Schaffer Online Library of Drug Policy

Sign the Resolution
Contents | Feedback | Search
DRCNet Home
| Join DRCNet
DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library

Historical References
Marijuana, the First 12,000 Years

Marijuana - The First Twelve Thousand Years

Outlawing Marijuana

On August 12, 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created as an independent unit in the Treasury Department and Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the bureau's first commissioner of narcotics by President Hoover.

During its earliest years, the bureau's primary concern was violation of the Harrison Act. Although mounting attention was being directed at the marihuana issue in the southwest, Anslinger felt that the problem was relatively negligible. The only people using marihuana to any great extent were the Mexicans and it was only from local law enforcement officers that the bureau heard any complaints. Policing the traffic in narcotics left little time to worry about the use of marihuana by some Mexicans. Yet by 1937 Anslinger was able to persuade Congress to adopt draconian federal antimarihuana legislation. There have been many explanations for this dramatic turn of events, none of them satisfactory. But one thing is certain. Without Harry Anslinger, the marihuana maelstrom might have been just a passing breeze.

Harry J. Anslinger

Although Anslinger has been accused of single-handedly manufacturing the marihuana problem in the United States, much of what he did was the result of a sincere conviction that drugs such as marihuana did pose a danger to the country. Few people ever doubted his sincerity or his devotion to the office of commissioner of narcotics when he spoke out against drugs. He was, however, not above exploiting controversial issues to achieve what he felt was in the best interest of the American people and the bureau which he headed.

When Anslinger assumed the position of Bureau of Narcotics chief, he was already a hard-liner on drug abuse. For example, in dealing with violation of the Prohibition Act which outlawed only the sale, manufacture, and transportation of liquor for sale, but not its purchase, Anslinger contended that if it were up to him, the law would be changed so that buyers would also be subject to punishment. And no small punishment at that. For a first-time conviction he thought that a jail term of not less than six months and a fine of not less than $1000 was appropriate. A second violation, he felt, deserved imprisonment for two to five years and a fine of $5000 to $50,000.

Had Anslinger had his way there might have been many more Americans in jail. It was Anslinger's opinion, an opinion that he later carried over to his new post as commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, that the only way to force the public to obey the liquor and drug laws was to impose stiff penalties on those who broke these laws. While his suggestions for heavy fines and imprisonment were never endorsed in the case of buyers of alcoholic beverages, they were accepted in dealing with violation of the narcotics and later the marihuana laws which did make consumers liable for their actions.

Anslinger developed this hard-line attitude toward drug users during his youth and early career in the Treasury Department. Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1892, he spent his early years attending school and working summers for the Pennsylvania Railroad as an assistant to the railway police. He says that he first became alerted to the evils of narcotics when a friend of his, a choirboy, "died from smoking opium." [1]

In 1917, after the United States entered World War I, Anslinger became an ordinance officer in the War Department supervising government contracts. Unhappy with this domestic duty, he applied to the State Department for overseas assignment and was sent to Holland as attaché in the American legation.

After the war, he remained in the foreign service until 1926, serving as consul in Hamburg, Germany; La Guaira, Venezuela; and Nassau, Bahamas. It was as consul in this latter post that the Treasury Department first took notice of him for it was through his efforts that England agreed to keep a fleet of rumrunners from heading out to the high seas and eventually carrying their cargoes to the United States. For helping to plug this hole in the smuggling side of Prohibition, he was appointed to the Treasury Department's Prohibition Unit. Three years later, in 1929, he became assistant commissioner of Prohibition.

In 1930, Anslinger's career was given a major boost as a result of a scandal that toppled many of the bureau's key figures. A number of agents attached to the New York office of the Narcotics Division of the Prohibition Bureau had been caught padding their arrest records to make themselves look better, and all hell broke loose. A grand jury investigation found that these agents had been falsifying arrest records on orders from Assistant Deputy Commissioner William Blanchard. Blanchard in turn incriminated Deputy Commissioner L. G. Nutt. It was the grand jury's finding that these actions had been carried out to hide a dismal arrest record which it attributed to probable collusion between federal narcotics agents and drug distributors.

Not long thereafter, Congress stripped control over narcotics from the scandal-torn Prohibition Unit and created an entirely new department, the Bureau of Narcotics, under the auspices of the Treasury Department with Harry Anslinger as its first commissioner.

When Anslinger took command of the Bureau of Narcotics, he inherited a philosophy of law enforcement regarding narcotics that he could willingly endorse, namely that "strong laws, good enforcement , [and] stiff sentences" were the bureau's best weapons in the fight to eradicate addiction. It was a philosophy that would characterize the bureau's attitude toward drug issues for years to come.

