FDR Signed Cannabis Prohibition into Law 80 Years Ago

By David Jenison on August 4, 2017

In 1997, Political Science Quarterly published "Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton," and George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt tied for second place. (For curious minds, Abraham Lincoln took top honors, while Warren G. Harding landed in the cellar.) FDR, the only person elected to the presidency four times, steered America through the Great Depression and World War II, but his legacy is not without a few major blemishes. Most notably, President Roosevelt failed the American people by putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps and by signing the legislation that established national cannabis prohibition. 

FDR signed the legislation—i.e., the Marihuana Tax Act—80 years ago today. 

The prohibitionists didn't even know how to spell marijuana, so it's possible the president did not fully understand what he was signing. At the time, the public knew cannabis, but government officials introduced "marihuana" as a new Mexican import that illegal immigrants brought across the border and that made people commit crime and rape. Did FDR know this was the same plant sold in pharmacies? Maybe not, especially when the sick fuck behind prohibition willfully sold a false narrative and used a then-unknown term so the public would not know he was actually talking about cannabis. 

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 Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), a 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 After the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, Anslinger shamelessly fought to bring it back, but instead of alcohol, he wanted to prohibit cannabis.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 (pictured here with his doppelgänger) 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) always 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!" 

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 heroin and opium. 

"Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde," he 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. 

Thirty-two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared the law unconstitutional, but President Nixon (fourth from the bottom in the 1997 presidential rankings) reinstated cannabis prohibition the following year with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. The Journal of Social History just happened to publish a critical look at Anslinger that same year. 

Author Michael Schaller wrote, "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."

The abhorrent legacy of cannabis prohibition can now officially claim 80 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 legacy before it turns 81. 

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

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