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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*


Despite the public opinion campaign conducted in the early 1930's the general public was largely unaware of the drug, its use, or its alleged effects; only regional interest was aroused.

A change seems to have occurred after 1935. The increased national awareness played a significant role in the decision of the Treasury Department to seek federal legislation. On April 14, 1937, the "Secretary of the Treasury, on behalf of the Commissioner of Narcotics," submitted the "administration proposal to Congress to impose an excise and transfer tax on dealings in marihuana" (Schaller, 1970: 70).

The scheme of the Marihuana Tax Act was threefold: a requirement that all manufacturers, importers, dealers, and practitioners register and pay a special occupational tax; a requirement that all transactions be accomplished through use of written order forms; and the imposition of a tax on all transfers in the amount of $1 per ounce for transfer to registered persons and a prohibitive $100 per ounce for transfers to unregistered persons.

The key departure of the marihuana tax scheme from that of the Harrison Act is the notion of the prohibitive tax. Under the Harrison Act, a person not required to register, that is, a non-medical user, could not legitimately buy or possess narcotics. To the dissenters in the Supreme Court decisions upholding the Act, this clearly demonstrated that Congress' motive was to prohibit conduct rather than to raise revenue.

The seemingly bizarre legal formulation of this tax measure was precipitated by the recognized need for the Federal Government to take action forbidden to it under prevailing constitutional doctrine.

Hearings on the proposed marihuana taxation were held before the House Ways and Means Committee. During five mornings of testimony by FBN officials, government witnesses, and industry representatives, the Bureau presented the following four-fold argument: (1) marihuana was a disastrous drug; (2) its use was increasing alarmingly and had generated public hysteria; (3) state legislation was incapable of meeting the threat posed by the drug, thus, federal action was required; and (4) the government might best act through separate legislation rather than through an amendment to the Harrison Act.

No definite scientific study of the effects of marihuana was presented to substantiate the position that marihuana was a dangerous drug. No synthesis of available scientific information was submitted nor was there any statement by the Public Health Service. Neither of the government's own public health experts, Assistant Surgeon General, Dr. Walter Treadway, and Dr. Lawrence Kolb, testified, nor did Drs. Walter Bromberg or J. F. Siler who had recently published scientific articles on the effects of cannabis in humans (Siler, et. al., 1933: 269-280; Bromberg, 1934).

Instead, the scientific aspects were presented by a law enforcement agency, the FBN:

Despite the fact that medical men and scientists have disagreed upon the properties of marihuana, and some are inclined to minimize the harmfulness of this drug, the records offer ample evidence that it has a disastrous effect upon many of its users. Recently we have received many reports showing crimes of violence committed by persons while under the influence of marihuana.

The deleterious, even vicious, qualities of the drug render it highly dangerous to the mind and body upon which it operates to destroy the will, cause one to lose the power of connected thought, producing imaginary delectable situations and gradually weakening the physical powers. Its use frequently leads to insanity.

I have a statement here, giving an outline of cases reported to the Bureau or in the press, wherein the use of marihuana is connected with revolting crimes (U.S. Congress, 1937: 30).

Instead of having one of the few researchers who had done any significant research into the effects of cannabis on humans, the Bureau chose a Temple University pharmacologist, Dr. James Munch, whose experience was confined to experimentation of the effects of cannabis on dogs.

The second component of the Bureau's case was the contention that marihuana use had spread alarmingly in recent years, provoking a public outcry. To demonstrate this, the Bureau submitted, for the record, the Gomila article cited earlier, and a 1936 letter from the city editor of the Alamoosa Daily Courier (U.S. Congress, 1937: 32-37). The letter described an attack by a Mexican-American, allegedly under the influence of marihuana, on a girl of his region.:

I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish speaking persons most of whom are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions (Baskette, September 4, 1936).

The third component of the Bureau's case was that even though every state now had marihuana legislation, local authorities could not cope with the marihuana menace. To support this proposition editorial pleas from the Washington newspapers were offered along with Bureau testimony that officials of several states had requested federal help.

Senator Brown asked Commissioner Anslinger "to make clear the need for Federal legislation." He continued:

You say the states have asked you to do that. I presume it is because of the freedom of interstate traffic that the states require the legislation.

