How Cannabis Became Illegal (Book Excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from the book Understanding Medical Marijuana. It explores the cultural politics, racism, and corporate corruption that led to marijuana prohibition in the United States and it being categorized with truly dangerous drugs like heroin and methamphetamines.

HBK11RenderIt actually wasn’t until 1970 that marijuana, by virtue of being declared a Schedule l drug, officially became illegal and of no medicinal value. In the 33 years between 1937 and 1970, cannabis was not, technically, illegal. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 did, however, make it illegal to produce, possess, or consume marijuana without the permission of the federal government—as expressed in the form of a special marijuana tax stamp. None of the stamps were ever sold or distributed.

To read more from this concise, objective new book that’s aimed squarely at residents of swing states and moderate voters, check out A Brief History of Medical Marijuana.


Chapter 3: Why is Marijuana Illegal?

To fully understand the merits of marijuana as medicine—and see through the stereotypes and misperceptions that plague the herb—it’s important to know how and why it became illegal in the first place. Why would a supposedly helpful medicine be outlawed by one of the most economically and culturally advanced nations in the world?

Racism, religious intolerance, corporate greed, and corrupt legislators all contributed to the current state of marijuana prohibition. To put things in perspective, consider that cannabis has been illegal for less than one percent of the time that it has been in use by humans (primarily for medical purposes, not euphoria).

The First Marijuana Laws

Ironically, the first marijuana law in the United States, in Jamestown Colony, Virginia, in 1619, was one requiring farmers to grow it. Similar laws existed in the Virginia colony between 1763 and 1767. Hemp, the industrial form of the cannabis plant that features few or no euphoria-producing flowers, was so common in colonial America that citizens used it as legal tender and could even pay their taxes with it. A hundred years later, the U.S. Census of 1850 documented 8,327 hemp plantations of at least 2,000 acres each.

One of the first municipal laws banning cannabis was a 1914 ordinance in El Paso, Texas, supposedly intended to curb violence (a fight had erupted between a Mexican—accusedly under the influence of marijuana—and a white citizen). The real purpose of the law, however, was to discriminate against Mexican immigrants, not the herb in their pockets. Mexican men had begun to socialize with white women, much to the chagrin of the conservative white leaders and businessmen who ran El Paso. Because Mexicans used marijuana, its prohibition gave American authorities a convenient excuse to jail or deport them (similarly, opium was banned in the United States in 1909 to, in part, discriminate against Chinese immigrants).

A Texas senator, in an official statement from the floor of the senate, proclaimed, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.” When Montana banned marijuana in 1927, the Butte Standard quoted a legislator as saying, “When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff, he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts to execute all [of] his political enemies.”

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A backyard garden in North America

The first state law in the U.S. banning marijuana was possibly based on religious intolerance. In 1910, a group of Mormons from Utah supposedly traveled to Mexico, returning to Salt Lake City with marijuana. The leaders of the church, not pleased with the adoption of cannabis by some of its members, banned it (although no official documentation of this exists within the Mormon church). The influence of the Mormons was significant enough that some historians believe church policies sometimes became state laws. Thus, marijuana was outlawed in Utah as part of the sweeping “Poisons and Narcotic Drugs” legislation of 1915.

In the following years, several other states banned marijuana. Wyoming (1915), Texas (1919), Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas (1923), and Montana (1927) all enacted laws prohibiting the possession of cannabis that intended, in large part, to discriminate against Mexican-Americans. In 1913, California banned a variety of narcotics, including opium, but excluded marijuana. Ironically, paraphernalia (such as pipes) for smoking “extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco weed” were outlawed in the same legislation. (Yes, you read that correctly: A state law referred to cannabis as “loco weed.”)

By 1930, nearly 30 of the 48 states had passed laws outlawing the cultivation, sale, and possession of marijuana—and a variety of narcotics—often under the official justification of food and drug purity (a popular progressive movement after the turn of the century).

