Cannabis Prohibition Turns 81

By David Jenison on October 1, 2018

Cannabis prohibition turns 81 today.

The Marihuana Tax Act introduced a stamp that created de facto prohibition in 1937. Congress passed the bill that spring, FDR signed it in August, and the law took effect on October 1. As the original iteration of cannabis prohibition, the Tax Act lasted until 1969 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. President Nixon quickly reestablished prohibition in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act, which is the federal law that currently maintains the 81-year injustice. 

The prohibitionists didn't even know how to spell marijuana, so many politicians and the public at large were likely duped into supporting its criminalization. At the time, "cannabis" was available as medicine in many pharmacies, but government bureaucrats introduced "marihuana" as a new Mexican import that illegal immigrants brought across the border. The government-backed lies—e.g., marihuana prompts people to rape and murder like rabid animals—are the stuff of legend

During the dry days of American history, the Treasury Department enforced Prohibition, and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon made his nephew, Harry Anslinger, second in command at the Prohibition Bureau. The word nepotism comes from the Italian word for nephew, so when the nepotist foresaw the return of legal boozing, he naturally made his nephew the top narc at the forerunner to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). After the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, Anslinger shamelessly fought to bring it back, but instead of alcohol, he wanted to prohibit cannabis. 

Anslinger was a liar and likely a racist, and he took inspiration from his most famous Prohibition agent, Eliot Ness, using the press as a propaganda tool. His now-debunked Gore Files included hundreds of heinous crimes that he attributed to this Mexican drug, and he fed reporters headline-grabbing tales that William Randolph Hearst (a.k.a. Citizen Kane) printed in his many newspapers. B-movie producers jumped on the propaganda bandwagon making films like Devil's Harvest, She Shoulda Said No, Assassin of Youth and Reefer Madness that bordered on softcore porn with taglines like "She loved men, money and marijuana" and "Weird orgies, wild parties, unleashed passions!" 

Speaking with PRØHBTD in 2016, Dr. Barney Warf, a professor at the University of Kansas, explained, "They began this very conscientious campaign to demonize cannabis with a variety of allies working on their behalf. The Hearst newspaper chain in California, which engaged in sordid yellow journalism, helped them out. Hollywood helped them out. All of this culminates in the Stamp Act of 1937, which essentially makes marijuana illegal. You had to buy a stamp in order to sell it, and the stamps were impossible to find. Then they would have hearings in Congress and state legislatures where a doctor who had never seen cannabis in his life would say, 'Well, I heard some Mexican guy smoked weed and killed his family with an ax.' It was just hearsay, but that was good enough."

All this fake news stoked public fear, but enacting prohibition was a harder sell. Anslinger found an accomplice in Herman Oliphant, the Treasury Department's general counsel, who figured you could create de facto prohibition by applying ridiculously excessive taxes. Oliphant employed this tactic in 1934 with the National Firearms Act, a gun-control law that survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge in March 1937. Two weeks after the court decision, Oliphant and Anslinger pushed the Marihuana Tax Act into the House Ways and Means Committee. Robert Lee Doughton, an industrial farmer born to a Confederate Captain and named after Robert E. Lee, ran the committee, and he pushed the bill with all the glee of Jeff Sessions at a pot dealer lynching.  

"Ten years ago we only heard about [marijuana] throughout the Southwest," Anslinger said to the committee. "It is only in the last few years that it has become a national menace…. Since the economic depression the number of marijuana smokers has increased by vagrant youths coming into contact with older psychopaths."

Very few people "heard about" marijuana until Anslinger started his propaganda campaign, but medical cannabis had been around since before everyone in that room was born. Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis (Pfizer) and Squibb & Sons (Bristol-Myers-Squibb) sold it, newspapers advertised it and the Sears-Roebuck catalog even listed it. Members of the committee might have even tried cannabis, but they likely didn't realize cannabis and marijuana were one and the same. 

Anslinger then delivered another nose-stretcher by saying cannabis is worse than opium, which is the alkaloid base for heroin and narcotic painkillers. 

"Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde," Anslinger claimed. "[Cannabis] is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured."

Over objections from medical and business professionals, including the American Medical Association (AMA), the committee approved the Marihuana Tax Act. Robert Lee Doughton then introduced the bill into the House of Representatives, both chambers of Congress passed it, and FDR signed it. 

The Journal of Social History published a critical look at prohibition in 1970, stating, "When called upon to explain [the cannabis] problem to Congress, the Bureau relied on unsupported accounts it had supplied to magazines and newspapers. By reading its own releases into the record as outside proof, the Bureau had in fact created evidence to prove its point." 

The study further noted that some examples "consisted of several accused criminals who had pleaded marihuana use as grounds for temporary insanity."

“[Prohibition] was not a bottom-up groundswell of people terrified that cannabis was destroying their communities because it didn't happen," Dr. Warf explained. "It was a top-down, carefully and conscientiously manipulated panic, what sociologists call a 'moral panic,' where a frenzy is whipped up for opportunistic reasons. The whole war against cannabis was entirely a political campaign to serve the interests of an entrenched bureaucracy whose bread and butter was prohibiting drugs. It had nothing to do with its health effects or its medical consequences."

The abhorrent legacy of cannabis prohibition now claims 81 years of racist enforcement, social injustice and packed prisons all based on a blatant lie designed to deceive both lawmakers and the public. Let's all fight to end this travesty before it turns 82. 

David Jenison ( is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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