California’s 100-Year-Old Ban on "Indian Hemp" (aka Marijuana)

By Dale Gieringer, CalNORML director

One hundred years ago, on August 10, 1913, an obscure law banning the possession of "Indian hemp" took effect in California.

Also known as cannabis indica or hasheesh, Indian hemp had long been available in drugstores without causing any evident problems; hemp was also grown as a fiber crop in the Central Valley. Only later did it become familiar by the Mexican name "marihuana," a word unknown to white Californians in 1913.

Public concern about Indian hemp was nonexistent in 1913. A survey of San Francisco hospitals reported just one instance of its use in six years. However, it had come to the attention of meddlesome officials at the California State Board of Pharmacy, who had launched an aggressive campaign against morphine, cocaine, and Chinese opium dens.

(l to r) Hamilton Wright, Henry J. Finger

Leading the charge was board member Henry J. Finger, who privately expressed alarm at an influx of cannabis-using "Hindoos" (actually Indian Sikhs) in California. "They are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing," warned Finger in a letter to U.S. anti-narcotics chief Hamilton Wright, "the fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit." Finger's letter is the only known report about "Hindoo" hemp use in California.

Wright, the drug "czar" of his day, agreed with Finger on the presumed danger. He argued that while Indian hemp was very little known, the possibility remained that once the state had rid itself of the opium menace, those habitués might turn to hasheesh.

Following up on Wright’s advice, Finger and the pharmacy board quietly prevailed on the legislature to amend the state's pharmacy law so as to ban Indian hemp. The law passed easily with no public debate. Not a single newspaper reported its passage. The state's druggists didn't support the measure, and pharmacy sales continued to be allowed by prescription until being banned federally in 1937.

Ironically, only after becoming illegal did marijuana burst into the news, as Mexican immigrants began bringing it north of the border. In 1914, the Board announced the first known “marahuana” raids in the U.S., cutting down plants from Mexican “dream gardens” in Los Angeles’ Sonoratown neighborhood and burning the crop in public bonfires.

Louis Armstrong, arrested for marijuana in Los Angeles in 1930

As the years passed, marijuana use spread inexorably despite increasingly draconian penalties. Before long, it moved beyond the Mexican community into Northern California, becoming popular among jazz musicians, entertainers and hipsters. By 1930 marijuana accounted for 60% of all drug arrests in Los Angeles and 26% statewide. By this time, penalties had been hiked from a misdemeanor to six years in prison.

None of this stopped usage from exploding dramatically in the sixties counterculture boom, eventually implicating the majority of young Californians. By 1974, the state recorded over 100,000 felony marijuana arrests. Overwhelmed by law enforcement costs, the state wisely decriminalized small-scale possession, saving the taxpayers billions of dollars over the years.

In retrospect, California's ban on Indian hemp has proved a dismal failure. The entirety of the state’s marijuana problem occurred after the laws that were supposed to prevent it. From 1913 to date, California has logged over 2.7 million marijuana arrests, 1.27 million of them felonies. In the same time, usage has exploded from a tiny minority to millions of Californians.

Like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition has served as a giant crime creation program, with the profits accruing to illegal traffickers, growers and narco-trafficantes, plus the drug cops hired to catch them and the jailers who jail them. Historically, it’s significant that prohibition was originally the work of government drug officials paid to enforce it, not a response to public concerns or health problems due to marijuana. Today, law enforcement interests, generously subsidized by federal tax dollars, are the chief apologists for the failed status quo.

In the light of 100 years of failure, California would be better off to repeal prohibition and to re-legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. Voters will likely have a chance to do so in 2016, following the lead of Washington and Colorado.

CalNORML plans to mark the centiversary of the first marijuana arrest in California with a conference in Los Angeles in September 2014.

Read more on California's history with marijuana