Paramount Protectionism: Anslinger & Hearst

Two men are primarily responsible for the modern federal-level legal prohibition of marijuana that has been in existence for the past 78 years: Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst.

Anslinger was an ambitious government bureaucrat who, in 1930, became Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the precursor to today’s Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA). Nepotism was in full force: Anslinger was appointed by his wife’s uncle, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (of Mellon Bank, one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world at the time). Hearst was a publishing and timber mogul who owned major newspapers and popular magazines (think of him as the evil Rupert Murdoch of his day).

Harry Anslinger

Harry Anslinger

Hearst, according to one biography, “…hated minorities, and he used his chain of newspapers to aggravate racial tensions at every opportunity.” His motives were understandable: He lost 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution. His means of institutionalizing his bigotry, however, were less deserving of empathy.

The term “marijuana”—derived from the Mexican slang “marihuana” (either purposefully or accidentally misspelled)—was first coined in the United States in the 1890s. It was popularized in the early 1930s by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and in articles appearing in magazines and newspapers owned by Hearst. Hearst, via his publishing empire, continually attempted to taint public perception of the plant by leveraging popular prejudice against Mexican-Americans. The Mexican Spanish term “marihuana” was used to elude the public’s existing familiarity and comfort level with hemp and the medical application of cannabis tinctures (it was not a commonly smoked recreational drug at the time).

In fact, the terms “marihuana” and “marijuana” weren’t even included in official dictionaries at the time. If not for the efforts of Anslinger and Hearst, the herb would almost certainly be referred to as cannabis (the Latin name that’s most common in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia), not marijuana.

Anslinger drew upon the social stereotypes and prejudices of the day to stigmatize cannabis. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others,” he said. Anslinger also made highly inflammatory and provocative statements involving significant fear mongering, such as “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” His racist side is revealed by statements such as “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” He also proclaimed, “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst

Hearst and Anslinger were supported by Lammot du Pont of the DuPont chemical company and a variety of pharmaceutical corporations, all of which had a financial interest in defeating hemp to promote their own products. For example, DuPont began selling rayon (the first man-made fiber) in 1924 and invented nylon, a synthetic competitor to hemp, in 1935. One reason pharmaceutical and petrochemical companies disliked cannabis was because people could grow it themselves. (It should be noted that Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary who appointed Anslinger to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the wealthiest man in America at the time, was—along with Mellon Bank—a financial backer of DuPont.)

In February 1938, Popular Mechanics Magazine reported that hemp was the new “billion dollar crop” in the United States[1], due entirely to the introduction of mass production harvesting equipment. The hemp decorticator, a farm machine that mechanically separated the fiber of the hemp stalk, threatened to make hemp a strong competitor to wood. The decorticator saved massive amounts of labor and made hemp production affordable and practical on a small scale (such as on family farms).

Capable of yielding up to three crops per year in southern climates, one acre of hemp produces about the same amount of cellulose (used to create paper, among other things) as four acres of trees. Amazingly, hemp can be made into about 5,000 different products—from paper, clothing, and food to fuel and construction timbers.

The promise of hemp-based products was so great that they threatened to replace those made from petroleum-based petrochemicals, such as synthetic fibers and even gasoline. Those who think this may have been just slightly intimidating to the likes of corporate barons such as Hearst, Mellon, and DuPont are right. Billions in profits were at risk for entrenched old-school businesses and their financial backers and cronies.

Surprisingly, Henry Ford’s first Model-T automobile was built using hemp plastic panels, not metal (which featured an impact strength 10 times greater than steel). Ford envisioned his car running on fuel made from hemp or other plants. These facts threatened DuPont’s petrochemical market share (driven by new synthetic products such as rayon, nylon, cellophane, and oil-based plastics) and Hearst’s huge timberland and mill empire.

The Smear Campaign

Anslinger (basically the government puppet of corporate barons DuPont and Mellon) and Hearst (who had a clear financial interest in defeating the success of hemp), embarked on one of the world’s most effective and long-lasting smear campaigns.

