Marijuana Through the Ages_ The 1930s Prohibition of Cannabis _ The Greener Institute

Our first installment of Marijuana Through the Ages discussed the earliest known origins and uses for cannabis, as well as how it spread across the world. We ended the piece discussing marijuana’s arrival in North America, the swift and harsh opinions that were soon ascribed to the substance, and how those viewpoints were often rooted in racism. The negative reputation cannabis picked up soon led to its prohibition in the United States, which is where the second installment will pick up.

Marijuana’s Arrival in the United States: A Review

In case you missed our first article (which you can find here), you might be in need of more context. 

In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, the early 1900s brought an influx of Mexican immigrants across the U.S. border into states like Texas and Louisiana. Contributing to the “melting pot” nature of America, these immigrants brought along parts of their culture and customs—including a plant they referred to as “marihuana,” which they used medicinally and to promote relaxation. At this time, Americans were relatively familiar with cannabis already because the substance was already present within their own tinctures and medicines, but they had never heard of “marihuana.” 

In response to the influx of Mexican immigrants and the fears their arrival stoked in American homes, the media began speaking to those fears, painting the immigrants as disruptive and lazy due, in part, to their use of “marihuana.” Little did they know, the substance the immigrants referred to was already part of their culture. 

In El Paso, Texas, which was ripe with immigrants fleeing Mexico, officials took cues from San Francisco’s effort to control Chinese immigrants decades before by outlawing opium. In 1915, the city became the first in the US to outlaw “marihuana” so they would be able to search, detain, and deport Mexican immigrants. 

The Beginning of the End for Marijuana

The Start of Marijuana Prejudice

The next fifteen years did little to ease American’s discomfort towards marijuana and the immigrants who brought it with them. In fact, due to the Great Depression (1929 – late 1930s), public resentment towards the Mexican immigrants reached a new level of concern. With a massive number of citizens on unemployment, out-of-work and frustrated Americans looked towards the immigrants in anger. 

The era’s resentment eventually came to a head. As a result, organizations and institutions began publishing research that conveniently linked marijuana use with socially deviant behaviors, violence, and crime, committed by those who were considered “racially inferior” or a member of underclass communities. The research was widely accepted as fact and 29 states had outlawed marijuana by 1931. 

The Father of Cannabis Prohibition

In response to the growing concern over marijuana—and the people who used it recreationally—the United States Government created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930. Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the first Commissioner of the FBN, a post he remained in until 1962. Interestingly enough (and ironic considering modern conversations surrounding the legalization of marijuana), the FBN was under the purview of the U.S. Treasury Department, as they viewed drugs and alcohol as losses of untaxed revenue.

Anslinger was a massive proponent for the prohibition and criminalization of drugs, and he spearheaded numerous anti-drug policy campaigns. However, prior to his appointment, before the prohibition on alcohol was lifted, he had claimed that cannabis did not pose a threat to people. He even went as far as to say that, “There is probably no more absurd fallacy” when questioned about whether he believed marijuana incited violence in its users. 

Regardless of his initial beliefs, Harry Anslinger quickly changed his tune when he took office at the FBN. Critics of his appointment have argued that it was not research or evidence that caused his shift in opinion, but rather his own vested interest. After all, Prohibition had ended and, since he was previously in charge of the Department of Prohibition, he needed something to, well… prohibit. 

Backpedaling on his previous beliefs, Anslinger began collecting massive amounts of anecdotal evidence that claimed to support marijuana’s role in violence and crime. His collection of stories, even at the time, were challenged by doctors and medical organizations. One critic, Walter Bromberg, had conducted a survey of 2,216 criminal cases and found that none were under the influence of cannabis when they committed their offenses. 

What’s more, the American Medical Association reported that 29 out of 30 pharmacists and pharmaceutical representatives objected to the proposed ban of marijuana (remember, at the time, it was being used in a number of medical tinctures). Only the dissenter, the one survey participant who supported the ban, was featured in the Bureau’s files. 

The Government Takes Action

The U.S. government at this time faced mounting pressure to tackle the concerns regarding marijuana use given its proposed connection to crime and social issues—which were largely spread due to Anslinger’s efforts. 

