NORML Report on Sixty Years of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S.
I. Marijuana Use in America Before 1937; Sowing the Seeds for Prohibition
Marijuana cultivation in the United States can trace its lineage some 400 years. For most of our nation's history, farmers grew marijuana -- then known exclusively as hemp -- for its fiber content. Colonialists planted the first American hemp crop in 1611 near Jamestown, Virginia. Soon after, King James I of Britain ordered settlers to engage in wide scale farming of the plant. 1 Most of the sails and ropes on colonial ships were made from hemp as were many of the colonists' bibles, clothing, and maps. 2 According to some historians, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated marijuana and advocated a hemp-based economy. 3 Some colonies even made hemp cultivation compulsory and called its production necessary for the "wealth and protection of the country." 4 Marijuana cultivation continued as an agricultural staple in America through the turn of the 20th century.
Marijuana first earned recognition as an intoxicant in the 1920s and 1930s. Recreational use of the drug became associated primarily with Mexican-American immigrant workers and the African-American jazz musician community. It was during this time that hemp was renamed "marihuana" and the plant's long-standing history as a cash crop was replaced with a new image: "The Devil's Weed."
In 1930, the federal government founded the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), headed by Commissioner Harry Anslinger. The group launched a misinformation campaign against the drug and enrolled the services of Hollywood and several tabloid newspapers. Headlines across the nation began publicizing alleged reports of insanity and violence induced by "reefer-smoking." Exaggerated accounts of violent crimes committed by immigrants reportedly intoxicated by marijuana became popularized. Once under the influence of the drug, criminals purportedly knew no fear and lost all inhibitions. For example, a news bulletin issued by the FBN in the mid-1930s purported that a user of marijuana "becomes a fiend with savage or 'cave man' tendencies. His sex desires are aroused and some of the most horrible crimes result. He hears light and sees sound. To get away from it, he suddenly becomes violent and may kill." 5
Similar reports swept the country. A widely publicized issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology asserted that the marijuana user is capable of "great feats of strength and endurance, during which no fatigue is felt. ... Sexual desires are stimulated and may lead to unnatural acts, such as indecent exposure and rape. ... [Use of marijuana] ends in the destruction of brain tissues and nerve centers, and does irreparable damage. If continued, the inevitable result is insanity, which those familiar with it describe as absolutely incurable, and, without exception ending in death." 6 A Washington Times editorial published shortly before Congress held its first hearing on the issue argued: "The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a deadly drug and American children must be protected against it." 7 This steady stream of propaganda influenced 27 states to pass laws against marijuana in the years leading up to federal prohibition and set the stage both culturally and politically for the passage of the "Marihuana Tax Act in 1937."
Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced the Act in Congress on April 14, 1937 to criminalize the recreational use of marijuana through prohibitive taxation. The bill was the brainchild of Commissioner Anslinger who later testified before Congress in support of the bill.
Congress held only two hearings to debate the merits of marijuana prohibition. The hearings totaled just one hour. 8 Federal witness Harry Anslinger testified before the House Ways and Means Committee that "this drug is entirely the monster-Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured." He was joined by Assistant General Counsel for the Department of the Treasury, Clinton Hester, who affirmed that the drug's eventual effect on the user "is deadly." These statements summarized the federal government's official position and served as the initial justification for criminalizing marijuana smoking. 9
The American Medical Association (AMA) represented the lone voice against marijuana prohibition before Congress. AMA Legislative Counsel Dr. William C. Woodward testified, "There is no evidence" that marijuana is a dangerous drug. Woodward challenged the propriety of passing legislation based only on newspaper accounts and questioned why no data from the Bureau of Prisons or the Children's Bureau supported the FBN's position. He further argued that the legislation would severely compromise a physician's ability to utilize marijuana's therapeutic potential. Surprisingly, the committee took little interest in Woodward's testimony and told the physician, "If you want to advise us on legislation, you ought to come here with some constructive proposals ... rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the federal government is trying to do." 10
After just one hearing, the Ways and Means Committee approved the "Marihuana Tax Act." The House of Representatives followed suit on August 20 after engaging in only 90 seconds of debate. During this abbreviated floor "discussion," only two questions were asked. First, a member of congress from upstate New York asked Speaker Sam Rayburn to summarize the purpose of the bill. Rayburn replied, "I don't know. It has something to do with a thing called marijuana. I think it is a narcotic of some kind." The same representative then asked, "Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support the bill?" Falsely, a member of the Ways and Means Committee replied, "Their Doctor Wharton (sic) gave this measure his full support ... [as well as] the approval [of] the American Medical Association." 11 Following this brief exchange of inaccurate information, the House approved the federal prohibition of marijuana without a recorded vote.
Doughton's bill sailed though the Senate with the same ease. The Senate held one brief hearing on the bill before overwhelmingly approving the measure. President Franklin Roosevelt promptly signed the legislation into law on August 2, 1937. The "Marihuana Tax Act" took effect on October 1, 1937.
Thus began the criminal prohibition of marijuana that remains in place today.