A Brief History of Marijuana Prohibition


This article was originally published on Marijuana.com


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A World View

For millennia humans have cultivated a healthy, progressive relationship with the cannabis plant. From our species’ innate desire to explore, make sense of and utilize our surroundings, our ancient ancestors discovered the usefulness of marijuana. The oldest documented evidence of human cannabis use is a hemp rope found in the Czech Republic dating back to 26,900 B.C. Cannabis is literally woven into human culture with instances of hemp seeds being used for food, lamp oil and agriculture; and stalk fibers used to make cloth, sails, bow strings, rope, and paper; flowers, along with other parts of the plant used as medicine, and intoxicants for recreation and spiritual enhancement ― all of these uses are dotted throughout history in different geographical locations, and in vastly different cultures.

Cannabis is one of mankind’s earliest cultivated crops, dating back some 12,000 years, and for all but the last hundred or so, the relationship has been relatively open and uncomplicated. During the last century, however, the “discussion” surrounding cannabis has generated heated debate resulting in propaganda, incarcerations and more than its fair share of attributed claims; including positive, negative and dubious.

The first documented consumption of cannabis is from the Far East and attributed to the Chinese herbalist, Emperor Shen Nung, around 2,700 B.C.  Along with cannabis, he categorized over 365 medicinal herbs, among them the herbal mainstays of ginseng and ephedra. In cannabis he found a remedy for gout, rheumatism, malaria and absentmindedness. Indian culture also named cannabis one of the five sacred plants in The Vedas, sacred Hindu texts dating back to 1,400 B.C. In India cannabis was smoked and also mixed with milk, ghee and spices, in the concoction of an intoxicating beverage called bhang.

The nomadic Scythians emerged from Iran in 900 B.C. and roamed the vast trade network along the steppes of the Altai Mountains, later part of the Silk Road. In addition to being the first armed warriors on horseback, the Scythians also enjoyed a unique method for smoking cannabis. This was not simply smoking a rolled spliff or puffing a hookah; this was a communal affair, in a tent built over a smoldering fire of cannabis plant matter. After a session in the history’s first communal hotbox, participating Scythians would “howl in their joy,” according to the Greek historian, Herodotus. As the nascent trade routes grew to Silk Road status, those trading were always interested in the new and exotic, so cannabis spread rapidly to Greece, Egypt and throughout Africa.

The Spanish brought cannabis to the Americas in the mid-1500s, and the English introduced cannabis to the United States at Jamestown in 1611, where it was planted alongside tobacco. Albeit this was used as industrial hemp, with its fibers used for rope, clothing and paper; it’s seeds used for food and lamp oil. It is well-known that many of the framers of the Constitution were hemp growers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Perhaps the first formal penalty for cannabis use was handed down by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. During Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, he and his troops were introduced to cannabis. His troops liked cannabis better than brandy because it did not leave them with a hangover, so they brought it back to France as a spoil of war. But Napoleon thought the use of cannabis would take the fight out of his troops, and he prohibited his soldiers from smoking it or drinking its extracts. A 3-month prison sentence was imposed on anyone in violation. Throughout the 19th century, various countries started to restrict cannabis in varied measures. Egypt first prohibited its cultivation, use and importation in 1868.

In 1890, leaders in Greece deemed cannabis an “imminent threat to society” and banned its cultivation, importation and use. Coincidently by the same year, after a 279-year run, hemp had been replaced by cotton as the major cash crop for textiles in the United States. Although cannabis was still used in some of the popular patent medicines in the States, its status in the eyes of the government and certain industries was suspect.

By the early 20th century, countries around the world started banning and criminalizing marijuana; South Africa banned “dagga” in 1911, the British colony, Jamaica, outlawed “ganja” in 1913. These bans were followed by more legal restrictions in Canada, Britain and New Zealand. In the United States, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts became the first state to ban cannabis.

America Goes Medieval on Marijuana

marijuana patent med Cannabis_IndicaAlthough cannabis had been listed in the American pharmacopeia from 1850 to 1942, regulations started to reign in the use of patent medicines, where most of early 20th century America would consume cannabis. The Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 required the labeling patent medicines that contained a variety of contents including opiates, cocaine and cannabis. However, there was still a low-lying undercurrent of cannabis use that stemmed from Mexican immigrants. During the Mexican Revolution, Mexicans migrated north for better paying mining jobs, and they brought with them “marihuana.” Since Mexican immigrants would work for lower wages than American workers, and used marihuana for recreational purposes, it was easy for society to double down on disdain for both Mexicans and their “loco weed.”

But it was the enforcement of alcohol Prohibition in 1920 gave cannabis a second wind, as an intoxicant. This was evident in New Orleans during the burgeoning jazz scene, home to another disenfranchised group of cannabis smokers, black jazz musicians. During the decade of the 1920’s various states started passing laws regulating marijuana as a poison; Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas, Nebraska, Louisiana and Colorado all passed legislation placing marijuana under the same restrictions as other poisons. Thirty states had a pot law on the books by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

The real beginning of the end for cannabis started in 1929-1930 with the Great Depression and the appointment of Harry Anslinger as America’s first drug czar.

Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, poses for a photo on September 24, 1930. Anslinger, who is 38-years-old, came to the Treasury Dept. from the State Dept., where he had been clerk of Legation, a vice consul and consul serving at various stations including the Hague, Hamburg, Germany, La Giaira, Venezuela and Nassau and Bahama Islands. (AP Photo)

It was a perfect storm and Anslinger took full advantage to whip up a cyclone of fear with public statements including, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” and “… most (marijuana users) are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”

Anslingers’ quotes resonated with newspaper magnate, Willian Randolph Hearst, who was not a big fan of cannabis, or industrial hemp for that matter. It turns out Hearst had vast investments in the timberland he used to make the newsprint he printed his papers on. He also coined and printed the term “marihuana menace” and linked it to the depravity, crime and mayhem the evil weed instigates. Hearst made sure Mr. Anslinger and his rants also drew front-page ink. The duo brought the word “marihuana” into the English lexicon as it related to shady Mexican immigrants. About this same time, the Dupont company was introducing its new manmade fiber, nylon, which would also have direct competition from cannabis’ super fibers. Just to complete the trifecta of power, social influence, and money, it turns out Andrew Mellon of Mellon Bank was one of Dupont’s financial backers, as well the Treasury Secretary of the United States, making him Harry Anslinger’s boss. Additionally, it just so happens that Harry Anslinger was married to Mellon’s favorite niece. Talk about a convenience of marriage.

This swirling vortex of propaganda-fueled paranoia culminated in the first wide-sweeping law uniformly restricting cannabis on a national level. Against the recommendation of the American Medical Association, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed into law on October 2, 1937. And the unlucky first person busted for sale/possession of cannabis happened that very same day. Samuel Caldwell was arrested for selling three cannabis cigarettes to Claude Morgan. For this crime, Mr. Caldwell received four years, hard-labor at Leavenworth Penitentiary, and a $1,000 fine. Mr. Morgan received an eighteen-month sentence.


After the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act, and with the country riding a wave of cannabis hysteria, the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, commissioned a group of medical professionals from the New York Academy of Medicine to study the marijuana problem in the city. After four years of research, the panel found that smoking cannabis does not lead to addiction, use is not widespread among school children, and it is not a major factor in crime — the hysteria swirling in the press and political circles  unfounded. But the bullet had left the gun, and the Marijuana Tax Act would set the stage for a Draconian war on drugs that would last for decades, cost the country billions, and incarcerate millions.

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