While Anslinger was undoubtedly a dedicated and conscientious public servant who worked hard and long at combating what he felt was a national and international menace, he was above all an astute and 'calculating bureaucrat. It was because of his astuteness that he was initially cool to those who pressured him to join the fight against marihuana.

For one thing, past experience enforcing Prohibition and the Harrison Act had taught him that the federal courts had limited jurisdiction in prosecuting alcohol- and drug-related offenses. They could not, for instance, prosecute buyers of alcohol. Such prosecution could only be handled at the state level. Similarly, although the intention of the Harrison Act had been to curtail the unsanctioned use of narcotic drugs, the law was basically a taxing measure. The law did not prohibit possession.

A second reason for Anslinger's initial reluctance to join in an antimarihuana campaign on a federal level was that there was no federal law under which marihuana offenses could be prosecuted. The Harrison Act did not apply since it encompased only drugs not grown in the United States such as opium.

A third reason may have been Anslinger's realization, even in the early 1930s, that it would take far more men than the bureau could spare to enforce any laws against marihuana. Until some way could be found to get around those administrative problems, Anslinger had second thoughts about putting the bureau's weight behind any antimarihuana measures:

A great deal of public interest has been aroused by newspaper articles appearing from time to time on the evils of the abuse of marihuana, or Indian hemp, and more attention has been focused upon specific cases reported of the abuse of the drug than would otherwise have been the case. This publicity tends to magnify the extent of the evil and lends color to an influence that there is an alarming spread of the improper use of the drug, whereas the actual increase in such use may not have been inordinately large. [2]

This communiqué was issued in 1932. Later that same year, Anslinger began to reassess his stand on the marihuana issue, not because of any change of mind regarding the drug's alleged menace, but because the Bureau of Narcotics was in danger of floundering.

The Bureau Joins the Fight

Deep in the throes of the Depression, Congress began to examine budgetary requirements from all federal agencies, and the Bureau of Narcotics was no exception. Requests for even small amounts of money had to be supported with documentation of the need for such spending. The bureau's budget was cut by $200,000, the number of agents on the payroll was reduced, and Anslinger began to fear that the bureau itself was in danger of emasculation. [3] To maintain its virility, Anslinger had to prove that there was a new drug menace threatening the country, one that required immediate federal attention, one that the Bureau of Narcotics could deal with if only its hands were not tied. To prove the reality of the menace, Anslinger was prepared to spare no effort or guile.

A great believer in the force of public opinion, Anslinger reverted to the type of media campaign that had proven so successful when the Narcotics Division sought to expand in 1915 - he began to supply information to organizations like the WCTU, community service clubs, and the popular press concerning alleged atrocities committed by people under the influence of marihuana. The bureau made no secret of this publicity campaign:

Articles were prepared in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, at the request of a number of organizations dealing with this general subject [uniform state drug laws] for publication by such organizations in magazines and newspapers. An intelligent and sympathetic public interest, helpful to the administration of the narcotic laws has been aroused and maintained. [4]

Whereas only two such articles appeared in the American popular press between 1920 and 1929, after 1930 they began to appear on the market in a steady stream. Among the titles appearing on the newstands were: "Youth Gone Loco" (Christian Century), "Marihuana: Assassin of Youth" (American Magazine), "Uncle Sam Fights a New Drug Menace - Marihuana" (Popular Science Monthly), "One More Peril for Youth" (Forum), "Sex Crazing Drug Menace" (Physical Culture), "The Menace of Marihuana" (American Mercury), "Tea for a Viper" (New Yorker), and "Exposing the Marihuana Drug Evil in Swing Bands" (Radio Stars). Although most of these articles appeared after enactment of federal antimarihuana legislation, most of them drew their information from the files of the Bureau of Narcotics just before Anslinger prepared his assault on Capitol Hill. [5]

Typical of the lurid sensationalistic prose in which Anslinger wrapped his message is the following excerpt from an article written for American Magazine in 1937 by Anslinger himself:

The sprawled body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk the other day after a plunge from the fifth story of a Chicago apartment house. Everyone called it suicide but actually it was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marihuana, and history as hashish. It is a narcotic used in the form of cigarettes, comparatively new to the United States and as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake. [6]

This was typical of the bureau's "educational campaign describing the drug, its identification, and its evil effects...." [7]

Meanwhile, Anslinger began to urge that marihuana be included in the Uniform State Narcotic Act that was making the rounds of various state legislatures. This law gave each state the power to arrest addicts for possession of outlawed drugs, and in so doing effectively closed the loophole that undermined the Harrison Act. Had it not been or Anslinger's campaign against marihuana, few of the states adopting the act would have included marihuana in its provisions. For example, by 1935 only three states out of the twelve that had adopted it included marihuana in its list of proscribed drugs. This was well before Anslinger's machine was operating at maximum efficiency. By 1936, all eighteen of the states that adopted the act that year included marihuana.