Anslinger agreed:

[W]e have had requests from the states to step in because they claimed it was not growing in that state, but that it was coming in from another state (U.S. Congress, 1937:16).

Nothing was presented to support that statement; no letters from local authorities and no investigative reports by FBN agents describing the trafficking apparatus.

The congressmen and senators participating in the hearings accepted the Bureau's argument. In fact, Senator Brown, Chairman of the subcommittee which considered the legislation in the Senate, and Chairman Doughton of the Ways and Means Committee, had been thoroughly briefed by the Bureau in advance of the hearings. There was no probing of the Government witnesses. In fact, the Government made its case in the House in one session, and the next three sessions were devoted to countering the technical objections of the oilseed, birdseed, and hemp industries (U.S. Congress, 1937:59-65 67-86 .

On the last morning of scheduled hearings, Dr. William C. Woodward appeared on behalf of the AMA to oppose the bill. Dr. Woodward objected to H.R. 6385 because he believed that its ultimate effect would be to so restrict medical use by red tape that any medical use would be impossible. He admitted that there were currently few therapeutic applications but he observed that the bill inhibited further research which might bear fruit. He went even further to imply that the bill was designed with this objective in mind. He noted that if federal legislation was considered necessary, it could be achieved without sacrificing medical usage by simply amending the Harrison Act.

Dr. Woodward's most pointed attack was directed against the assumption that federal legislation was needed to control the marihuana habit. He argued that existing state legislation was more than sufficient if properly enforced and that if lack of coordination was the problem, that was the FBN's fault.

Noting that the FBN already had the authority to "arrange for the exchange of information concerning the use and abuse of narcotic drugs in [the] states and for cooperation in the institution and prosecution of suits . . .," he asserted that the Bureau had not done its job:

If there is at the present time any weakness in our state laws relating to cannabis or to marihuana, a fair share of the blame, if not all of it, rests on the Secretary of the Treasury and his assistants who have had this duty imposed upon them for 6 and more years (U.S. Congress, 1937: 93).

Dr. Woodward also contended that the law would be a useless expense to the medical profession and unenforcible. He noted: "Since marihuana grows so freely, and every landowner was a potential producer, whether wittingly or unwittingly, full enforcement would require inspection of the entire land area of the country, a task which would be unseemly for the Federal Government to undertake" (U.S. Congress, 1937: 94-95).

Finally, Dr. Woodward wondered why, if federal legislation was considered necessary, the Congress did not simply amend the Harrison Act. To the Bureau's argument that such a course would be unconstitutional, he inquired how Treasury's counsel could argue that the present bill was constitutional since the technique was identical. Dr. Woodward's own view was that the amendment of the Harrison Act would be constitutional and that such a course would dispel the professional objections which he raised (U.S. Congress, 1937:97).

After accusing Dr. Woodward of obstructionism, evasiveness, and bad faith, the Committee did not even thank him for his testimony (U.S. Congress, 1937: 121). When the Senate Finance Committee conducted hearings on the bill, now styled H.R. 6906, two months later, Dr. Woodward submitted instead a short letter which stated the AMA's reasons for opposing the bill (U.S. Congress, 1937: 33-34).

Both Committees reported the bill favorably despite Woodward's objections. The Ways and Means Report stated:

Under the influence of this drug the will is destroyed and all power of directing and controlling thought is lost. Inhibitions are released. As a result of these effects, it appeared from testimony produced at the hearings that many violent crimes have been and are being committed by persons under the influence of the drug Not only is marihuana used by hardened criminals to steel them to commit violent crimes, but it is also being placed in the hands of high-school children in the form of marihuana cigarettes by unscrupulous peddlers. Cases were cited at the hearings of school children who have been driven to crime and insanity through the use of the drug. Its continued use results many times in impotency and insanity (U.S. Congress, 1937: 1-2).

The Marihuana Tax Act passed the House of Representatives very late in the afternoon of a long session on June 14, 1937; the only opposition came from congressmen who had no idea what marihuana was and desired further information before voting (Congressional Record, 1937: 5575, 5689). Instead of a detailed analysis they received a statement of one of the members of the Ways and Means Committee, which repeated uncritically the lurid criminal acts attributed to marihuana users at the hearings. After less than two pages of debate, the Act passed without a roll call (Congressional Record, 1937: 5575).

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