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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*

STATE PROHIBITION: 1914-1930

Marihuana use was a familiar phenomenon in the border towns of Texas and New Mexico after 1910. First to note the use of the drug were El Paso law enforcement officials who quickly secured a local ordinance in 1914 banning sale and possession of the drug. El Paso officials and local representatives of the Customs and Agriculture Departments of the Federal Government agitated for state and federal legislation to combat the "killer weed."

After an official request by the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of the Treasury issued a decision under the Food and Drug Act prohibiting importation of cannabis after 1915 for other than medical purposes.

On the state level in Texas, legislation was slow in coming. Marihuana use was still a local problem in the 'border towns and it attracted little statewide interest. The Texas Legislature included marihuana when it passed a general narcotics statute in 1919, prohibiting transfer of listed narcotics except for medical purposes (Texas, 1919: 278). In 1923, the statute was tightened to prohibit possession with intent to sell (Texas, 1923: 156-157). The legislature's failure to prohibit simple possession or use reflected an objection to interfering with private conduct.

The degree of public interest in narcotics and marihuana is well-illustrated by the limited newspaper coverage. In its only direct reference to the 1923 marihuana legislation, the Austin Texas Statesman, which had given the legislature extensive coverage, stated:

The McMillan Senate Bill amended the anti-narcotic law so as to make unlawful the possession for the purpose of sale of marihuana or other drugs. Marihuana is a Mexican herb and is said to be sold on the Texas-Mexican border (Austin Texas Statesman, 1923).

Even more surprising is the fact that the El Paso Times did not mention the McMillan bill before or after its passage.

New Mexico in the same year prohibited sale, cultivation and importation of cannabis. Mere possession was not expressly prohibited but anyone found in possession was presumed to have imported the marihuana illegally (New Mexico, 1923: 58-59). The Santa Fe New Mexican, hometown newspaper of the bill's sponsors paid scant attention, noting only that:

The Santa Fe representative, however, had better luck with his bill to prevent sale of marihuana, cannabis indica, Indian hemp or hashish as it is variously known. This bill was passed without any opposition. Marihuana was brought into local prominence at the penitentiary board's investigation last summer when a convict testified he could get marihuana cigarettes anytime he had a dollar. The drug produces intoxication when chewed or smoked. Marihuana is the name commonly used in the Southwest and Mexico (Santa Fe New Mexican, 1923).

In addition to coming in via Mexico, marihuana was being smuggled in by sailors from Cuba and other points in the Indies via New Orleans. Dr. Frank Gomila, Commissioner of Public Safety of New Orleans, began his campaign for federal legislation which would later bear fruit. He observed that the traffic was quite organized amounting to thousands of kilograms a year:

... [T]he custom was to keep [marihuana] In warehouses or storerooms for further distribution. It was sold by the wholesaler to the retailer who In turn put the 'weed' through a process known as 'sweating.' The dried leaves and stems were soaked in sugar water and dried on butcher's brown papers (Gomila and Lambow, 1938: 29).

According to Dr. Gomila and the newspapers, the demand in New Orleans in the mid-twenties was so great that the "peddlers" were able to become exceptionally prosperous by dividing the market. One had exclusive jurisdiction over the blacks unloading the fruit boats, another over the lobby in a certain hotel, and so forth. It should be noted that marihuana was also available at the local pharmacy without a prescription before 1923 in Texas and 1921 in Louisiana. After that marihuana had to be bought on the street unless the user could successfully forge a prescription.

Different pictures emerge, of the marihuana user in El Paso and San Antonio on the one hand and New Orleans and Galveston on the other. In the border towns, he was a Mexican laborer, indolent to some, volatile to others. Local authorities were, by and large, unable to generate any significant public or political interest, although there were no political objections to making the Mexican weed illegal.

In the port cities, however, the marihuana user was a "dope fiend," the basest element of American society. He was a narcotics addict, a pimp, or a gambler; she was a prostitute. In New Orleans, marihuana was simply another narcotic in a city with a major narcotic problem. It was always open to sensationalism.

Even before public attention was excited, however, the prevalence of marihuana use came to the attention of the President of the Louisiana State Board of Health, Dr. Oscar Dowling. On August 21, 1920, he advised the Governor of the increasing availability of marihuana, a "powerful narcotic, causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucinations, and its subsequent action, drowsiness and stupor. . ." (Jones, 1920).

At the same time, Dr. Dowling wrote to the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Hugh Cummings, to advise him of the increasing traffic in morphine, opium, and marihuana, and to seek federal cooperation.

