Cannabis Prohibition: Founded 112 Years Ago Today

By David Jenison on June 30, 2018

In the days of limited media, an important literary work could truly change the direction of a country, and Upton Sinclair sparked just such a change with his 1906 novel The Jungle. The story centered on a Lithuanian immigrant who worked in an unsafe and unsanitary slaughterhouse, and while the socialist author sought to showcase working-class exploitation, the public obsessed entirely on his descriptions of contaminated meat. The uproar led to an investigation into local Chicago meatpacking facilities, and the country soon learned this part of the book wasn't fiction. 

By the year's end, the federal government passed a law meant to ensure safe, sanitary and properly labeled meat, but the legislative response impacted a completely unrelated issue: cannabis.

Just 124 days after The Jungle came out—and 112 years ago today—President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act. The stated goal of the nation's first public health law was to ensure accurate labeling and to reduce adulterated food and drugs, and it led to many valuable improvements. However, the federal government also gained unprecedented power to regulate products, and that opened the door for abuse when Harvey Wiley became the first head of the new oversight agency. Wiley, a prohibitionist-minded crackpot, utilized his newfound influence to push for a prohibition on coke… as in Coca-Cola… epitomizing his aggressive regulatory activism.   

The Wiley-led agency we now call the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made several subjective judgment calls, which included labeling cannabis, opium and alcohol as addictive and/or dangerous. The higher ups eventually stepped in to limit Wiley's powers—which had more to do with protecting companies like Coca-Cola than it did cannabis—and he left the agency in 1912 to continue his crusade over at Good Housekeeping magazine. (Yes, really.) The Pure Food and Drug Act did not immediately prohibit any substance, but it established a federal framework for the many prohibitions to come.

Exactly eight years after the Pure Food and Drug Act took effect, the Harrison Narcotics Act arrived to prohibit opiates through federal regulations and an onerous tax. Alcohol followed six years later, and then in the early 1930s, the former second in command at the Prohibition Bureau set his sights on cannabis, which he prohibited in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act.

What started out as a crusade to ensure clean, safe and properly labeled food and medicine turned into a tool that bureaucrats exploited to help prohibit cannabis. Whatever the law's original purpose, the intentions of those who abused it were anything but pure.

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