The Government’s Hundred Years’ War on Cannabis
by Dale Gieringer, California NORML
This week marks a centennial worth notice if not celebration, the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first anti-marijuana law. On April 29th, 1911, Massachusetts enacted a statute making it illegal to sell or possess cannabis or other “hypnotic” drugs such as opium without a prescription. Violators were subject to a $100 fine and up to six months in jail, and just being present could get you three months.
Ironically, there is no record of any public concern about cannabis at the time. “Marijuana,” the Mexican name for cannabis leaf rolled into cigarettes, was still unknown outside a few border settlements in the Southwest.
The Massachusetts law was not primarily aimed at cannabis, but at opium, morphine and other narcotics, abuse of which had become a concern among Progressive Era reformers and temperance advocates. By prohibiting the use of narcotics without a prescription, it was hoped their abuse could be stemmed. Cannabis was added for the sake of completeness, being one of the familiar hypnotic drugs traditionally available in pharmacies. This incidental decision would turn out to have far-reaching consequences, aptly illustrating the dangers of governmental misjudgment in matters of drug regulation.
Significantly, the law expressly permitted pharmaceutical sales of cannabis, the medical value of which was widely acknowledged at the time. Only in 1937 was medical cannabis suppressed at the insistence of federal narcotics boss Harry Anslinger, whose last-century “reefer madness” policy sadly remains with us today.
Other states soon followed Massachusetts in passing anti-cannabis laws of their own, beginning with California, Maine, Indiana and Wyoming in 1913. As in Massachusetts, there was no public concern about marijuana at the time.
Significantly, the laws were the handiwork of pharmacy boards and Progressive era advocates of government regulation, who believed that drug use should be restricted by force of law. Officials admitted that cannabis was not a problem at the time, but warned that it might become one unless steps were taken to prevent it.
Ironically, only after being prohibited did cannabis become widely popular. During the 1920s, marijuana use spread inexorably, from Mexican and Caribbean immigrants to jazz musicians, hipsters, and reprobate youth. As usage proliferated, so did laws against it. Over 30 states had prohibited marijuana by 1937, when Congress enacted the first federal prohibition law, and penalties were further enhanced in the 1950s. None of this did anything to prevent an explosion in marijuana use in the late 1960s and 1970s. The result was to leave marijuana firmly established as America’s second most popular intoxicant after alcohol, a status it seems destined to enjoy for the foreseeable future.
Ironically, America’s problems with marijuana post-date the laws that were supposed to prevent them. Since 1911, the number of consumers has soared from a handful to tens of millions Americans. Meanwhile, over 20 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges; over 40,000 are now in prison for marijuana crimes; marijuana production has become a multi-billion dollar illicit industry; billions of taxpayers dollars have been spent on eradication and enforcement, and thousands of lives lost in prohibition-related violence in Mexico and elsewhere. Over the same time, not a single death has been recorded from a toxic reaction to marijuana.
In sum, the evidence is overwhelming that the 100-year war on cannabis has failed. In practice, prohibition has served as a crime-creation program, criminalizing otherwise innocent Americans, promoting a criminal market, and generating disrespect for the law. In the wake of this historic failure, public support for re-legalizing marijuana has recently risen to record levels, reaching majorities in the West Coast and New England. As in 1911, so today it is government officials, drug cops and bureaucrats, now entrenched in a multibillion-dollar complex of anti-drug agencies and programs, who are the staunchest supporters of the failed system that keeps them on the public payroll. Americans would be well advised to reject their bankrupt paternalism and reclaim their historical freedom to use cannabis.
[For more on early anti-cannabis laws see: “The Forgotten Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California,” https://www.canorml.org/history.html.]
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April 27, 2011