During American colonial times, farmers grew cannabis for its hemp products like rope and textiles. The level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)–the psychoactive ingredient in another type of cannabis–in hemp is extremely low. Having said that, George George Washington’s diary entries indicate that he grew hemp at Mount Vernon and acccording to his agricultural ledgers, he had an interest in cannabis’s medicinal use. Several of his diary entries indicate that he indeed was growing Cannabis with a high THC content.
In the 19th century, marijuana emerged as a mainstream medicine in the West. Studies in the 1840s by a French doctor Jacques-Joseph Moreau found that marijuana suppressed headaches, increased appetite, and aided sleep.
Marijuana extracts are mentioned in the 1850 United States Pharmacopeia [an official public standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the counter medicines]. It listed marijuana as treatment for numerous afflictions, including: neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, anthrax, leprosy, incontinence, gout, convulsive disorders, tonsillitis, insanity, excessive menstrual bleeding, and uterine bleeding, among others. Patented marijuana tinctures were sold.
Early 20th Century
In accordance with the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, up to World War I, pharmaceutical supplies of cannabis indica were imported from India and occasionally Madagascar. The Pharmacopoeia specified that it come from flowering tops of the Indian variety.
- Indica strains are more sedative in nature.
- Sativas strains tend to provide more invigorating, uplifting cerebral effects.
In 1913, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry announced it had succeeded in growing domestic cannabis of equal quality to the Indian. When foreign supplies were interrupted by World War I, the United States became self-sufficient in cannabis. By 1918, some 60,000 pounds were being produced annually, all from pharmaceutical farms east of the Mississippi.
Harry J Anslinger
Harry Anslinger represented the most extreme reaction against cannabis use. He joined the Treasury Department in 1926 and by 1929 was Assistant Commissioner of Prohibition and promoted to the head of the Narcotics Bureau in 1930.
Probably no one did more to begin the criminalization of cannabis in the United States.
There was, and remains, an undercurrent of racism when it came to the anti-marijuana campaign. Quotes attributable to Anslinger include:
- “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
- “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
- “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.”
William Randolph Hearst
US border towns with Mexico passed the first laws against cannabis. William Randolph Hearst owned twenty-eight newspapers by the mid-1920s. He dropped the words cannabis and hemp from his newspapers and began a propaganda campaign against ‘marijuana.’
By 1933, cannabis had became the target of government control. Sensationalist stories linked violent acts to its consumption. Many of the most outlandish stories appeared Hearst’s newspapers. He reportedly had financial interests in the lumber and paper industries and may have sought to eliminate hemp competition.
The headline of a April 14, 1935 New York Times article read:
NEW MEXICO MOVES TO BAN MARIJUANA; State Finds Many Children Are Addicted to Weed — Narcotics Law Passed.
1937 Marijuana Tax Act
The Committee on Ways and Means had held hearings on the a proposed Marijuana Tax Act between 27 April and 4 May 1937.
The last witness to be heard was Dr. William C. Woodward, legislative counsel of the American Medical Association (AMA). He announced his opposition to the bill and sought to dispel any impression that either the AMA or enlightened medical opinion sponsored this legislation. Marijuana, he argued, was largely an unknown quantity, but might have important uses in medicine and psychology.
He stated: “There is nothing in the medicinal use of Cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. I use the word ‘Cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana’, because Cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products. The term ‘marihuana’ is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of Cannabis preparations for smoking..To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis.”
The act passed and signed into law on August 2, 1937. It would go into effect on October 5. It is widely regarded as a major milestone in the U.S. policy of criminalizing drugs, which steadily escalated into President Nixon’s so-called War on Drugs in the 1970s.
The 1937 law was prompted in part by a national panic over the dangers of marijuana promulgated by propaganda as can be seen in the now famous 1936 film Reefer Madness
Samuel R. Caldwell
On October 2 the FBI and Denver, Colorado police raided the Lexington Hotel and arrested Samuel R. Caldwell, 58, an unemployed laborer and Moses Baca, 26.
On Oct. 5, Caldwell went into the history trivia books as the first marijuana seller convicted under new law.
