The Boggs Act & Mandatory Minimums

By David Jenison

In 1951, Congress passed the Boggs Act to establish mandatory minimums for drug offenders. The law, named after future House majority leader Hale Boggs, severely lengthened the average sentence, often by several fold. The Boggs Act also made no distinction between consumers and traffickers, and it marked the first time that cannabis and narcotics were lumped into the same category. By treating cannabis as harshly as heroin, simple cannabis possession required a minimum of two years in prison and as many as five, plus a $2,000 fine. Second offenses increased the minimums to five to 10 years, while strike three jumped to 10 to 20 years. Remarkably, a representative from New York actually called for a 100-year mandatory minimum for anyone selling cannabis or narcotics, which fortunately failed to gain traction. Still, the government came to like mandatory minimums so much that it expanded them further with the Narcotic Control Act in 1956. The latter law increased the minimum to five years for a first offense and 10 years for subsequent offenses.

Cannabis vs. Heroin

How did Congress come to the conclusion that cannabis should be punished as severely as narcotics? Well, it should come as no surprise that Bureau of Narcotics kingpin Harry Anslinger was behind it. In the 1930s, the famed prohibitionist told outrageous tales about how cannabis drove people crazy and prompted them to rape, kill and pillage everything in sight. The reefer madness tales eventually lost their effect, so Anslinger prompted a shift in propaganda toward the Stepping Stone theory, a precursor to the Gateway Drug theory.

Anslinger testified before Congress in support of the Boggs Act, whose primary focus was a perceived increase in narcotic use between 1948 and 1951. During the hearing, Boggs actually questioned the inclusion of cannabis when Anslinger interrupted him to say the following: “The danger is this: Over 50 percent of those young addicts started on marijuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin; they took the needle when the thrill of marijuana was gone.”

Cannabis, in large part, was merely along for the ride, but Anslinger made certain it stayed in the law by introducing the Stepping Stone theory. As he explained it, most cannabis users become heroin addicts, so to curb narcotic abuse, it was necessary to include cannabis, a major cause of heroin addiction.

Anslinger also believed that longer prison terms would indeed help. He testified, “Short sentences do not deter. In districts where we get good sentences the [drug] traffic does not flourish.”

 Protect the Children

As per usual, children were a pawn in the push to strengthen prohibition. Congressman Boggs, who represented New Orleans, argued that the average addiction age had fallen from 37.5 years to 26.7 years between 1946 and 1950, per records from the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) Addiction Research Center in Kentucky. He also suggested that one out of every 200 New York City teens were already addicts. Congressman Emanuel Celler, who represented NYC, countered that the legislation might actually hurt young people who made bad decisions that led to their addictions. He opposed the mandatory sentencing.

Guess who else was against the Boggs Act? Dr. Harris Isbell, Director of Research at the aforementioned Kentucky facility, strongly opposed the inclusion of cannabis. The acclaimed researcher argued the following: “Marijuana smokers generally are mildly intoxicated, giggle, laugh, bother no one, and have a good time. They do not stagger or fall, and ordinarily will not attempt to harm anyone. It has not been proved that smoking marijuana leads to crimes of violence or to crimes of a sexual nature. Smoking marijuana has no unpleasant after effects, no dependence is developed on the drug, and the practice can easily be stopped at any time. In fact, it is probably easier to stop smoking marijuana cigarettes than tobacco cigarettes. In predisposed individuals, marijuana may precipitate temporary psychoses and is, therefore, not an innocuous practice with them.”

Dr. Isbell backed up his argument with statements from doctors, prison officials and recovering heroin addicts. Despite all this, the Boggs Act passed and went into effect in 1952.

To the States!

Even before the Boggs Act passed, Harry Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics were already taking the mandatory-minimums argument to the states. Encouraging state governments to modify their existing laws to mirror the Boggs Act, he helped pass so-called “Little Boggs Acts” in seven states and the Alaskan territory (which became a state in 1959) almost immediately. By 1956, another 20 states had followed suit by either conforming to the Boggs minimums or merely increasing their own minimums. Ohio and Louisiana in particular instituted penalties even more severe than the Boggs Act. In the Buckeye State, drug sales netted 20 to 40 years, while sentences in the Pelican State ranged between five and 99 years for sales and/or possession.

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Scheduling Conflicts

To the States!

Protect the Children

Cannabis vs. Heroin

The First Marihuana Tax Act Arrest

The AMA vs. Anslinger

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Was Harry Anslinger a Racist?

The Anslinger Gore Files

Harry Anslinger: The Godfather of Cannabis Prohibition

Nixon vs. Shafer Commission

Nixon vs. Lennon

Prohibition’s Racist Roots

Richard Nixon's Drug War Turns 48