Why was Marijuana ever made illegal in the United States?
Many people assume that marijuana was made illegal through some kind of
process involving scientific, medical, and government hearings; that it was to
protect the citizens from what was determined to be a dangerous drug.
The actual story shows a much different picture. Those who voted on the legal
fate of this plant never had the facts, but were dependent on information
supplied by those who had a specific agenda to deceive lawmakers. You’ll see
below that the very first federal vote to prohibit marijuana was based entirely
on a documented lie on the floor of the Senate.
You’ll also see that the history of marijuana’s criminalization is filled with:
• Protection of Corporate Profits
• Yellow Journalism
• Ignorant, Incompetent, and/or Corrupt Legislators
• Personal Career Advancement and Greed
These are the actual reasons marijuana is illegal.
For most of human history, marijuana has been completely legal. It’s not a
recently discovered plant, nor is it a long-standing law. Marijuana has been
illegal for less than 1% of the time that it’s been in use. Its known uses go
back further than 7,000 B.C. and it was legal as recently as when Ronald Reagan
was a boy.
The marijuana (hemp) plant, of course, has an incredible number of uses. The
earliest known woven fabric was apparently of hemp, and over the centuries the
plant was used for food, incense, cloth, rope, and much more. This adds to some
of the confusion over its introduction in the United States, as the plant was
well known from the early 1600′s, but did not reach public awareness as a
recreational drug until the early 1900′s.
America’s first marijuana law was enacted at Jamestown Colony, Virginia in 1619.
It was a law “ordering” all farmers to grow Indian hempseed. There were several
other “must grow” laws over the next 200 years (you could be jailed for not
growing hemp during times of shortage in Virginia between 1763 and 1767), and
during most of that time, hemp was legal tender (you could even pay your taxes
with hemp — try that today!) Hemp was such a critical crop for a number of
purposes (including essential war requirements – rope, etc.) that the government
went out of its way to encourage growth.
The United States Census of 1850 counted 8,327 hemp “plantations” (minimum
2,000-acre farm) growing cannabis hemp for cloth, canvas and even the cordage
used for baling cotton.
The Mexican Connection
In the early 1900s, the western states developed significant tensions regarding
the influx of Mexican-Americans. The revolution in Mexico in 1910 spilled over
the border, with General Pershing’s army clashing with bandit Pancho Villa.
Later in that decade, bad feelings developed between the small farmer and the
large farms that used cheaper Mexican labor. Then, the depression came and
increased tensions, as jobs and welfare resources became scarce.
One of the “differences” seized upon during this time was the fact that many
Mexicans smoked marijuana and had brought the plant with them, and it was
through this that California apparently passed the first state marijuana law,
outlawing “preparations of hemp, or loco weed.”
However, one of the first state laws outlawing marijuana may have been
influenced, not just by Mexicans using the drug, but, oddly enough, because of
Mormons using it. Mormons who traveled to Mexico in 1910 came back to Salt Lake
City with marijuana. The church’s reaction to this may have contributed to the
state’s marijuana law. (Note: the source for this speculation is from articles
by Charles Whitebread, Professor of Law at USC Law School in a paper for the
Virginia Law Review, and a speech to the California Judges Association (sourced
below). Mormon blogger Ardis Parshall disputes this.)
Other states quickly followed suit with marijuana prohibition laws, including
Wyoming (1915), Texas (1919), Iowa (1923), Nevada (1923), Oregon (1923),
Washington (1923), Arkansas (1923), and Nebraska (1927). These laws tended to be
specifically targeted against the Mexican-American population.
When Montana outlawed marijuana in 1927, the Butte Montana Standard reported a
legislator’s comment: “When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this
stuff… he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out
to execute all his political enemies.” In Texas, a senator said on the floor of
the Senate: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes
Jazz and Assassins
In the eastern states, the “problem” was attributed to a combination of Latin
Americans and black jazz musicians. Marijuana and jazz traveled from New Orleans
to Chicago, and then to Harlem, where marijuana became an indispensable part of
the music scene, even entering the language of the black hits of the time (Louis
Armstrong’s “Muggles”, Cab Calloway’s “That Funny Reefer Man”, Fats Waller’s
Again, racism was part of the charge against marijuana, as newspapers in 1934
editorialized: “Marijuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye,
step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”
Two other fear-tactic rumors started to spread: one, that Mexicans, Blacks and
other foreigners were snaring white children with marijuana; and two, the story
of the “assassins.” Early stories of Marco Polo had told of “hasheesh-eaters” or
hashashin, from which derived the term “assassin.” In the original stories,
these professional killers were given large doses of hashish and brought to the
ruler’s garden (to give them a glimpse of the paradise that awaited them upon
successful completion of their mission). Then, after the effects of the drug
disappeared, the assassin would fulfill his ruler’s wishes with cool,
By the 1930s, the story had changed. Dr. A. E. Fossier wrote in the 1931 New
Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal: “Under the influence of hashish those
fanatics would madly rush at their enemies, and ruthlessly massacre every one
within their grasp.” Within a very short time, marijuana started being linked to
Alcohol Prohibition and Federal Approaches to Drug Prohibition
During this time, the United States was also dealing with alcohol prohibition,
which lasted from 1919 to 1933. Alcohol prohibition was extremely visible and
debated at all levels, while drug laws were passed without the general public’s
knowledge. National alcohol prohibition happened through the mechanism of an
amendment to the constitution.
