The First War on Cannabis POWs

By David Jenison

The First War on Cannabis POWs

Eighty years ago this Sunday, the Marihuana Tax Act took effect, marking the official start of federal cannabis prohibition. A few days later, the war on cannabis claimed its first POWs. 

Per most accounts, Samuel R. Caldwell—a farm laborer out of work due to the Depression—made history as the first cannabis seller ever convicted under U.S. federal law. During a raid at the Denver-based Lexington Hotel, the FBI arrested 57-year-old Farmer Sam for selling a few cannabis cigarettes to Moses Baca. Anslinger traveled to Denver for the photo op, and at the October 8 sentencing, Judge J. Foster Symes said, “I consider marijuana the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine. Under its influence men become beasts. Marijuana destroys life itself. I have no sympathy with those who sell this weed. The government is going to enforce this new law to the letter.”

The judge sentenced him to four years hard labor, and Caldwell died within a year of release. Baca, meanwhile, was sentenced to 18 months and served 14. The same judge handled both cases that day. 

Caldwell is widely considered the first Drug War POW, though an alternate account suggests that Baca was arrested first and in a separate incident. As documented by journalist Daniel Glick in 2016, a former drug felon and cannabis historian called Uncle Mike uncovered police reports that paint a different picture. Per the reports, the police arrested 23-year-old Baca on a "Drunk and Disturbance" charge on October 3, and they found a quarter ounce of cannabis in a drawer upon searching his house. Two days later, the police busted Caldwell for selling three joints to a person named Claude Morgan, whose details are unknown, and the authorities subsequently found four pounds of cannabis in his room at the transient Lothrop Hotel. Per Uncle Mike, both Baca and Caldwell had a history of arrests, and the latter actually got busted for selling moonshine during alcohol Prohibition. 

Regardless of which account is correct, these men were the first POWs in the opening days of cannabis prohibition. Both characters appear to be anything but angels, yet their prohibition-related lawbreaking happened during a downturn in the Great Depression that affected people around the world. Still, whatever motivated their deeds that ran afoul of the law, no man should spend his final days in prison for a cannabis offense. 

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