The People’s Plant, Part 2: the Road to Prohibition
On October 3rd, 1937, Moses Baca was arrested on California St in Denver, Colorado, for possession of a quarter ounce of marijuana, the Marijuana Tax Act had come into effect just two days before. The Act, signed on August 2nd, 1937, was the first in a long line of acts and laws to become the framework for prohibition. The mastermind behind this law and many of the ones to come was a man named Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). The reasons why cannabis came under attack after being relatively obscure to most in the US for the last two centuries is a story of bigotry and racism, most of all fear.
Moses Baca in 1935, two years prior to his cannabis bust.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 plunged Mexico into intermittent bouts of violence, forcing many to feel the instability by seeking asylum in the US. In the 1910s, the number of migrants from Mexico to the US was around 20,00 people per year. In the ensuing years of the Mexican Revolution, the number skyrocketed to anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people per year in the 1920s. These migrant workers had always had a close association with the rule farming communities of the midwest which relied on them to man the fields, but as populations of immigrants began to rise, the festering tendrils of fear and racism began to take hold and many people began to see this rise in immigrants as a threat to their ‘American’ way of life. These newly arrived immigrants also brought with them two important staples of life, tequila and marijuana. The cannabis, or what was quickly being coined as ‘marijuana,’ had always found its way into the US in limited supply, but by the beginning of the 1930s and the beginning of the Great Depression, it was quickly becoming the drug of choice for not only the Mexican immigrants but also the black community, especially in the relatively new Jazz seen. Jazz artists like Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong all reference cannabis in their music and help to cement the plant within Aermican pop culture by the end of the 1930s. Meanwhile, in the Jim Crow South, activists against the black and minority communities started to take up arms against the spread of cannabis by passing small local and state ordinances against the sale and possession of the soon to be illicit substance. In Montana in 1929, the state banned all cannabis after a health committee meeting, which was described in the local paper as “great fun”, during which a representative justified the ban based on marijuana’s effects on Mexicans: “When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff… he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.” Also in 1929, a man named Harry Anslinger was newly appointed the Commissioner of Prohibition. Even though the prohibition against alcohol was soon to be over in the following years, Anslinger would make it his life’s work to subvert the sale and distribution of any “drug” that he deemed problematic.
Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger announces a series of raids in the nation’s big cities aimed at crippling the narcotics traffic in New York on Jan. 4, 1958. (AP)
Anslinger was a notorious bigot and despised any race or community that was not Anglo-American. These racist tendencies formed the backbone to many of the legislation he would push on the burgeoning drug war that was taking form.
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men… [and] the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” said Harry Anslinger, according to legend, during a Narcotics Bureau conference. He also supposedly said, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with negroes, entertainers and any others.” (Anslinger, 1937)
Anslinger was the chief architect behind the 1937 Marijuana Tax act and it was his first attempt at total prohibition. The act essentially made it impossible to sell or buy unless you were in possession of a tax stamp for the drug which no tax stamps were even printed until 1940. Also during this time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the process of switching the United States currency from the gold standard which meant confiscating all of the gold the government could get ahold of and moving all the gold from the federal reserve to Fort Knox in 1934. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who Harry Anslinger was the Commissioner of, was under the Department of the Treasury, so when Anslinger approached the Treasury and proposed to stock the newly emptied vaults with opium and marijuana, the Treasury agreed. This was in part due to the US government wanting to keep large stockpiles of painkillers for national security but was, in fact, a power play by Anslinger and his cohorts to seize more power in the federal government. In 1952, the US attorney’s office sought cooperation from the FBN in investigating an illegal cocaine ring that had formed within the government in Washington DC. The FBN did not want to cooperate because the cocaine had been traced back to the Treasury vaults. A janitor named Eddie Gray had smuggled up to 100oz of cocaine and reportedly 50Ib of marijuana from the vault. The FBN, despite this, touted there “expert control” over its drug reserves in the United States. These stockpiles of drugs were actually in direct violation of the Marijuana Act of 1937, but Anslinger did not count any of these stockpiles towards these quotas. However, Anslinger was not the only political figure taking a shot at this time against cannabis.
