The short answer is 1937. On August 2 of that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act. It was the first federal cannabis law and banned the substance from October 1937. To be fair, weed had been rapidly hurtling towards prohibition for about a quarter of a century. The Marihuana Tax Act was the result of a campaign of lies and racism.
Before the beginning of the 20th century, weed was regularly used as a medicine, along with heroin, cocaine and a variety of other substances outlawed today. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years, but at the beginning of the 1900s, it was suddenly seen as a harmful drug. As far as the U.S. was concerned, the ban on weed didn’t begin because of a fear of its effects. There was a far more sinister reason.
Fear of Mexican Immigrants
The term ‘dog whistle politics’ was probably first used by the Washington Post in 1988, but the tactic has been used for centuries. It is the process of primarily nationalist politicians using racial ‘codewords’ such as ‘law and order,’ ‘war on terror,’ and ‘tough on crime.’ All of the above seem like innocuous terms, but they are coded methods of denigrating minorities.
Back in 1910, the violent Mexican Revolution forced an enormous number of Mexicans to flee to relatively safety north of the border. These immigrants used weed recreationally, as well as a medicine, and apparently used the herb more often than Americans. The media played on the fears of this new population by spreading lies about the ‘disruptive’ Mexicans. These ‘dangerous’ Mexicans were seemingly fuelled by marijuana.
These rumors were fantastical, and it is hard to believe that people fell for it, but then again, the same is happening today (President Trump and his ‘bad hombres’ and ‘Mexicans are rapists’ statements come to mind). In any case, the lies include a suggestion that weed aroused a bloodlust, incited violent behavior, and gave the user incredible strength. It was also falsely suggested that the Mexicans were giving their killer drug to American kids.
As you can probably guess, weed was demonized along with these unfortunate immigrants. Down in El Paso, Texas, they needed a reason to search, detain, and ultimately, deport, their unwelcome visitors. Cannabis became the obvious and convenient excuse. The method of controlling immigrants by controlling their customs became so successful that it became a nationwide tactic to keep specific ‘types’ of people under the careful eye of Big Brother.
Throughout the decades, marijuana was also used to demonize African-Americans, prostitutes, criminals, and jazz musicians (who were predominantly black). It may have been a pack of lies, but successful propaganda is based on constantly repeated falsehoods. In 1911, Massachusetts became the first state to put a restriction on weed in place. All residents required a prescription for the sales of what they called ‘Indian hemp.’
In 1913, California, Wyoming, and Maine became the first three states to ban cannabis. As of 1933, 29 states had introduced marijuana prohibition. America had fallen a long way since the 1619 law in Virginia which stated that colonists were legally required to grow hemp! National prohibition was inevitable during the 1930s. After all, alcohol prohibition had been such a roaring success and certainly didn’t aid the Italian mafia’s rise!
During the 1930s hearing on cannabis law, the full range of lies came out. It was claimed that weed caused African-American men to become violent and solicit sex from white women. As opposed to those well-behaved Caucasian men!
In 1925, the stage had already been set for prohibition when the United States became involved in the International Opium Convention which prevented the export of marijuana to countries where it was banned. It could only be sent to the rapidly dwindling number of countries where it was used for scientific or medicinal purposes.
The cannabis cause was given another kick in the teeth in the form of the Great Depression which began in 1929 and lasted for over four years. The unemployment rate soared to 25%, and once again, marijuana became a scapegoat. Suggestions that weed caused addiction and drug abuse became the norm, as was the idea that weed users were lazy and had helped contribute to the economic collapse.
In 1931, government ‘research’ was released and claimed that weed was linked with criminal activity primarily committed by underclass communities and racially inferior people. In other words, it was those nasty immigrants and black people. The following year, the federal government urged all states to adopt the Uniform State Narcotics Act.
The Final Nail
On June 14, 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was formed, and Harry Anslinger became the First Commissioner. Anslinger is often credited with the ban on weed (in fact he is known as the Godfather of Cannabis Prohibition), but in reality, he was just an agent of a policy that had been a long time coming.