Yet, far from being whipped into a panic over the "killer drug," most Americans seemed totally unconcerned or aware that there was a drug menace threatening the country. Many congressmen likewise were ignorant of the bureau's efforts to arouse the nation over marihuana, and Anslinger felt that he had to do something else to capture their attention.

Looking back over the way in which the Opium and Harrison Acts had come into being, Anslinger realized that one way to pressure Congress into moving against marihuana was to embarrass the nation's lawmakers. By making the United States a party to international restrictions on the drug, it would be placed in the position of agreeing to international sanctions without having domestic sanctions. Once the United States became a signatory to an international treaty, Anslinger felt that Congress would have to adopt federal antimarihuana legislation despite opposition on constitutional grounds to any law restricting cannabis on the basis of current federal tax or interstate laws. Once the U.S. was party to an international drug agreement, Anslinger suggested that the Treasury could overcome constitutional opposition by citing the precedent of the Migratory Bird Act, a law that had been declared constitutional even though it called for overstepping state police powers because it was part of an international treaty with Canada and Mexico, as a way of overriding any opposition. [8]

To that end, Anslinger traveled to Geneva in 1936 to attend the Conference for the Suppression of Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs. As one of the American delegates to the conference, he urged the other members to include control of cannabis in any drug treaty that they, as representatives of their respective governments, might adopt. The other delegates refused to agree to such a request since a subcommittee charged with looking into the cannabis question indicated that not enough was known about the physiological, psychological, or psychopathic effects, addictive properties, or cannabis's relation to crime, to warrant any such proposal.

Anslinger left Geneva despondent, refusing to sign any of the resolutions adopted by the convention because no provisions had been adopted for punishment of "illegal cultivation and gathering of cannabis" and because the provisions that had been adopted were "inadequate as far as cannabis was concerned." [9]

"I Believe It Is A Narcotic Of Some Kind"

Alter consultation with Anslinger, the Treasury Department began to prepare its case to Congress for outlawing marihuana. The hearings were set for the spring of 1937. In January of that year, Anslinger met with the department's legal and medical experts to review how the case would be presented.

Typical of the kind of evidence the department was going to depend on is a question put to Anslinger by one of the department's lawyers: "Have you lots of cases on this? - Horror stories, that's what we want." [10]

Horror stories were Anslinger's strong suit. He had files and files of them. There would be no problem along those lines, he assured the legal staff. Then, as if to belie all that he himself had written on the marihuana issue, Anslinger turned to the department's drug authority, Dr. Carl Voegtlin, and asked in all sincerity whether the doctor thought that marihuana really did produce insanity! [11]

The actual hearings took place in late April and early May of that year. As presented to Congress, the antimarihuana bill stipulated that all handlers of cannabis had to be registered and pay a special occupational tax. Written forms had to be submitted and filed for every transaction involving cannabis, and payment of a transfer tax of one dollar per ounce had to be paid each time the drug was delivered to an authorized recipient.

The bill was introduced by Clinton M. Hester, the Treasury Department's assistant general counsel. Hester told the House Committee on Ways and Means that the Treasury Department had taken it upon itself to call for federal laws against marihuana after a two-year study by the Bureau of Narcotics revealed that the drug was "being used extensively by high school children in cigarettes." "Its effect," he told the House committee, "is deadly." [12]

No estimates of how many Americans were using marihuana were ever discussed. No qualified experts were summoned to support the bureau's claim either that children were using marihuana, that marihuana was causing Americans to commit crimes, or that marihuana "deadly."

What the committee did hear was excerpts from newspapers and magazines describing the dangers of the drug: "The leading newspapers of the United States have recognized the seriousness of this problem and many of them have advocated Federal legislation to control the traffic in marihuana." [13] What the committee did not know was that the bureau had supplied many of the gruesome stories upon which the newspapers based their appeal for something to be done.

The other main piece of evidence to be introduced was Eugene Stanley's article "Marihuana as a Developer of Criminals." [14] No reference was made to any of the studies carried out in the Canal Zone which contradicted everything Stanley or Anslinger said about marihuana.

The committee heard from Dr. James Munch, a pharmacologist who had been giving marihuana to dogs. Asked if the drug altered the personality of dogs, the pharmacologist answered with an unqualified "yes. So far as I can tell, not being a dog psychologist." [15]

The Treasury Department's medical witness was none other than Commissioner Harry Anslinger, who offered his own medical opinion of the dangers of marihuana, an opinion that was liberally spiked with a historically inaccurate rendering of the hoary legend of the Assassins. After the Treasury Department presented its case it was time to hear from the other side.