William Randolf Hurst was one of the largest media moguls in the 1930s and also ran some of the largest paper mills in the eastern United States. Along with that, both he and Anslinger were connected to DuPont. DuPont had just created Rayon, the first synthetic fiber, and also sold all the chemicals for wood pulp retting which is a necessary step in paper production. Hurst started to feel intimidated by the growing utilization of hemp in paper and fiber production. In February 1938, Popular Mechanics Magazine reported that hemp was the new “billion dollar crop” in the United States, due entirely to the introduction of mass production harvesting equipment. The hemp decorticator, a farm machine that mechanically separated the fiber of the hemp stalk, threatened to make hemp a strong competitor to wood. The decorticator saved massive amounts of labor and made hemp production affordable and practical on a small scale such as on family. With the advances in hemp production and the spread of marijuana throughout the US, Anslinger and Hurst collaborated in creating one of the most successful smear campaigns of the 20th century. “Reefer Madness”, the film and campaign was born and in 1936 this was the debut of what was to become a series of fear-driven, racism-fueled propaganda designed for the elimination of cannabis. The film centerered on a series of hyperbolic events that portray innocent high school students that are lured into trying marijuana and face dire consequences, from a hit-and-run accident to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, hallucinations, and a rapid descent into madness. Marijuana is shown to be the incarnation of the devil himself. The narrative portrayed by this propaganda campaign still influences legislation to today. In 1941, Anslinger achieved another victory by getting cannabis removed from the United States Pharmacopeia where it had been considered a remedy for over 100 maladies for 90 years. Yet in 1942, on the precipice of the second world war, the United States needed back its hemp.
With the US newly embroiled in a war on two fronts with Germany in the East and Japan in the West, there was a growing need for hemp. Hemp at the time was used to make parachutes, fatigues, and even aircraft lubricants. This sent the federal government scrambling to incentivize farmers to start growing hemp with massive subsidies. The Department of Agriculture even produced a propaganda film entitled “Hemp For Victory” which urged farmers to grow to patriotically support the war effort. Hemp had been virtually eradicated at the time by Anslinger and the FBN starting in 1937, and by the time the war started, it was virtually non-existent. The irony of all of this is after World War II, the national guard would be commissioned to find and destroy hemp growing in the US due to new drug enforcement laws passed in the 1950s and 60s. The majority of the Hemp they actually destroyed was quite literally the wild outgrowth of the hemp the Feds had pushed farmers to grow just a decade before.
The opening scene of Pineapple Express where the scientist test the mind control abilities of “Marijuana” the general in the scene is supposed to depict George Hunter White
At this same time the Office of Strategic Services under the direction George Hunter White were trying to develop a “truth drug,” and many of the compounds they were using involved cannabis indica. White was giving cannabis-infused cigarettes to suspected communists in the army, in an attempt to use the drug as a truth serum. This also included members of the Manhattan Project in 1943. In 1944, the LaGuardia Report was commissioned to look into the spread and effect of marijuana on the civilian population of New York. The report ended up publishing some interesting findings that stated:
- The practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.
- The use of marijuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marijuana smoking.
- Marijuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.
- Marijuana smoking is not widespread among school children.
- Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marijuana.
Upon publication of this report, Anslinger threatened to have the publishing doctors and scientists thrown in jail and claimed, “the report is a government printed invitation to youth and adults above all teenagers to go ahead and smoke all the reefers they feel like”. He continued to push the narrative that the report was unscientific and was damaging to law enforcement and rule of law. The LaGuardia Report, unfortunately, was not very effective in the ultimate criminalization and prohibition of cannabis.
In 1951, the Boggs Amendment was passed which increased the penalties for drug crimes and instituted the first mandatory minimum sentences. This law extended the Red Scare to the war on drugs as it would be known in later years. In 1962, Anslinger would be appointed the nation’s first Drug Czar by President John F. Kennedy. But unfortunately, things just got darker as time went on and with the birth of the true War on Drugs by the hands of President Nixon in 1971 hammered in the nail which Anslinger had been driving since the 1920s. The framework laid out by the Nixon campaign set the groundwork for all of the anti-drug legislation we have today, but this is a story for another day.
That day is tomorrow. Keep reading on the “The Peoples Plant, Part 3”!
Smith, Laura. “How a Racist Hate-Monger Masterminded America’s War on Drugs.” Timeline, Timeline, 28 Feb. 2018, timeline.com/harry-anslinger-racist-war-on-drugs-prison-industrial-complex-fb5cbc281189.
Boeri, Miriam. “Reefer Madness! The Twisted History of America’s Marijuana Laws.” KQED, 9 Jan. 2018, www.kqed.org/lowdown/24153/reefer-madness-the-twisted-history-of-americas-weed-laws.
Steinhauer, Jason. “The History of Mexican Immigration to the U.S. in the Early 20th Century.” The History of Mexican Immigration to the U.S. in the Early 20th Century | Insights: Scholarly Work at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress, 11 Mar. 2015, blogs.loc.gov/kluge/2015/03/the-history-of-mexican-immigration-to-the-u-s-in-the-early-20th-century/.
Staff, MarijuanaBreak. “History of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 [All You Need to Know].” MarijuanaBreak, MarijuanaBreak, 15 Jan. 2019, www.marijuanabreak.com/history-of-the-marihuana-tax-act.