The Law that Established Cannabis Prohibition Turns 111

By David Jenison on July 2, 2017

Teddy Roosevelt worked weekends. How do we know? The 26th U.S. President signed the Pure Food and Drug Act on June 30, 1906, which happened to be a Saturday. The intent of the landmark law was to ensure accurate labeling, reduce adulterated food and drugs, inform consumers and increase safety for products involved in international or interstate commerce. Cleaning up the food industry was a positive change during the Progressive Era, but as bureaucrats are apt to do, the Pure Food and Drug Act unintentionally laid the foundation for negative, harmful change in cannabis prohibition. 

At the start of 1906, states set their own public health laws, and cannabis was considered medicine and sold in pharmacies. On a national level, there was no such thing as an illegal drug. The Pure Food and Drug Act changed that by becoming the first national public health law, which included the power to label and remove products the government deemed unsafe. Who had the most say in such determinations? An Indiana-born bureaucrat and sugar advocate named Harvey Wiley. 

Wiley, the Chief Chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, led the crusade to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the law created a new agency that's now called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Wiley became the bureau's first commissioner, and while his primary duty was to inform, his beloved legislation fell victim to subjective judgment calls. For example, he took Coca-Cola to court to prohibit the "habit-forming" beverage on the basis that it contained too much caffeine. Wiley's agency also took issue with saccharin, sodium benzoate, alcohol and drugs in general, and he laid the groundwork for cannabis prohibition by labeling the plant addictive and dangerous. 

Senator Nelson Aldrich, the grandson of Nelson Rockefeller, once said, "The liberty of all the people of the United States" would be undermined by "chemists of the Agriculture Department." The statement was a direct jab at Wiley, whose extremism led new regulatory boards and a 1911 Supreme Court ruling meant to rein him in and restrict his powers. In 1912, Wiley resigned and went to work for Good Housekeeping magazine. True story.

Wiley's agency had unprecedented power to label, seize and ban drugs from the marketplace. With alcohol prohibition and full-scale reefer madness on the horizon, legislators updated the Pure Food and Drug Act and introduced subsequent laws that gradually criminalized cannabis. If the Pure Food and Drug Act laid the foundation, full-scale prohibition started in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act. Now the federal government could finally start throwing people in jail for small-time, non-violent cannabis offenses that harmed no one. 

Wiley died in his home on the 24th anniversary of the Pure Food and Drug Act. In the 111 years since the law took effect, one can only wonder how many people incarcerated for cannabis had to die in their prison cells. 

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