Marijuana – Its History – First in a Series


From Medicine to Crime and Back Again


…By  Michael Chester


The US is engaged in many poorly defined “wars” such as the “war on terror,” the “war on poverty,” and many others, but the longest running “war” has been the “war on drugs.” (the term “war on drugs” was coined by Richard Nixon in 1971 but the “war” was in full swing long before it was formally named)  It has also been one of the least effective and it is time to negotiate a settlement to the hostilities. Many different drugs are involved with many solutions, but today I will concentrate on the history of marijuana. Future articles will concentrate on current laws and policies.

First a quick explanation of the physiological effects of marijuana.  The active ingredient in marijuana is delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinal usually referred to simply as THC. It was first isolated and identified in 1969. It works by attaching itself to the cannabinoid receptors located in the central nervous system. THC has mild to moderate analgesic effects, and cannabis can be used to treat pain by altering the transmission of pain signals in the spinal cord and in the periaqueductal gray. Other effects include relaxation, alteration of visual, auditory, and olfactory senses, fatigue, and appetite stimulation (colloquially known as “the munchies”). It also has antiemetic properties, and also may reduce aggression in certain subjects.

Marijuana is believed to have originated in China where records show that it has been used as a medicine for at least 5000 years to treat such various conditions as rheumatism, stomach cramps, menstrual pain, and malaria. Due to its strong fibers, it has also been used as a basis for very strong fabrics and ropes. In fact, the word “canvas” is derived from the Latin word “cannabis” and early canvas was made entirely from hemp fibers. From China, it spread to the Middle East and when Napoleon’s troops invaded Egypt in 1804, they brought it back to France. During colonial times it was prized more for its strong fibers than its medical uses. It was brought to the American colonies and was the number one cash crop. England encouraged the colonists to grow as much hemp as possible and such notable people as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew marijuana on their plantations. Early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.

A Typical Heroin or Cocaine Kit

Prior to the Great Depression, the US policy on drugs was that there was no policy. It was generally believed that part of being free was the right to do detrimental things to one’s self as long as others were not physically harmed. This meant that if you wanted to waste your life in a drug stupor, it was your right. Drugs such as heroin and cocaine were readily available over the counter and were the principal ingredients in many patient medicines. Kits to inject these drugs were even sold through the Sears catalog. Alcohol was illegal.

In the 1920s, New Orleans acquired a reputation as a wild party town where anything goes, an image that is partially still in place. The city was truly a fusion of different cultures with African Americans, French Cajuns, Spanish American, Chinese, and Europeans all blending their cultures to create this unique city. Out of this mix, a new free form of music known as jazz came into existence. Marijuana and jazz were a perfect match for each other and since alcohol was banned due to prohibition, the natural choice in jazz clubs was marijuana. It was cheap and was sold like regular cigarettes. Crime was also on an increase in New Orleans and publisher, William Randolph Hurst wanted a sensational story for his newspapers, so he began to publish stories that falsely connected evil marijuana smoking Negros to the crime wave.

At the same time, in the southwest US, Mexican immigrant farm workers were the other major users of marijuana. With the depression in full force, a movement occurred to drive the Mexicans out of the country since they were taking jobs away that “rightfully” belonged to white Americans.  (Does any of this sound like recent history?) Since the Mexicans used marijuana, stories began to circulate about “wet backs” getting all hopped up on pot and going on rampages where they raped and murdered white girls. Hearst picked up on these stories and added them to the New Orleans stories to create a national fear and hatred of marijuana.

One by one, individual states passed laws banning the use of marijuana for non-medical uses, but there was no federal regulations in place until 1930 when career bureaucrat Harry J. Anslinger became head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He knew little about drugs, but was an expert in setting up and getting funding for a bureaucracy. He made friends of power brokers such as William Randolph Hurst who was looking for headlines to sell his papers.  With mounting pressure to do something about the “Mexican problem” in the southwest, he diverted some of the agency’s resources from heroin and cocaine to battle the evil crazed pot smoking Mexicans and in 1931, many Mexican were forcefully driven out of the US back to Mexico. Anslinger had no desire for a federal law against marijuana, but the southwestern states put a lot of pressure on the federal government to get rid of the Mexican population and used their use of marijuana as an excuse, and the two subjects became tangled together.

Anslinger preferred to leave the issue to the states but pressure from the southwestern states continued to increase for him to promote a federal law dealing with marijuana. Being the consummate bureaucrat, he realized that the tide had shifted and he quickly switched to the other side. In order to get support from the masses, he needed a campaign to demonize marijuana and its use. Movie makers were hired to create propaganda films and many were made. The most famous of these, Reefer Madness made in 1938, has become a cult comedy classic, with ridiculous claims being made about marijuana’s effects.   Though they now seem silly and juvenile , they had their desired effect at the time.

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 Getting a law passed would be difficult as there was nothing in the constitution which permitted outlawing marijuana. About this time, the National Firearms Act was passed that required a tax stamp to be purchased to transfer a machine gun. This law effectively outlawed machine guns as these stamps were not made available. When the Supreme Court upheld this law, it provided a model of how to circumvent that pesky Constitution. Using the NFA as a template, he proposed creating  the requirement that anyone involved in the transfer of marijuana would be required to obtain a Marijuana Tax Stamp. He arranged to step up production of anti-marijuana propaganda movies to rev up support for this proposal.

