The History of Cannabis Prohibition

The demonization of the cannabis plant was an extension of the demonization of Mexican immigrants, Native Americans and African Americans. Federal Law prohibited outlawing drugs, so the decision was made to use federal taxes as a way around the restriction. In the Harrison Act, which allowed legal uses of opiates and cocaine to be taxed as a revenue need by the federal government, and was enforced by the Treasury Department.

In 1930, a new division in the Treasury Department was established — the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — and Harry J. Anslinger, a native of Altoona, PA, was named director. Anslinger began an all-out war against marijuana. He  was an extremely ambitious and recognized that this new government agency, The Bureau of Narcotics was an amazing career opportunity, giving him 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 level. The repeal of Alcohol Prohibition in 1933 created more Federal Agents who would be put out of jobs.

Harry Anslinger got some additional help from William Randolf Hearst, owner of a huge chain of newspapers. Hearst had lots of reasons to help. He had invested heavily in the timber industry to support his newspaper chain and paper made from hemp was a competing product. He had lost 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa, so he hated Mexicans. Telling lies about Mexicans and other “socially undesirables” sold newspapers, making him rich. Sensationalized stories of the “devil weed” causing violence, insanity and other outrageous claims were presented as truth and repeated in his various newspapers.

Hearst and Anslinger were also aided by DuPont chemical company in the effort to outlaw cannabis. DuPont had patented nylon, and wanted hemp removed as competition. Andrew Mellon of Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh was DuPont’s chief financial backer. Anslinger just happened to be Mellon’s son-in-law.

While the Act was ruled unconstitutional years later, it was replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970’s which established Schedules for ranking substances according to how dangerous they were and their potential for abuse. Cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, supposedly as a place holder while then President Nixon commissioned a report to give a final recommendation. Schedule I is reserved for substances that have NO medical use and have a high potential for abuse.

The Schafer Commission, chaired by former PA Governor, Raymond P. Shafer, declared that marijuana should not be in Schedule I and even doubted its designation as an illicit substance. However, due to his fear and hatred of hippies and the counterculture movement, Nixon discounted the recommendations of the commission, and marijuana remains a Schedule I substance.

In the years following, the Drug War has been fueled by politicians wanting to appear tough on crime by enacting tougher penalties and mandatory minimum sentencing. This led to constantly increasing spending on law enforcement and prisons. Today, the Drug War’s racism persists as people of color are 7 to 8 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes as whites. The War on Drugs is fueled by political contributions from special interest groups and corporations that profit from marijuana being illegal, such as pharmaceutical, alcohol, private prisons, drug testing firms and the drug treatment industry, which has greatly benefitted from forced admissions in lieu of incarceration for low-level offenders.

Opponents of medical marijuana regulations claim that there is not enough research to warrant medicinal use, but supporters of medical marijuana point to the 5000 years of history where cannabis was widely used as evidence for its safety and medical efficacy.