Anslinger had a hatred of ethnic minorities (he once said that “Reefer makes darkies think that they’re as good as white men”), and while this certainly helped speed up prohibition, money was another primary motive. William Randolph Hearst, the famed media magnate, used his empire to taint immigrants. Hearst also hated minorities, especially Mexicans, as Pancho Villa had seized 800,000 acres of Hearst’s timberland during the Mexican Revolution.
The duo was aided and abetted by Lammot Du Pont who ran the DuPont chemical company. Remember, hemp was also used as a fiber for clothes and was a rival to trees as a means of making paper. DuPont had recently invented nylon (in 1924), and this synthetic material was also a direct rival of hemp.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hearst was behind an enormous smear campaign against marijuana and its users. In July 1937 for example, one of his publications, The American Magazine, published a nonsense ‘story’ about a teenager who murdered his family after using weed and had no recollection of the event. The article was entitled: “MARIJUANA – Assassin of Youth.’
Not everyone was fooled. In 1937, Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association (AMA) testified in front of Congress and stated that there was no evidence of marijuana being dangerous. He went on to say that there were several medical uses for the herb. However, when Anslinger presented the anti-marijuana legislation, a member of the hearing committee blatantly lied and said the AMA supported the bill. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, and weed was now illegal.
The act levied a $1 tax on everyone who sold, grew, imported, or purchased prescribed marijuana. A violation of the law was punishable by a $2,000 fine (huge by the standards of the time) and a prison sentence of up to five years. The FBN received administrative and regulatory powers.
Physicians had to report the use of weed amongst patients in a sworn statement which said that the patient required the cannabis. Doctors also had to provide the name, address, and illness of patients who used weed. Just one day after the Act had been passed, Moses Baca became the first person to be arrested for weed possession. He received 18 months in prison. Samuel Caldwell was the first to be convicted of marijuana sale under the new law and received a sentence of four years of hard labor for his troubles.
In the 1940s, New York City Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, commissioned a study on weed use in the city. The LaGuardia Commission, as it became known, found that marijuana use did NOT lead to the use of harder drugs. In other words, the ‘gateway drug’ theory was BS.
Even so, the war on weed continued. The 1952 Boggs Act and the 1956 Narcotics Control Act were introduced. Each law established stricter mandatory sentencing laws for the possession and sale of cannabis.
In the late 1960s, pro-psychedelic drug advocate, Timothy Leary, challenged the constitutionality of the Act. One of the main reasons for the challenge was probably because the law was beginning to impact white upper-middle-class college students who began experimenting with drugs.
In 1969, the Act was struck down by the Supreme Court because it violated the Fifth Amendment (the right to avoid self-incrimination). While Congress repealed the law in 1970, it introduced the Controlled Substances Act instead. The new act was designed to ensure that marijuana remained illegal in the United States, and it was classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, the same level as heroin.
In 1972, the Shafer Commission issued a report which called for the decriminalization of marijuana. It also recommended weed’s removal from Schedule I and expressed doubt over whether it should even be illegal. However, President Nixon, who has created the Commission, ignored its findings.
As it had become a Caucasian drug, often used by moderately wealthy individuals, the majority of states softened penalties for marijuana possession. In the 40 years from 1970 to 2010, the ‘War on Drugs’ proved to be an utter failure. The doomed war cost over $1 trillion and failed to prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, mainly from heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines.
Over the last decade or so, the opioid epidemic has resulted in hundreds of thousands of more deaths, up to 100 per day at the last count. These deadly drugs remain available on prescription while marijuana, a naturally grown plant with apparent medicinal uses, remains federally illegal.
In 1988, Judge Francis Young of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), went against the grain by recommending the legalization of marijuana. Once again, expert opinion was ignored because it railed against ‘conventional wisdom,’ and threatened to interfere with the profits of Big Pharma.
Several attempts have been made to legalize cannabis on a federal level, including Supreme Court cases such as Gonzales v. Raich, and United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative.
While there is no doubt that great strides have been made, beginning with the legalization of medical marijuana in California in 1996, there is still a long way to go before America follows Canada’s lead and legalizes cannabis. Although public opinion is strongly in favor, many powerful groups don’t want it to happen. It has been over 80 years since weed was prohibited, and it is worth noting that the ban arose from prejudice, rather than any evidence about the ‘dangers’ of marijuana.