On April 27, 1937 Congress began hearings on a law to control marijuana. Though privately Anslinger believed that marijuana was not as serious of a problem as heroin or cocaine, he went before Congress and laid out a case claiming that it was one of the most dangerous of all drugs, making its user insane and it acted as a “gateway” to harder drugs, a claim that is still made today. He testified that school children were being given free samples of marijuana to hook them on the drug and many were becoming regular users. At this point, Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association gave the only testimony against enacting the law. He testified that despite all of the testimony claiming use by school children, there was no evidence that any of it was true. Never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, Congress ridiculed him and completely ignored what he had to say. They then went on to lie about what he had said. Hearst Newspapers scheduled extra editions and press runs to promote this proposed law and William Randolph Hurst himself wrote the following, “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marijuana, he would drop dead in fright.”

After 5 days of hearings, the Marijuana Tax was passed and on August 2, 1937, President Roosevelt signed it into law. It took effect on October 1, 1937. The law required that anyone who wished to buy, sell or distribute marijuana, would be required to purchase a transfer stamp. The penalty for failure to have the stamp was 5 years in prison, a $2000 fine, or both. There were a couple of problems with this in that they did not print any stamps and provisions of the law stated that in order to apply for the stamp, you had to already have the marijuana in hand, but if you already had it in hand with out the stamp, you were in violation of the law.

Arrests and prosecutions soon followed in earnest, but when World War Two came along, the people turned their attention to its greater importance and arrests fell off until after the war ended, but Anslinger wanted to keep up the pressure, so he made several high profile arrests of celebrities such as Gene Krupa and Robert Mitchum.

During the 1950s, people who used marijuana stayed in the shadows and not a lot of attention was paid to them. The 60s, particularly the later portion of the decade, brought these people out into the open. This was a time of open rebellion by our young people and the hippy movement and fear of dying in the Viet Nam War or a nuclear attack created a feeling of “live while you still can.” The fact that marijuana was illegal and you faced serious consequences if caught with it, only made it more glamorous. Its use sort of said FU to “the man.”

In 1970, activist Timothy Leary brought a suit before the US Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act. His premise was that since you had to possess the marijuana first to get the stamp and it was illegal to possess it without a stamp, it would amount to self-incrimination to apply for the stamp. The Court agreed and threw out the 33 year old law. Congress would have none of that constitution stuff so they immediately passed the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 which again made marijuana illegal.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared his “war on drugs” and in 1973 he created the Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA) with an initial budget of 75 million dollars per year. This would be 400 million dollars in today’s money. Here is brief video showing a crack member of our DEA in action.

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Here are two followup videos concerning this incident.

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Nixon felt that drug use was the “scourge of our civilization” and viewed it as a ploy by the Communists to destroy our youth. He believed that all people who use drugs are aberrant deviant criminals and should be treated as such. He hated the anti-war protesters that were constantly hounding him and since many of them smoked pot, he used this as an excuse to have them hauled away. This attitude only further fueled the cultural divide that was occurring during this time. Many young people were dissatisfied with the status quo and wanted immediate change. The Viet Nam War had divided the country and marijuana was viewed as a part of the counter-culture. A movement for legalization of marijuana began to grow and continues to this day. Unfortunately, the most vocal group favoring legalization are those who are considered to be outside of the norm. The whole issue is controlled much more by politics than by scientific information.

When the Watergate scandal broke, Nixon had to turn his attention to damage control and the war on drugs was put on a back burner. Drug use rose. The Carter administration was consumed by economic issues and drug use continued to climb. The Reagan administration saw a renewed effort against drug use and featured First lady, Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just say no” campaign. The president increased funding for the DEA and by the late 80s marijuana was more difficult to find and for the first time in many years its use had declined. President Clinton vowed to keep up the pressure, but drug use increased anyway.

With new research showing marijuana’s efficacy in treating certain medical conditions such as the side effects of chemotherapy the 90s saw a significant increase in its medical use and people began calling for its legalization for medical use and in 1996, California made history by overwhelmingly passing Proposition 215 which legalized medical use of marijuana.  Since then 15 other states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical use of marijuana and several others are considering it.

The laws are often confusing and contradictory. They are also enforced at the whim of the politician in power at the time. In Michigan, where I live, the general population passed a medical marijuana law by a 2 to 1 margin, and practical implementation of the law was well underway until the current administration took over in January 2011. They don’t agree with the law and are making its successful implementation very difficult. There is also the issue that it is still against federal law for any reason and anyone can still be charged under federal law despite their legal state status.

Even the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has stuck its nose into the issue. Under federal law a person who is a drug addict cannot legally possess a gun of any type. The ATF has ruled that when a person applies for a medical marijuana license under state law, he is signing a confession that he is a drug addict and is therefore not eligible to possess a firearm. So far this tactic has been successful in dividing the population. Groups that traditionally support gun rights, get much of their funding from right wing groups and cannot be seen supporting the rights of drug users, so even though this would normally be a viable gun rights issue, they have done nothing.

In part two of this series, I will be covering the various costs to society of drug use and anti-drug enforcement and possible solutions.

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Michael Chester is retired from his career in industrial technology. After graduating from college, he taught this subject until deciding that he preferred doing the job himself more than teaching it. At various times during his career, he has designed, built, installed, and repaired industrial manufacturing machinery. His specialty was in electrical and electronics controls. After retiring, he concentrated more on his hobby of cooking and attended one of the top culinary schools in the US. Mike competed in bass fishing tournaments for several years, but had to leave the sport due to an injury. As a certified barbecue judge he gets to taste some of the best BBQ in the country and help select the winner. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it. He lives with his wife of over 30 years, has 3 adult children and 2 grandchildren.