History of marijuana prohibition: policing pot & weed laws
American authorities haven’t been policing pot for very long, only about one hundred years. In fact, colonists were actually required to grow hemp, and we know the Founding Fathers were all about it, and weed was quite fashionable among rich people in the mid-19th century. The drug scare at that point was about opium, not marijuana. But as time went on, and as pharmaceutical cannabis hit the market, states slowly but surely began regulating the drug, which some even called a “poison,” thus laying the groundwork for one of the most organized anti-drug campaigns in American history.
Though there was some political action on the pot front in the 19th century — California lawmakers tried and failed to regulate it alongside opium in 1880, 1885 and 1889 — the real fight against marijuana began around 1911, when states Massachusetts, New York and Maine began enacting their own pot laws. Meanwhile, prohibitionists high on the success of their anti-alcohol crusade began a racist campaign tying marijuana usage to the growing Mexican immigrant population. According to “The Cannabis Companion” author Steven Wishnia, these campaigns helped spread legislation into the West and Southwest.
A fresh, federally-funded wave of marijuana prohibition began in 1930 with founding of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed by Harry J. Anslinger, nephew to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Mellon, one of the richest men in the nation, was an investor in DuPont Chemical. DuPont was then developing and patenting a variety of chemicals, including new gasoline additives threatened by hemp-based materials being pursued by Henry Ford. At the same time, newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst realized hemp paper threatened his own business interests, like a logging company that sold product to DuPont, a huge advertiser in his papers.
Many believe these powerful capitalists used their influence to fuel yet another racist campaign against marijuana, which they started called “marihuana” to further tie it to Mexican immigrants. Though naysayers dismiss conspiracies of collusion, Wishnia notes a Hearst paper declared in the mid-1930s, “The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a DEADLY DRUG, and American children must be PROTECTED AGAINST IT.” Many of the publisher’s other rags wove a similar narrative.
The next decades saw a further convergence of forces in the war on pot. The federal government passed the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act taxing anyone, including doctors, who legally dealt in marijuana. That was one year after the government produced the classic “Reefer Madness.” When the 1937 law was repealed in 1970, the government created new agencies to monitor drug dealers and users. At the same time, state lawmakers were enacting laws of their own, and religious groups preached that the herb would lead to sin and damnation. All three interests — business, political and religious — worked in tandem to demonize the “gate way drug,” and came together to support the 1951 Boggs Act increasing penalties on drug violators.
The 1960s and 1970s changed many Americans’ perception of pot, and usage exploded. In 1969, only 4% told Gallup they had tried pot. In 1973, that number jumped to 12% and then 24% in 1977. As the culture changed, so did federal involvement. Richard Nixon created the DEA in 1973, two years after he launched the “war on drugs” that Ronald and Nancy Reagan championed so hard.
It was the latter president who started everyone’s favorite propaganda campaign, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE). Cannabis arrests in the time between Nixon and Reagan’s White Houses rose exponentially, and rose in similar fashion from Clinton’s second term to today, when a smattering of contradictory state and federal laws continue to entrap marijuana users and perfectly legal enterprises.
Meanwhile, 50% of the nation believes pot should be legal and 6.9% say they use it. Many are the baby boomers who grew up during the pinnacle of the nation’s pot obsession, smoked it and realize now that the herb is right on. Now, when will state and federal laws finally catch up?