The federal government started a war on cannabis. The government fought the war on cannabis — and cannabis is winning.
This year is the eightieth anniversary of the first major action the federal government took against the war on cannabis in the United States, and eight decades later, that same federal government has still failed to reduce Americans’ consumption of the plant. In fact, it’s on the rise.
Cannabis as a Medicine
Long before the era of prohibition and the war on cannabis began, pharmacists used cannabis as a medicine. According to Origins, a joint publication by the Ohio State University and Miami University history departments:
“Cannabis, like opiates and cocaine, was freely available at drug stores in liquid form and as a refined product, hashish. Cannabis was also a common ingredient in turn-of-the-century patent medicines, over-the-counter concoctions brewed to proprietary formulas.”
Then, like today, it helped people relax:
“The hashish candy advertised in an 1862 issue of Vanity Fair as a treatment for nervousness and melancholy, for example, was also ‘a pleasurable and harmless stimulant.’ ‘Under its influence all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy,’ the advertisement explained.”
The war on cannabis is dialed up. Though in 1906 the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act required patent medicine companies to list cannabis as an ingredient in products where it was present – and between 1914 and 1925 twenty-six states passed laws prohibiting it’s use — it wasn’t until 1937 federal authorities took substantial action.
The War On Cannabis
On August 2, 1937, Congress passed the “Marihuana Tax Act,” which was largely the result of anti-narcotic crusader Henry Anslinger’s mission to ban the plant. As Time has explained, creating a “tax” on the substance effectively outlawed it:
“As with the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, Congress deemed an act taxing and regulating drugs, rather than prohibiting them, less susceptible to legal challenge. As a result, the 1937 legislation was ostensibly a revenue measure. Just as the Harrison Act used taxation and regulation to, in effect, prohibit morphine, heroin and other drugs, the Marijuana Tax Act essentially outlawed the possession or sale of marijuana.”
There are a variety of documented reasons for this ban. For one, Henry Anslinger was hysterically opposed to drugs. According to Origins, Anslinger, a “former assistant commissioner of the Prohibition Bureau who headed the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Bureau from 1930 to 1962,” had previously advocated against a ban on cannabis because he believed it would be difficult to enforce the war on cannabis.
“However, Anslinger began to capitalize on fears about marijuana while pressing a public relations campaign to encourage the passage of uniform anti-narcotics legislation in all 48 states. He later lobbied in favor of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.”
Many of these fears were the result of calculated campaigns in the 1920s by prohibition activists, who were inspired by their “success” in banning alcohol. Further, William Randolph Hearst, the infamous publishing magnate, launched a ‘war on cannabis’ campaign to associate cannabis with violence and the degradation of society.
“The association of murder, torture, and mindless violence with marijuana was not borne out by evidence or actual events but blossomed thanks to the vivid imaginations of the journalists charged with sensationalizing the tired story of drug use and addiction,” Origins noted.
Sounding The False Alarm
Similarly, Anslinger sounded the alarm on the alleged murders and rapes people committed while under the influence of the devil’s lettuce.
In 1936, the film Reefer Madness, which now plays like a comedy, warned of the psychosis, violence, and dangers cannabis could bring about. The film warned of “marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.” Much of the testimony advocating the 1937 tax act focused on these unfounded fears, and Anslinger led the way.
To learn more about why cannabis was made illegal and prohibition created, check out this article.