The government laid the foundation for cannabis prohibition with the Pure Food and Drug Act, which President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law on June 30, 1906. Before that time, 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 initiated the move toward prohibition by becoming the first national public health law, which included the power to label and remove products.
The stated goal of the 1906 Act was to ensure accurate labeling, reduce adulterated food and drugs, inform consumers and increase safety for products involved in international or interstate commerce. The law produced several positive improvements, but it also laid the groundwork for the escalating prohibitions that followed. A mere eight years later, the Harrison Narcotics Act ushered in opiate prohibition by placing an onerous tax on prescriptions and allowing for federal regulations. The same prohibitive-tax tactic would be employed in 1937 when the Marihuana Tax Act allowed the federal government to start throwing people in jail for cannabis offenses.
Cannabis prohibition does not have its roots in the natural democratic will of the people. Bureaucrats, moralists, pharmacy boards and the anti-alcohol temperance movement pushed to prohibit the medicine, eventually calling it “marijuana” to confuse the public, stoke growing racism and pass punitive prohibition laws. This, in turn, took cannabis out of the hands of doctors and pharmacists and into the hands of organized crime groups and a growing illicit black market. This cannot be the democracy the Founding Fathers imagined.
To quote Thomas Jefferson, “Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the [potato] as an article of food.”
The Progressive Era brought several important changes to American society, including a woman’s right to vote and cleaning up the food industry. The so-called muckrakers inspired many of the changes. The term refers to reform-minded investigative journalists who exposed corruption and society issues like child labor and unsafe working conditions. The term, popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1906 speech, comes from the classic 1678 British novel Pilgrim’s Progress. Still, the literary work that helped prompt the Pure Food and Drug Act was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
The 1906 novel portrayed the horrible working conditions and exploitation of immigrants in industrialized cities like Chicago, the main setting for the book. The main character, a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis, worked in slaughterhouse characterized by unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The book sought to showcase the exploitation of the working class and arguably promote socialist policies, which inspired President Roosevelt to call the author a “crackpot,” but the public disregarded the plight of the immigrant and zeroed in on the contaminated meat described in the slaughterhouse. In response, the government investigated local Chicago meatpacking facilities and learned that Sinclair was not exaggerating.
Testimony before Congress and public outrage helped pass two laws in 1906: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The groundswell behind the legislation primarily involved pure food, but medicine was included in the laws.
Harvey Wiley, the Chief Chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, led the crusade to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the government rewarded him for his efforts by making him the first commissioner of the Bureau of Chemistry, the predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The 1906 act was meant to inform, not prohibit, but its call for truth in labelling fell victim to subjective judgment calls. Cannabis now featured labels calling it addictive and dangerous, yet other products also incurred Wiley’s wrath. The Chemistry Bureau chief had issues with saccharin, sodium benzoate, alcohol and drugs in general, and he famously sued Coca-Cola to prohibit its use of caffeine. According to the FDA website, the newly created Referee Board of Consulting Scientific Experts sought to reign Wiley in, and a 1911 Supreme Court ruling and other judicial cases further restricted his powers. Wiley resigned in 1912, after which, the bureau surprisingly devoted even more effort to regulate drugs.
Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s grandson, Senator Nelson Aldrich, 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 none-too-subtle jab at Wiley.
The Start of Cannabis Prohibition
Cannabis prohibition is a misguided idea that the government needs to prevent you from harming yourself by throwing you in a cage. The Pure Food and Drug Act, despite good intentions and positive outcomes, did not start with the intent to prohibit cannabis outright, but that was the ultimate result as bureaucrats enforced the law according to their own biases. The act—signed 111 years ago on June 30, 1906—failed on the cannabis front because it involved subjective judgment calls made by bureaucrats, not doctors. Sound familiar?
The Chemistry Bureau, led by Harvey Wiley, 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 instituted full-scale prohibition.
Prohibition reminds us of a quote from famed U.S. intellectual John Stuart Mill in the 1800s. In his treatise On Liberty, Mill wrote, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”