Unhappy Birthday: 50th Anniversary of Single Convention Treaty Outlawing Cannabis (March 30, 1961)

Coming April 29th – 100th Anniversary of First State Anti-Cannabis Law

Mar 30th, 2011 – Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Single Convention Treaty on Narcotic Drugs, which initiated the international policy of cannabis prohibition. Pursuant to the treaty, cannabis is prohibited in every single country in the world (including the Netherlands, even though it tolerates its use).

The treaty was the handiwork of the powerful ex-director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger (pictured left), the architect of the first federal cannabis prohibition law, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. Anslinger had pushed for a treaty against cannabis in order to shore up the act’s dubious constitutionality under U.S. law (the act was later declared unconstitutional for other reasons, only to be supplanted by the Controlled Substance Act). Today, the international treaty stands as the principal cause of prohibition-related crime and violence worldwide with drug wars from Mexico to Afghanistan plus the criminalization of millions of users.

Next month marks another memorable anniversary in the war on drugs: the centennial of the first state anti-cannabis law. On April 29th, 1911, Massachusetts enacted a law making it illegal to sell or possess cannabis or other narcotics without a prescription. Ironically, there is no record of any public concern about cannabis at the time; “marijuana” the modern name for cannabis leaf rolled into cigarettes, was still virtually unknown.

The law was the work of Progressive Era pharmacy regulators, who were chiefly concerned about other habit-forming drugs like opium and cocaine, but included cannabis for the sake of completeness. Ironically, only after the law was passed did recreational marijuana use become popular. It is noteworthy that the Massachusetts law expressly allowed for prescription use, as cannabis was still generally recognized as a pharmaceutical drug. Only in 1937 was medical use suppressed at Anslinger’s insistence, a bankrupt federal policy that remains in effect today.

Other states quickly adopted anti-cannabis laws of their own, beginning with California, Maine, Indiana and Wyoming in 1913. As in Massachusetts, the laws were not passed in response to any public concern about cannabis, but at the instigation of government officials with an interest in drug regulation. Today, it is these same government bureaucrats and drug cops who remain the strongest supporters of the failed prohibitionist policies that keep them employed.

A century of experience shows conclusively that cannabis prohibition has failed.

In the years since the Single Convention Treaty was passed, marijuana use has exploded. Cannabis is now the world’s most popular psychoactive drug after alcohol, encompassing over 100 million users. One hundred years after the first anti-cannabis law, a popular rebellion against prohibition has begun, with repeal bills being proposed in Massachusetts, California, Washington, and Colorado. As in the Arab nations, out-of-touch government officials can be expected to remain the chief source of resistance to political reform in 2011 and beyond.

– Dale Gieringer, Director, Cal NORML

Also see: Drug Lords Celebrate the Drug War at the UN!

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