An interesting sidelight of this request for assistance from Washington is that four months later Dr. Dowling was to become embroiled in a bitter battle with the Federal Government over an order to close his pet project, the New Orleans morphine clinics (Dowling, 1920). Ultimately he would lose, and one of the earliest attempts to deal with narcotics addiction would be suppressed for a half century (Lindesmith, 1967: 135-161).

Very little, however, was done about the marihuana issue until the press seized upon it. In the fall of 1926, the New Orleans Item dispatched an army of reporters among the smoking and selling population.

A series of articles published by the more widely circulated Morning Tribune (both the Item and the Tribune were owned by the same publishing company) exposed the immense profits being made and commented upon the volatile effects of the drug upon its "addicts." It was reported that marihuana:

Numbs the sense, creates wild fancies and has a hypnotic effect upon the user, making his will easily subordinated to that of others.

What emerged from these articles, however, was not a vision of addicts on the streets and pushers on the docks but rather peddlers who lurked on playgrounds seeking to entrap young minds. "Over two hundred children under fourteen are believed to be addicted to the marihuana habit," the paper reported, and "at least 44 schools were definitely being infected" (Gomila and Lambow, 1938: 29-31).

Local policy-makers wasted no time. The New Orleans Police Department immediately launched a round-up. They arrested more than 150 persons for violation of a law which had lain dormant for two years (Gomila and Lambow, 1938: 29-31; WCTIT, 1928).

Dr. Dowling soon circulated "a warning to parents, guardians, and teachers of children against this menace" (WCTIT, 1928: 1). The Women's Christian Temperance Union jumped on the bandwagon, focusing its attacks on the "soft drink" bars which had sprung up all over New Orleans during Prohibition:

The soft drink stand and the corner drug store have taken the place of the saloon as a social meeting place. Here is where marihuana and liquors can sometimes be bought (WCTU, 1928: 3).

Beyond these immediate effects, a more substantial impact of the local policy reaction in New Orleans was the formation of a tightly knit coterie of New Orleans law enforcement, public health, and social welfare officials who would carry their campaign to Washington, with ultimate success.

The drug and the practice of smoking it spread during the mid-twenties from the Gulf Coast and border town points-of-entry in two directions north and west from the border together with its ethnic identity and north and east from New Orleans with its identity as a narcotic and enslaver of youth.

Practically every state west of the Mississippi River prohibited the possession or sale of marihuana during the period 1915 to 1930. Most of them acted by 1930: California (1915), Iowa (1921), Nevada (1923), Washington (1923), Arkansas (1923), Nebraska, (1927), and Wyoming (1929).

The Bureau of Immigration records the entry of 590,765 Mexicans during this period, two-thirds of them remaining in Texas, the others settling in states in the Rocky Mountain area, most of them as farm laborers (U.S. Bureau of Immigration, 1915 to 1930).

Whether motivated by outright ethnic prejudice or by simple discriminatory disinterest, the proceedings before state legislatures resembled those in Texas in 1923. There was little, if any, public attention and no debate. Pointed references were made to the drug's Mexican origins and sometimes to the criminal conduct which inevitably followed when Mexicans ingested the "killer weed.,"

The Colorado Legislature first prohibited possession, cultivation and sale of the drug in 1927, the year after the use of marihuana noticeably increased (Colorado, 1927: 309). At that time., according to a subsequent newspaper report, the drug was " used almost exclusively . . . by the Mexican population employed in the beet fields" (Rocky Mountain News, 1931).

Similarly, in 1929, the Montana Legislature amended its general narcotic law to marihuana, prohibiting use, sale or possession without a prescription (Montana, 1929: 5). On seven different days from June 24 to February 10, the date of the bill's passage, the Montana Standard succinctly noted the progress of the bill through the legislature. The legislature's attitude was characterized in the January 27 issue:

There was fun in the House Health Committee during the week when the marihuana bill came up for consideration. Marihuana is Mexican opium, a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated for sale by Indians. "When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff," explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, "he thinks he has just been elected President of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his Political enemies. I understand that over in Butte where the mexicans often go for the winter they stage imaginary bullfights in the 'Bower of Roses' or put on tournaments for the favor of 'Spanish Rose' after a couple of whiffs of marihuana. The Silver Bow and Yellowstone delegations both deplore these international complications." Everybody laughed and the bill was recommended for passage (Montana Standard, 1929: 3).

About the same time, Mexican laborers bad begun to appear in Idaho and the mayor of Boise remarked:

'The Mexican beet field workers have introduced a new problem-the smoking in cigarettes or pipes of marihuana or grifo. its use is as demoralizing as the use of narcotics. Smoking grifo is quite prevalent along the Oregon Short Line Railroad; and Idaho has no law to cope with the use and spread of this dangerous drug (WCTU, 1928: 3).