According to the provisions of the bill, industrial uses of the plant were to be protected from interference by defining the term "marihuana" to exclude the mature stalk and its compounds or manufactures. This provision had been included to appease the rope and cordage industry. Seeds, however, had not been excluded from the definition of marihuana, even though there was a recognized industrial use for them in producing oil for the paint and varnish industries. The reason for not excluding marihuana seeds was that they contained minute amounts of the intoxicating substance produced by the plant.

The failure to exclude marihuana seeds from the law brought a cry of protest not only from the paint and varnish makers but also from the birdseed industry, which used millions of pounds of cannabis seed a year as bird food. The birdseed representative appeared almost too late to present his case, explaining that the birdseed industry had only just realized that marihuana was another name for the hemp plant! When asked whether the seeds had the same effect in pigeons as in humans, the birdseed spokesman replied that he had never noticed any special effect. "It has a tendency to bring back the feathers, and improve the birds," he told the committee. [16]

So as not to ruin the birdseed industry, the provisions of the bill were changed. Marihuana seeds would be excluded from the definition of marihuana, provided that they were sterilized, a process that would ensure that they could not be used to grow new plants.

More serious opposition came from the medical profession. Dr. William Woodward, the legislative council for the AMA, challenged the Treasury Department on all fronts:

We are told that the use of marihuana causes crime. But as yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of persons addicted to marihuana. An informal inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no information to this point. You have been told that school children are great users of marihuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children's Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children. Inquiry into the Office of Education, and they certainly should know something of the prevalence of the habit among school children of this country, if there is a prevalent habit, indicates that they had not occasion to investigate it and know nothing of it. [17]

The danger, Woodward insisted, was only in the minds of the Bureau of Narcotics. There was no evidence to believe that marihuana posed any danger to the country. Although he assumed that there must be some basis to all the furor over marihuana in the press, Woodward asked why the facts upon which these statements had been made had not been introduced as firsthand testimony. Since when, he wanted to know, did press coverage constitute anything more than hearsay.

The AMA was not even aware that an antimarihuana law was being prepared by the bureau. "During the past 2 years," he told the committee, "I have visited the Bureau of Narcotics probably 10 or more times. Unfortunately, I had no knowledge that such a bill as this was proposed until after it had been introduced." [18]

Had he been aware of such an event, no doubt Woodward would have been able to call upon expert testimony from witnesses such as Drs. Bromberg and Siler whose studies did not support the bureau's allegations. "We cannot understand yet, Mr. Chairman," Woodward said, "why this bill should have been prepared in secret for 2 years without any intimation even to the profession, that it was being prepared."

The answer, of course, was that the bureau did not want any opposition. By bringing it up without any prior warning, it forced the opposition to prepare a last-minute case.

The AMA, however, objected to the marihuana law not because of any liberal attitude toward the drug or its users (Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, had sanctioned publication of an article in Hygeia which claimed that marihuana was an inciter of sex crimes, murder, and insanity [19]), but for other reasons. Enforcement of the Harrison Act and Prohibition had led to a certain amount of annoyance and outright harassment of physicians. Many doctors felt that these laws were an infringement of their right to treat their patients as they saw fit. Even though the number of prescriptions for cannabis was minimal and the tax was only one dollar an ounce, the AMA remembered the difficulties doctors had faced in connection with other drug laws and therefore it opposed any further infringements of like nature on the medical profession.

At the time Woodward appeared before the committee, the AMA was not one of Congress's favorite institutions. Many of the committee's members were still upset at the AMA's successful fight to block health insurance from being included in the Social Security Act [20] and they were not in any mood to consider further interference from the AMA, regardless of how much merit there was to Woodward's statement. "If you want to advise us on legislation," Woodward was told, "you ought to come here with some constructive proposals, rather than criticism, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the Federal Government is trying to do."

Soon after the hearings were over, the bill came to a vote in the House of Representatives. Just before the vote was taken, a short exchange took place showing that Congress was not even aware of what the drug marihuana was, although they were being asked to outlaw its use:

Mr. Snell: What is the bill?
Mr.Raybur: It has something to do with something that is called marihuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind. [21]

The House passed the bill and sent it on to the Senate. It was slightly amended by the Senate and sent back to the House which passed it without even a roll call. There was virtually no debate. President Roosevelt's signing of the bill into law merited only a scant three and a half lines in the New York Times on August 3, 1937: "President Roosevelt signed today a bill to curb traffic in the narcotic, marihuana, through heavy taxes on transactions."

References and Notes


Library Highlights

Drug Information Articles

Drug Rehab