He was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Leavenworth Penitentiary, plus a $1,000 fine. Baca received 18 months incarceration for possession. Both men served every day of their sentence. Caldwell died a year after his release.
In 1938, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia requested that the New York Academy of Medicine conduct an investigation of marijuana.
The 1944 report, titled “The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York,” but commonly referred to as the “LaGuardia Report,” concluded that many claims about the dangers of marijuana were exaggerated or untrue.
It read in part: “The practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word… The use of marihuana 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 marihuana smoking… Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes… The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.”
On August 31, 1948, local Los Angeles and Federal narcotics officers raided the home of Lila Leeds, a 20-year-old actress. Marijuana was found. The agents arrested Leeds and three others, including 31-year-old film star Robert Mitchum.
There is some reason to believe that Mitchum’s arrest was less than fair and designed to bring publicity to the Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-drug efforts. Although high-priced studio lawyers questioned irregularities in the case, it was later agreed that Mitchum would accept 60 days in jail and several years’ probation
On February 25, 1949, Mitchum was released from a Los Angeles County prison farm after spending the final week of his two-month sentence for marijuana possession there.
The conviction was later overturned by the Los Angeles court and District Attorney’s office on January 31, 1951, with the following statement, after it was exposed as a set-up:
“After an exhaustive investigation of the evidence and testimony presented at the trial, the court orders that the verdict of guilty be set aside and that a plea of not guilty be entered and that the information or complaint be dismissed.”
When reporters asked him what jail was like, Mitchum replied, ”It’s just like Palm Springs without the riffraff.”
More Federal Control
On November 2, 1951, President Harry Truman signed the “Boggs Act” into law, setting minimum federal sentences for drug offenders. A first-offense marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2-10 years with a fine of up to $20,000.
March 30, 1961: The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 signed. It is an international treaty to prohibit production and supply of specific (nominally narcotic) drugs and of drugs with similar effects except under licence for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research.
The document included updating the Paris Convention of 13 July 1931 to include the vast number of synthetic opioids invented in the intervening thirty years and a mechanism for more easily including new ones. Earlier treaties had only controlled opium, coca, and derivatives such as morphine, heroin and cocaine. The Single Convention consolidated those treaties and broadened their scope to include cannabis and drugs whose effects are similar to those of the drugs specified.
War On Drugs
April 8, 1968: President Johnson established the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
May 19, 1969: Leary v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt with the constitutionality of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Timothy Leary had been arrested for the possession of marijuana in violation of the Act. Leary challenged the act on the ground that the it required self-incrimination, which violated the Fifth Amendment. The unanimous opinion of the court–penned by Justice John Marshall Harlan II–declared the Marihuana Tax Act unconstitutional.
In 1970: The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws [NORML] founded as a nonprofit public-interest advocacy group whose mission was and is to end marijuana prohibition.
The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 became effective on October 27, 1970. The act classified controlled substances into five schedules.
Schedule I Controlled Substances: substances in this schedule have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.
Some examples of substances are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), peyote, methaqualone, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“Ecstasy”). (see Schedules for the other four)
May 1, 1971: in a televised news conference responding to question about the White House Conference on Youth, which had voted to legalize marijuana, President Nixon said: “As you know, there is a Commission that is supposed to make recommendations to me about this subject; in this instance, however, I have such strong views that I will express them. I am against legalizing marijuana. Even if the Commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not follow that recommendation… I can see no social or moral justification whatever for legalizing marijuana. I think it would be exactly the wrong step. It would simply encourage more and more of our young people to start down the long, dismal road that leads to hard drugs and eventually self-destruction.”
June 17, 1971: President Nixon said: “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.
I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of an offensive. This will be a worldwide offensive dealing with the problems of sources of supply, as well as Americans who may be stationed abroad, wherever they are in the world…
I have brought Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe into the White House, directly reporting to me as Special Consultant to the President for Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs], so that we have not only the responsibility but the authority to see that we wage this offensive effectively and in a coordinated way.”
In 1973: The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNND) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) merged to form the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). John R. Bartels Jr. was confirmed as the DEA’s first Administrator on 4 October 1973
Cannabis Contrails Continued follows this chronology into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.