New Year Marks Centennial of Marijuana Prohibition in California

Jan 1, 2013: This New Year marks the 100th anniversary of the war on cannabis in California. In 1913, the state Board of Pharmacy led the legislature to pass a bill outlawing possession of “Indian hemp.” The law was the opening shot in a century-long prohibitionist campaign that has cost the state millions of arrests and billions of dollars in enforcement costs even while cannabis has increased in popularity and public acceptance.

California NORML is holding a conference to mark the occasion, “Cannabis in California: Ending the 100-Year War” January 26th and 27th at the Ft. Mason Conference Center, San Francisco, featuring leading state and national advocates against cannabis prohibition.

Although national prohibition of cannabis was initiated by the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, many states banned it earlier. California was among the first to act, led by an activist Board of Pharmacy that was then pioneering an aggressive anti-narcotics campaign against opium, morphine and cocaine.

At the time, there was no public concern about cannabis. “Marihuana,” the Mexican name for the drug, was still virtually unknown. However, a leader of the California Pharmacy Board, Henry James Finger, proposed to his colleagues that “Indian hemp” should be banned so as to prevent it from being spread by an influx of cannabis-using “Hindoo” immigrants. Finger and his colleagues conceded that cannabis was not really a problem at the time, but that it should be banned anyway so as to discourage possible future use.

The legislature duly complied in 1913. The law attracted little notice at first. Only afterwards, when the board began cracking down with well-publicized raids on marijuana did the press begin to take serious notice.

Ironically, marijuana use increased inexorably in the 1920s and 1930s despite ever-harsher penalties, then exploded into widespread cultural popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Alarmed by an increasingly costly epidemic of felony arrests, the legislature acted to decriminalize possession to a misdemeanor by passing the Moscone Act in 1975, which save the state billions of dollars. In 1996, California voters went on to legalize medical marijuana under Prop 215, although arrests continued unabated. In 2010, non-medical possession was further reduced to an infraction. Although decriminalization greatly reduced possession arrests, the major costs of enforcement continue to stem from felony arrests for sales and cultivation, which have remained stable at around 14,000 – 17,000 for 25 years. In the century since 1913, California has recorded over 2.67 million marijuana arrests. Meanwhile the number of Californians using marijuana has grown from a handful to millions.

Speakers at the Cal NORML conference will discuss plans for ending cannabis prohibition in California in a manner similar to Colorado and Washington over the next two to four years.

For more on California’s 1913 anti-cannabis law, see:

The Origins of California’s 1913 Cannabis Law

Release by: Dale Gieringer (510) 540-1066

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