Earlier (1914), the Harrison Act was passed, which provided federal tax
penalties for opiates and cocaine.
The federal approach is important. It was considered at the time that the
federal government did not have the constitutional power to outlaw alcohol or
drugs. It is because of this that alcohol prohibition required a constitutional
At that time in our country’s history, the judiciary regularly placed the tenth
amendment in the path of congressional regulation of “local” affairs, and direct
regulation of medical practice was considered beyond congressional power under
the commerce clause (since then, both provisions have been weakened so far as to
have almost no meaning).
Since drugs could not be outlawed at the federal level, the decision was made to
use federal taxes as a way around the restriction. In the Harrison Act, legal
uses of opiates and cocaine were taxed (supposedly as a revenue need by the
federal government, which is the only way it would hold up in the courts), and
those who didn’t follow the law found themselves in trouble with the treasury
In 1930, a new division in the Treasury Department was established — the Federal
Bureau of Narcotics — and Harry J. Anslinger was named director. This, if
anything, marked the beginning of the all-out war against marijuana.
Harry J. Anslinger
Anslinger was an extremely ambitious man, and he recognized the Bureau of
Narcotics as an amazing career opportunity — a new government agency with the
opportunity to define both the problem and the solution. He immediately realized
that opiates and cocaine wouldn’t be enough to help build his agency, so he
latched on to marijuana and started to work on making it illegal at the federal
Anslinger immediately drew upon the themes of racism and violence to draw
national attention to the problem he wanted to create. He also promoted and
frequently read from “Gore Files” — wild reefer-madness-style exploitation tales
of ax murderers on marijuana and sex and… Negroes. Here are some quotes that
have been widely attributed to Anslinger and his Gore Files:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, 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.”
“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity,
criminality, and death.”
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
“Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing”
“You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
And he loved to pull out his own version of the “assassin” definition:
“In the year 1090, there was founded in Persia the religious and military order
of the Assassins, whose history is one of cruelty, barbarity, and murder, and
for good reason: the members were confirmed users of hashish, or Marijuana, and
it is from the Arabs’ ‘hashashin’ that we have the English word ‘assassin.’”
Harry Anslinger got some additional help from William Randolf Hearst, owner of a
huge chain of newspapers. Hearst had lots of reasons to help. First, he hated
Mexicans. Second, he had invested heavily in the timber industry to support his
newspaper chain and didn’t want to see the development of hemp paper in
competition. Third, he had lost 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa, so
he hated Mexicans. Fourth, telling lurid lies about Mexicans (and the devil
marijuana weed causing violence) sold newspapers, making him rich.
Some samples from the San Francisco Examiner:
“Marijuana makes fiends of boys in thirty days — Hashish goads users to
“By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that
racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human
being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms….
Marijuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke Marijuana cigarettes for a
month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid
specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the
mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get
And other nationwide columns…
“Users of marijuana become STIMULATED as they inhale the drug and are LIKELY
TO DO ANYTHING. Most crimes of violence in this section, especially in country
districts are laid to users of that drug.”
“Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara
Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles?… THREE-FOURTHS
OF THE CRIMES of violence in this country today are committed by DOPE SLAVES —
that is a matter of cold record.”
Hearst and Anslinger were then supported by Dupont chemical company and various
pharmaceutical companies in the effort to outlaw cannabis. Dupont had patented
nylon, and wanted hemp removed as competition. The pharmaceutical companies
could neither identify nor standardize cannabis dosages, and besides, with
cannabis, folks could grow their own medicine and not have to purchase it from
This all set the stage for…
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
After two years of secret planning, Anslinger brought his plan to Congress —
complete with a scrapbook full of sensational Hearst editorials, stories of ax
murderers who had supposedly smoked marijuana, and racial slurs.
It was a remarkably short set of hearings.
The one fly in Anslinger’s ointment was the appearance by Dr. William C.
