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Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents
Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding - Table of Contents

The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse

I. Control of Marihuana, Alcohol and Tobacco

History of Marihuana Legislation*


Following the ad hoc local phase of marihuana legislation in the United States was the nationalization phase. During this period marihuana became integrated at both the state and federal levels with the nation's narcotics policy which had been manifested forcefully in Congress' adoption of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914.

The Harrison Act, a taxing measure, required registration and payment of an occupational tax by all persons who imported, produced, dealt in, sold or gave away opium, cocaine or their derivatives. The Act required all legitimate handlers of these narcotics to file returns setting forth in detail their use of the drugs.

Since the Act also provided that only legitimate users could register and no one but a registered user could obtain the specified form, any transfer by an illegitimate user was a violation of the Act. For those failing to comply with its registration requirements, the original Harrison Act provided penalties of not more than $2,000 in fines or more than five years imprisonment, or both.

Drafted as a tax law rather than an outright criminal statute, the Act was intended to do indirectly what Congress believed it could not do directly: regulate possession and sale of the opiates. However, because the Act essentially was a revenue-raising measure imposing a tax on transfers of narcotics, it could not effectively prohibit the possession of drugs.

This indirect regulation of narcotics traffic had a number of significant consequences. First, since the Act could not penalize users of addiction directly, there was an immediate need for complementary residual state legislation in order to deal effectively with the drug problem.

Second, the enforcement of the Act was as signed to the Internal Revenue Service in the Treasury Department. The first enforcement agency for the Harrison Act was the Narcotics Division of the Prohibition Unit of the Internal Revenue Service created in 1920 (Schmeckebier, 1929: 143). This division was incorporated in the Prohibition Bureau which was created in 1927 (Act, 1927:1381).

In 1930, the enforcement of the narcotics laws was severed from the Bureau of Prohibition and established as the separate Bureau of Narcotics in the Treasury Department (Act, 1930: 585). The existence of this separate, agency has done as much as any single factor to influence the course of drug regulation from 1930 to 1970 (King, 1953: 736).

Although the impact of the Bureau on the passage of the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act and the Marihuana Tax Act will be explained in detail in subsequent sections, it is important here to note that the existence of a separate bureau having responsibility only for narcotics enforcement and for educating the public on drug problems inevitably led to a particularly prosecutorial view of narcotics addiction and the use and abuse of all drugs.

After the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, there remained a considerable lack of uniformity regarding the offenses prohibited and the penalties imposed by the several states.

In 1919, the American Medical Association asked the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to call a conference, to consider better control of traffic in narcotic drugs. The profession was uncertain of its obligations in the matter because they were faced with an amalgam of conflicting laws. The A.M.A. asked that the wholesale, retail, and manufacturing drug interests be among those attending, along with delegates from the medical profession in each state. The proposal received no official or unofficial response either from the Commissioner of Internal Revenue or the Bureau of Prohibition.

Nevertheless, the American Medical Association, through its own Council on Health and Public Instruction, did hold a conference in early 1922 during which a uniform state narcotic control law was presented. At the November meeting of that conference, there were present 15 representatives of 10 pharmaceutical organizations and two representatives of the medical profession.

The draft of a uniform law was approved unanimously by all present. The American Medical Association set out to codify the draft and to send it for approval to each of the constituent organizations (White, August 3, 1932; Woodward, August 6, 1932). After securing approval, all the associations agreed to pursue enactment first in New York.

The general lack of uniformity in anti-narcotics legislation, the weakness of state enforcement procedures, and the growing hysteria about dope fiends and criminality converged in several requests outside the medical community for a uniform state narcotic law (Anslinger and Tompkins, 1953: 159).

The drafting of the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act must also be viewed against the background of two larger movements: (1) the trend toward the creation and dissemination of uniform state laws by the National Commissioners on Uniform State laws, a group to which each state sent two representatives appointed by the governor; and (2) the general concern in the late 1920's and early 1930's with interstate crime, manifested , for example, by the creation in 1930 of the nearly autonomous Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because the concept of states' rights and narrowly construed federal power was then so powerful, an appeal to the National Commissioners was the inevitable recourse for those pressing for uniform anti-narcotic regulation.

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