Idaho passed a law in 1927 (Idaho, 1927: 98).

By 1931, the Texas Legislature finally got around to prohibiting possession of marihuana. By now alcohol prohibition had withdrawn any philosophical barrier to making possession illegal. The San Antonio Light reported that:

At last the state legislature has taken a definite step toward suppression of traffic in a dangerous and insanity-producing narcotic easily compounded of a weed (marihuana) indigenous to this section. This newspaper has urged the passage of prohibitory legislation and is gratified that the solons at Austin have acted, even if tardily, in the suppression of traffic in a drug which makes, the addict [read Mexican] frequently a dangerous or homicidal maniac (San Antonio Light, 1931).

In the East, appearance of the practice was not a necessary prerequisite for prohibition. That Maine (1913), Massachusetts (1914), Vermont (1915), and Rhode Island (1918) barred the sale of cannabis without a prescription before 1920 does not indicate that marihuana smoking had appeared there on any significant scale. Rather, in the course of anticipating and implementing the national anti-narcotics policy declared by the Harrison Act in 1914, medical representatives on the drafting committees recommended the inclusion of "another narcotic" to which addicts could resort once the other opiates became difficult to obtain.

The New York Times in 1914 described cannabis as a "narcotic [having] practically the same effect. as morphine and cocaine," (New York Times, 1914: 6) and it noted in an editorial that:

[T]he inclusion of cannabis indica among the drugs to be sold only on prescription is only common sense. Devotees of hashish are now hardly numerous enough here to count, but they are likely to increase as other narcotics become harder to obtain (New York Times, 1914: 8).

By 1923, the New York Times referred to marihuana as the city's "latest habit-forming drug" when reporting its exhibition at a Women's Club meeting (New York Times, 1923: 24). Finally, in 1927, whether responding to an increase in use or to the substitution admonition, the legislature included marihuana in its definition of "habit forming drugs" in a comprehensive narcotics bill (New York, 1927: 1695).

The situation in Chicago paralleled that in New York until 1927. Large Mexican communities developed in Chicago and Gary, Indiana, during the twenties and marihuana smoking became common in these areas and among journeymen musicians as well. As in New York, there was little public concern. The New Orleans pattern took over around 1927, however, when the attention of local law enforcement officials was suddenly drawn to the Mexicans and their "muggles." One law enforcement official reported that:

There are about 7,000 Mexicans in Gary, 10,000 in Indiana Harbor and 8,000 in South Chicago.... The Mexicans depend on the steel mills, railroads, and construction gangs for employment. Many are drifters when slack labor conditions prevail.... [T]wenty-five percent of these Mexicans smoke marihuana. In fact, many of them make their living by raising and peddling the drug (Paul, 1929: 4).

A situation perceived to be so widespread was naturally considered likely to infect the rest of the community. As in New Orleans, reports started to appear that high school students were smoking the weed (Paul, 1929: 1; Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1929).

Since there was then neither state nor federal legislation prohibiting sale of marihuana, the local United States attorney declared war armed with an Internal Revenue statute prohibiting production and transfer of "a cigarette substitute" on which tax had not been paid. In June 1929, he raided wholesale houses "believed to have disposed of large quantities of marihuana cigarettes, sold to school pupils and other youthful thrill seekers." He arrested nine men "most of them Mexicans" (Chicago Examiner, June 22, 1929). At the same time, local officials began to use a statute which prohibited transfer of "any cigarette containing any substance deleterious to health" (Chicago Examiner, June 19, 1929).

The Chicago Tribune, lobbying heavily for anti-marihuana legislation then pending before the Illinois Legislature, reported that day-to-day progress of the enforcement activity (Chicago Tribune, July and October, 1929). Every stall in the legislature earned a banner headline such as:

BAN ON HASHISH BLOCKED DESPITE RAVAGES OF DRUG

In an article appearing in June, 1929, the paper noted:

The number of addicts is growing alarmingly according to authorities, because of the ease with which [marihuana] can be obtained. The habit was introduced a dozen years ago by Mexican laborers . . . but it has become widespread among American youths and girls even among school children.

The legislation, however, was killed.

Marihuana prohibition had become widespread. In states where either Mexicans or the drug had appeared, its use was quickly suppressed.

Soon after being apprised of its presence, local lawmakers invoked the criminal law. In New Orleans, Denver, and Chicago the spectre of a doped school population was the cornerstone of the prohibitory effort.

And, during alcohol prohibition, paralleled by the local phase of marihuana prohibition, it was naturally imperative to suppress a drug which frustrated alcohol users might substitute, for their customary intoxicant.


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