However, the government was hesitant to take federal action. Instead, they created the Uniform State Narcotic Act, and highly encouraged individual states to adopt the act. The statute was the first to give individual states the right to use police power to regulate narcotics through the seizure of illicit drugs and the punishment of those found with them.

Most states were slow to come onboard and only nine states initially adopted the uniform state statute. Frustrated with the lackluster response, President Roosevelt went on air with the Columbia radio network in March of 1935 to voice his support for the act. Simultaneously, Anslinger launched a media campaign across the nation that claimed marijuana caused temporary insanity. His stories often chronicled tales of young adults smoking marijuana before committing crimes, including violent assaults, murder, and suicide. 

Stoking the fire Anslinger created, in 1936, a French filmmaker, Louis Gasnier, produced the propaganda film “Reefer Madness.” The film depicted teenagers smoking weed for the first time ever before experiencing hallucinations, attempting to rape a girl, and, eventually, committing murder.

Unfortunately, the combination of support from the president, Anslinger’s media campaign, and the French film worked. Soon after, all states adopted the Uniform State Narcotic Act. 

To understand the power of Anslinger’s campaign, here is the most infamous story he peddled for support, which chronicles the crime of Victor Licata who murdered his family: 

An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze … He 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. They sought the reason. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called “muggles,” a childish name for marijuana.

His “reports,” which were featured either over the radio or in popular magazines, were created from a collection of quotes from police reports and often graphically depicted crimes committed by drug users. As shown above, these stories were written to mimic and depict the concise and sterile language found in a real police report. It should be noted, though, that marijuana’s role in the killing of the Licata family has since been disproved, as Victor had been diagnosed with severe mental health issues as a child. 

These reports make up what is referred to as Anslinger’s “Gore Files.” Many of the stories featured in his series were often racist in tone with sentiments like, “Reffer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Though marijuana was not, in fact, what prompted Victor Licata to murder his family, it didn’t stop Anslinger from using the anecdote during hearings for the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937.

His national campaign, using stories like the Licata’s as anecdotal proof to the dangers of cannabis, eventually led to the new legislation. The Marijuana Tax Act was the nail in the coffin for recreational marijuana use—and even some medicinal uses—in the U.S. It criminalized the substance and restricted possession except for those who paid a tax and had authorized use for medical or industrial purposes. 

While the Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional decades later, it was replaced with the current legislation, the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s. The Act established Schedules that ranked substances by how dangerous and potentially addicting they were believed to be. 

Under President Nixon’s review, marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive category. Though at the time the administration claimed it was in the category as a placeholder, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug today—despite the increase in evidence backing its health benefits and the massive uptick in state-run medical marijuana programs.

Marijuana Prohibition: Racism, Fear, and Greed

Looking back, it is rather ironic to see how marijuana came to be illegal, especially considering that modern conversations surrounding the legalization of recreational cannabis parallel the concerns that led to its eventual prohibition. For instance, in Pennsylvania, where medical marijuana is in full swing, our patients often voice frustration over the high taxes and costs tied to the substance. 

When marijuana was outlawed, it was because the government was concerned it couldn’t profit from the marijuana trade. Now that it is approaching legalization again, states, and soon the federal government, are working hard to carve out their own slice of the profits. 

It also goes to show how outdated and unfounded fears towards medical marijuana are. After all, before its prohibition, civilizations had been using the substance for centuries. In 2019, a 2,500-year-old mummy was found buried with a small container of cannabis, which scientists believe was used to help alleviate symptoms of the breast cancer they found when studying her remains. 

It is a shame (an understatement) that due to the labeling of marijuana as a Schedule I drug in the 1970s and, previously, its racially-motivated prohibition, the scientific benefits and possible uses of cannabis are largely under-researched. Due to its federal status as an illicit drug, medical institutions and other organizations are unable to obtain grants to study the substance and better understand how it impacts the human body. 

The good news, though, is that discussions are happening at this very moment that are paving the way towards legalization. While such conversations may be fueled by greed or monetary gain, they mark a monumental step in the right direction to overturn marijuana’s prohibition. We can only hope that the eventual legalization of cannabis can reverse decades of fear-mongering and prejudices surrounding the substance. 

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