The First Marihuana Tax Act Arrest

By David Jenison

The First Marihuana Tax Act Arrest

Trivia question #1: What was the first major U.S. city to legalize recreational cannabis?

The answer: Denver, Colorado.

In November 2005, city residents voted to legalize small amounts of cannabis, which inspired the Rocky Mountain News headline, “OK of Pot Issue Gives New Meaning to Mile High City.” The measure, which passed with 54 percent of the vote, was largely symbolic since state and federal law still prohibited the plant.

Trivia question #2: Where did the first cannabis arrest occur after the Marihuana Tax Act went into effect?

Answer: Denver, Colorado.

America’s unofficial cannabis capital also claims the first Drug War POW. Accounts vary, but most suggest that the police raided the Lexington Hotel in Denver and arrested 57-year-old Samuel Caldwell and 23-year-old Moses Baca the day (or a few days) after the law took effect. Caldwell, a local resident and unemployed farmer suffering under the Great Depression, was selling two cannabis cigarettes without a tax stamp.

Caldwell’s arrest made national headlines and motivated Narcotics Bureau chief Harry Anslinger to travel to Denver for the photo op. About a week after the arrest, Caldwell was indicted by a federal grand jury and sentenced to a $1000 fine and four years hard labor at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Judge Foster Symes, who oversaw the trial, added, “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.”

Caldwell, who was born in 1880, finished his prison term in 1940. A year later, he died. Baca, meanwhile, was sentenced to 18 months for possession.

A lesser-known theory tells a slightly different story. As documented by journalist Daniel Glick in 2016, a cannabis historian called Uncle Mike uncovered police reports that suggest 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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The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

The "Marihuana" Adoption

Hooked on Euphonics

Is the Term "Marijuana" Racist?

The Origin of "Marijuana"

The Substance Schedules

Scheduling Conflicts

To the States!

Protect the Children

Cannabis vs. Heroin

The Boggs Act & Mandatory Minimums

The AMA vs. Anslinger

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Was Harry Anslinger a Racist?