Woodward, Legislative Council of the American Medical Association.
Woodward started by slamming Harry Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics for
distorting earlier AMA statements that had nothing to do with marijuana and
making them appear to be AMA endorsement for Anslinger’s view.
He also reproached the legislature and the Bureau for using the term marijuana
in the legislation and not publicizing it as a bill about cannabis or hemp. At
this point, marijuana (or Marijuana) was a sensationalist word used to refer to
Mexicans smoking a drug and had not been connected in most people’s minds to the
existing cannabis/hemp plant. Thus, many who had legitimate reasons to oppose
the bill weren’t even aware of it.
Woodward went on to state that the AMA was opposed to the legislation and
further questioned the approach of the hearings, coming close to outright
accusation of misconduct by Anslinger and the committee:
“That there is a certain amount of narcotic addiction of an objectionable
character no one will deny. The newspapers have called attention to it so
prominently that there must be some grounds for [their] statements [even
Woodward was partially taken in by Hearst’s propaganda]. It has surprised me,
however, that the facts on which these statements have been based have not been
brought before this committee by competent primary evidence. We are referred to
newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of Marijuana addiction. We are
told that the use of Marijuana causes crime.
But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number
of prisoners who have been found addicted to the Marijuana habit. An informed
inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.
You have been told that school children are great users of Marijuana cigarettes.
No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and
extent of the habit, among children.
Inquiry of the Children’s Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to
investigate it and know nothing particularly of it.
Inquiry of the Office of Education— and they certainly should know something of
the prevalence of the habit among the school children of the country, if there
is a prevalent habit— indicates that they have had no occasion to investigate
and know nothing of it.
Moreover, there is in the Treasury Department itself, the Public Health Service,
with its Division of Mental Hygiene. The Division of Mental Hygiene was, in the
first place, the Division of Narcotics. It was converted into the Division of
Mental Hygiene, I think, about 1930. That particular Bureau has control at the
present time of the narcotics farms that were created about 1929 or 1930 and
came into operation a few years later. No one has been summoned from that Bureau
to give evidence on that point.
Informal inquiry by me indicates that they have had no record of any Marijuana
of Cannabis addicts who have ever been committed to those farms.
The bureau of Public Health Service has also a division of pharmacology. If you
desire evidence as to the pharmacology of Cannabis, that obviously is the place
where you can get direct and primary evidence, rather than the indirect hearsay
Committee members then proceeded to attack Dr. Woodward, questioning his motives
in opposing the legislation. Even the Chairman joined in:
The Chairman: If you want to advise us on legislation, you ought to come here
with some constructive proposals, rather than criticism, rather than trying to
throw obstacles in the way of something that the Federal Government is trying to
do. It has not only an unselfish motive in this, but they have a serious
Dr. Woodward: We cannot understand yet, Mr. Chairman, why this bill should have
been prepared in secret for 2 years without any intimation, even, to the
profession, that it was being prepared.
After some further bantering…
The Chairman: I would like to read a quotation from a recent editorial in the
The Marijuana cigarette is one of the most insidious of all forms of dope,
largely because of the failure of the public to understand its fatal qualities.
The Nation is almost defenseless against it, having no Federal laws to cope with
it and virtually no organized campaign for combating it.
The result is tragic.
School children are the prey of peddlers who infest school neighborhoods.
High school boys and girls buy the destructive weed without knowledge of its
capacity of harm, and conscienceless dealers sell it with impunity.
This is a national problem, and it must have national attention.
The fatal Marijuana cigarette must be recognized as a deadly drug, and American
children must be protected against it.
That is a pretty severe indictment. They say it is a national question and
that it requires effective legislation. Of course, in a general way, you have
responded to all of these statements; but that indicates very clearly that it is
an evil of such magnitude that it is recognized by the press of the country as
And that was basically it. Yellow journalism won over medical science.
The committee passed the legislation on. And on the floor of the house, the
entire discussion was:
Member from upstate New York: “Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?”
Speaker Rayburn: “I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called
Marijuana. I think it’s a narcotic of some kind.”
“Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?”
Member on the committee jumps up and says: “Their Doctor Wentworth[sic] came
down here. They support this bill 100 percent.”
And on the basis of that lie, on August 2, 1937, marijuana became illegal at the
The entire coverage in the New York Times: “President Roosevelt signed today a
bill to curb traffic in the narcotic, Marijuana, through heavy taxes on
Anslinger as precursor to the Drug Czars
Anslinger was essentially the first Drug Czar. Even though the term didn’t exist
until William Bennett’s position as director of the White House Office of
National Drug Policy, Anslinger acted in a similar fashion. In fact, there are
some amazing parallels between Anslinger and the current Drug Czar John Walters.
