The Marijuana Conviction:
A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States
By Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitehead (1974, reprinted 1999).
These authors are professors, not potheads, but their story of cannabis prohibition is a “page turner”. Special attention is given to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which the Virginia Law Review has called “a near comic example of dereliction of legislative responsibility” and “a case study in legislative carelessness”.
They are more deeply concerned about “the injury suffered by the law as an institution” than about marijuana. Tens of millions of people defy the law every day, and “people begin to doubt the capacity of our legal system to order society”. They claim that the legal system has been “overextended” to control behavior and “show disapproval”, but that “no criminal law can be fairly and effectively enforced unless it commands a popular consensus”.
The code of early America (for white people) was mostly freedom and liberty. In the late 1800’s, however, many “moralists” became concerned by drugs and addiction. Opiates, cocaine and tincture of cannabis were freely added to over the counter elixirs, from cough syrup to “ladies tonics”, and many people got hooked. Fear of drugs and alcohol was also a good disguise to mask anti-immigrant sentiment, class war, racism, and the Puritan fear of pleasure.
American drug laws “clearly had more to do with the drugs users than with the drug itself”. California passed opium laws to harass Chinese immigrants, and pot laws helped to get rid of Mexicans during the depression. “Cocoainomania” gave blacks superhuman strength - and made them chase white women.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required labeling; and most states passed anti- drug laws, but federal drug control began with the Harrison Act of 1914. Coca and morphine products were banned, and doctors were not allowed to help addicts anymore. Prices went up and many consumers resorted to crime and prostitution. The authors call such crime “law induced”, and this sort of crime accentuated the public belief that “drugs” “had some inherent sinister property which could change normal people into moral perverts”.
At first the “Feds” didn’t want to outlaw pot since it “grew like dandelions”; and cannabis was not banned in early international treaties. In the middle of the depression, however, Harry Anslinger saw that the budget of his Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was in peril.
Constantly manipulating the willing newspapers Anslinger pushed his “gore files” throughout American media. His litany of marihuana mayhem (all falsified) led inexorably to “murder, insanity, and death!” “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth” was a popular article. The FBN planted articles calling marijuana “the worst evil of all”. Americans were assured that “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marijuana he would drop dead of fright”. Since insanity is inevitable, “the case of the marihuana addict is well nigh hopeless”.
Laws against pot were passed by legislators and citizens who actually didn’t know or care about cannabis; “apathy was the norm”. “Very little was done about the marihuana issue until the press seized upon it.”
The American Medical Association (AMA) was outraged when cannabis was outlawed. They were never consulted and were ignored; even when they protested strongly. The AMA made it clear that the medical value of cannabis “can be found in standard books on pharmacology and therapeutics”.
The “know nothing” American consensus supporting “reefer madness” fell apart during the 1960’s, when middle class young people discovered its pleasures. Public opinion changed, but the system chugged along - with no thought of science, public health, or core American values. A Colorado trial judge decided that anti-marijuana laws were unconstitutional. He was overruled by a Judge Tauro, who knew that marijuana users “neglect their health and that of others in their care and submit to a life of indolence”.
Refreshing voices of truth continually popped up, but nobody cared. A doctor M.V. Ball worked for the AMA and went to the Mexican border area to verify claims of “addiction”. By 1925 he rejected reefer madness, declaring “There is no proof that cannabis indica extract…even smoked…causes a habit”.
A 1929 report said that tolerance and withdrawal were not part of the marijuana picture, but that habitual users enjoyed “the stimulating effects obtained and the individual satisfaction experienced”. Dr. Walter Bromberg in 1934 said that pot caused no real addiction. “Instead, the marijuana ‘user wants to recapture over and over again the ecstatic, elated state into which the drug lifts him’”. Sounds excellent!!
Even in ’74 the authors felt that cannabis law reform was not only “inevitable” but “that these laws are indefensible and therefore ought to be changed”