest of Baca, but police reports show no evidence.
The Denver Post claimed that Baca blamed his violence on cannabis; a neat tie-in with the propaganda war against the herb. Remember, Reefer Madness had been released the previous year, and the FBN and anti-marijuana campaigners tried to link weed with violent behavior. In any case, there is no evidence that Baca ever attributed his behavior to the herb.
Although Baca was certainly a criminal who would have ended up in prison for something else given his record, the entire affair smacked of racial profiling. This was confirmed by a man originally known as Mr. X, later revealed to be Alexander Rahoutis. X was later arrested for weed possession and was told not to “hang out with Mexicans” by the police. He also confirmed that Caldwell had never sold marijuana to Baca.
Furthermore, X knew both men and said that Baca was fond of cocaine and also drank Sterno, an alcohol-based fuel that was normally used to heat food. Clearly, it was not for drinking yet it was used to get a cheap high. It came at a high price: Side effects included hallucinations, violent behavior, and it could also prove fatal. It seems far more likely that cocaine and Sterno were behind Baca’s actions, and at that time, Sterno was legal.
Caldwell was also on the radar of law enforcement and on October 5, they paid a visit to the Lothrop Hotel, an establishment better known for being a flophouse. There, they found a whopping four pounds of weed; Caldwell was in BIG trouble. For the record, it is believed that Caldwell never used marijuana, but he was a known dealer. He was apparently caught selling three joints to a man named Claude Morgan whose fate is unknown.
The justice system is known for dragging things out. Unless of course you have a public defender and are urged to take a plea even if you aren’t guilty. However, as Baca and Caldwell were the first people arrested for breaking the new marijuana law, an example was always going to be made of them.
It is clear that Anslinger was the Jeff Sessions of his day. His hatred of marijuana was rabid. So much so that he embarked on a two-day rail trip from D.C. to Denver just to attend the trials of both men. Anslinger also made sure he was heard praising the prosecutors. In a nation where racial discrimination was rife, and lynching’s still occurred, it was ridiculous for him to state that “marijuana has become our greatest problem.”
To say that Baca and Caldwell had no chance is an understatement. The presiding judge, J. Foster Symes, shared Anslinger’s loathing of marijuana. He claimed it was the “worst of all narcotics” and “under its influence men become beasts.” Symes went on to say he had no sympathy for anyone caught using or selling it, and he intended to “enforce this new law to the letter.”
Even though Baca only had seven grams of weed, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. As for Caldwell, trafficking was a more serious crime, so he was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Leavenworth Prison, where he had spent time after his arrest for bootlegging.
The speed of their convictions was startling for the time. By October 17, just two weeks after Baca’s arrest, both men were in prison. Caldwell served almost three and a half years of his sentence and was released in 1941. He died from liver cancer that June, a legacy of a lifetime of hard liquor consumption.
Baca’s fate was no better. He was released in December 1938 after spending 14 months in Leavenworth. Police records show that he was causing trouble in Denver just three months after his release. Baca spent the 1940s involved in various minor crimes and moved to L.A during World War II. He died in California in March 1948 from blood poisoning. Baca was just 33 years of age.
Marijuana Outlaws: Final Thoughts
In 2005, Denver became the first city in the modern era to legalize recreational marijuana in small amounts. It was a symbolic gesture because it was not legal at the state level. That didn’t happen until 2012 when Colorado became the second American state to legalize recreational cannabis.
It is ironic then that Denver was also the scene of the first marijuana arrests under the Marihuana Tax Act. Moses Baca and Samuel Caldwell were career criminals; cannabis possession and sale were just a small part of their respective repertoires.
Over the last 80+ years, millions of Americans have been arrested for the simple crime of possession. Today, the picture looks a lot brighter because you can purchase weed for recreational use in 10 states plus D.C. If you gain possession of a medical marijuana card, 23 other states allow you to use cannabis.
However, it is still a sad fact that millions of Americans live in states where possession of the herb still equals prison time. Baca and Caldwell may not have been model citizens, but it is clear that they were scapegoats in the government’s futile war against marijuana; a conflict that is sadly ongoing.