Both had kind of a carte blanche to go around demonizing drugs and drug users.
Both had resources and a large public podium for their voice to be heard and to
promote their personal agenda. Both lied constantly, often when it was
unnecessary. Both were racists. Both had the ear of lawmakers, and both realized
that they could persuade legislators and others based on lies, particularly if
they could co-opt the media into squelching or downplaying any opposition views.
Anslinger even had the ability to circumvent the First Amendment. He banned the
Canadian movie “Drug Addict,” a 1946 documentary that realistically depicted the
drug addicts and law enforcement efforts. He even tried to get Canada to ban the
movie in their own country, or failing that, to prevent U.S. citizens from
seeing the movie in Canada. Canada refused. (Today, Drug Czar John Walters is
trying to bully Canada into keeping harsh marijuana laws.)
Anslinger had 37 years to solidify the propaganda and stifle opposition. The
lies continued the entire time (although the stories would adjust — the 21 year
old Florida boy who killed his family of five got younger each time he told it).
In 1961, he looked back at his efforts:
“Much of the most irrational juvenile violence and that has written a new
chapter of shame and tragedy is traceable directly to this hemp intoxication. A
gang of boys tear the clothes from two school girls and rape the screaming
girls, one boy after the other. A sixteen-year-old kills his entire family of
five in Florida, a man in Minnesota puts a bullet through the head of a stranger
on the road; in Colorado husband tries to shoot his wife, kills her grandmother
instead and then kills himself. Every one of these crimes had been proceeded
[sic] by the smoking of one or more marijuana “reefers.” As the marijuana
situation grew worse, I knew action had to be taken to get the proper
legislation passed. By 1937 under my direction, the Bureau launched two
important steps First, a legislative plan to seek from Congress a new law that
would place marijuana and its distribution directly under federal control.
Second, on radio and at major forums, such that presented annually by the New
York Herald Tribune, I told the story of this evil weed of the fields and river
beds and roadsides. I wrote articles for magazines; our agents gave hundreds of
lectures to parents, educators, social and civic leaders. In network broadcasts
I reported on the growing list of crimes, including murder and rape. I described
the nature of marijuana and its close kinship to hashish. I continued to hammer
at the facts.
I believe we did a thorough job, for the public was alerted and the laws to
protect them were passed, both nationally and at the state level. We also
brought under control the wild growing marijuana in this country. Working with
local authorities, we cleaned up hundreds of acres of marijuana and we uprooted
plants sprouting along the roadsides.”
On a break from college in the 70s, I was visiting a church in rural Illinois.
There in the literature racks in the back of the church was a lurid pamphlet
about the evils of marijuana — all the old reefer madness propaganda about how
it caused insanity and murder. I approached the minister and said “You can’t
have this in your church. It’s all lies, and the church shouldn’t be about
promoting lies.” Fortunately, my dad believed me, and he had the material
removed. He didn’t even know how it got there. But without me speaking up,
neither he nor the other members of the church had any reason NOT to believe
what the pamphlet said. The propaganda machine had been that effective.
The narrative since then has been a continual litany of:
• Politicians wanting to appear tough on crime and passing tougher penalties
• Constant increases in spending on law enforcement and prisons
• Racist application of drug laws
• Taxpayer funded propaganda
• Stifling of opposition speech
• Political contributions from corporations that profit from marijuana being
illegal (pharmaceuticals, alcohol, etc.)
… but that’s another whole story.
This account only scratches the surface of the story. If you want to know more
about the history of marijuana, Harry Anslinger, and the saga of criminalization
in the United States and elsewhere, visit some of the excellent links below.
(All data and quotes for this piece came from these sources as well).
• The History
of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States by Charles Whitebread,
Professor of Law, USC Law School. A Speech to the California Judges Association
1995 annual conference.
THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT AND THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE: AN INQUIRY INTO THE LEGAL HISTORY
OF AMERICAN MARIJUANA PROHIBITION by
Richard J. Bonnie & Charles H. Whitebread, II. VIRGINIA LAW REVIEW. VOLUME 56
OCTOBER 1970 NUMBER 6
The Consumers Union Report – Licit and Illicit Drugs
by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine
History of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937
By David F. Musto, M.D., New Haven, Conn.
Originally published in Arch. Gen. Psychiat. Volume 26, February, 1972
Report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse
I. Control of Marijuana, Alcohol and Tobacco.
History of Marijuana Legislation
Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
The history of how the Marijuana Tax Act came to be the law of the land.
Marijuana – The First Twelve Thousand Years by Ernest L. Abel, 1980