Together, they crafted a highly inflammatory anti-marijuana public relations crusade with the goal of making the euphoric herb (and, more importantly, its sibling hemp) illegal—effectively eliminating it as a competitor to a variety of petrochemical products (DuPont’s territory) and timber (Hearst’s goldmine). Using Anslinger’s position within the U.S. government and leveraging Hearst’s empire of newspapers and magazines as propaganda outlets, the two concocted outlandish stories, all of which depicted marijuana as being hyperbolically more destructive than what is perceived today as a mild euphoriant that gives its recreational users giggles and the munchies. Their dramatic and sensationalistic stories described pot as an evil drug that led to murder, rape, and insanity.

As early as January 1923, Hearst published in the San Francisco Examiner that “Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse for horrid specters. Hasheesh [a purer, more potent form of marijuana] makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man…”

devils harvest poster

An actual Reefer Madness-era poster

In February 1928, a similarly sensational article appeared in the Hearst publication the Examiner, falsely stating that marijuana was known in India as the “murder drug,” claiming that it was common for a man to “catch up a knife and run through the streets, hacking and killing every one he [encountered].” Even more outlandish, the article claimed one could grow enough cannabis in a window box to “drive the whole population of the United States stark, raving mad.”

The American Magazine, another Hearst publication, in its July 1937 issue published a sensationalized article co-authored by Anslinger entitled “MARIJUANA—Assassin of Youth” which described a young Florida man who murdered his family, an act attributed to his “habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles,’ a childish name for marijuana.” The article claimed that the murderer “had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed.”

Such articles are obviously, by modern standards, laughable—especially when a significant percentage of adults since the 1960s have sampled marijuana. Those who have tried the herb know, from firsthand experience, that it doesn’t make one “pitifully crazed” or cause users to kill their families.

Prohibition Begins

Dr. William Woodward, a doctor, lawyer, and the legislative counsel to the American Medical Association, testified before Congress at a 1937 hearing to outlaw cannabis, stating that there was no evidence that the herb is dangerous. He warned that prohibition “loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.”

When the legislation, drafted by Anslinger, was presented on the floor of the House for a vote, a representative from upstate New York asked, “Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?” The Speaker replied, “I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called marijuana. I think it’s a narcotic of some kind.” The New York representative queried, “Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?” A member of the hearing committee interrupted and replied, “Their Doctor Wentworth [sic] came down here. They support this bill one hundred percent.”

And thus, with that lie—and despite the efforts of Woodward (one of only two medical doctors to testify at the committee hearings) and the actual opposition of the American Medical Association—the U.S. Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in early August.[2] The cultivation and possession of cannabis and hemp has been illegal in the United States ever since.[3]

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A garden in Humboldt County, California (photograph by author)

According to a 2010 article by the Associated Press, “After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives…” In the past 10 years, $211 million was spent to enforce pot laws in the state of Washington alone (as reported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State). Meanwhile, Hearst, Mellon, and du Pont are all household names, more than a half century after the last of the group died.

One of the most indicting official statements against marijuana prohibition came, ironically, from one of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s own Chief Administrative Law Judges, Francis Young. Young, after lengthy hearings regarding the efficacy of the herb in 1988, stated, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance….” Despite his strong official opinion, the DEA did not implement his ruling and allow the rescheduling and testing of marijuana, citing a procedural technicality.

[1] Why did the Popular Mechanics article appear six months following enactment of the Marihuana Tax Act in August 1937, the law that effectively outlawed marijuana cultivation and possession? The law didn’t actually outlaw cannabis or hemp, but rather required a special tax stamp to be issued by the U.S. government. No tax stamps were ever issued.

[2] This is especially ironic because the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.

[3] The U.S. must import all of its hemp products from Canada and Europe, contributing to its trade deficit. In 1970, the Marijuana Tax Act was repealed and replaced by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.


HBK11RenderGooey Rabinski is a technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed to magazines such as High Times, The KindCannabis CultureSKUNK, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis Health JournalGreen Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His marijuana-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.

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