Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California

by Dale H. Gieringer
Early History Of Cannabis In California
The First Stirrings Of Cannabis Prohibition
The Advent of Marijuana
Conclusion: Prohibition a Bureaucratic Initiative
State & Local Marijuana Laws, Pre-1933
Previous Page Next Page

Page 17

except by a physician's prescription (1907). This laid the basis for California’s subsequent war on drugs. Immediately thereafter, the Board began dispatching agents from city to city, cajoling dope from unwitting pharmacists and arresting them. As the war heated up, the narcotic laws were expanded to prohibit possession as well as sales (1909), forbid refills and prescriptions to addicts (1909), and outlaw opium paraphernalia (1911). In a dramatic display of its powers, the Board made the front page of the San Francisco Examiner with a massive public bonfire of opium paraphernalia in the middle of Chinatown.66

Meanwhile, federal anti-narcotics efforts had been put in the hands of the brash and energetic Hamilton Wright, who was appointed by President Roosevelt to direct narcotic affairs from the State Department.67 In preparation for his task, Wright took it upon himself to conduct a nationwide survey of police, universities, pharmacies, boards of health, and other institutions concerning narcotics use.68 Among other things, Wright asked about cannabis. One of the surviving responses preserved in the National Archives is from the police department of San Francisco, which reported: "there has been only one case of the use of Indian hemp or hasheesh treated in the Emergency Hospitals in six years, and that was accidental"69 (presumably an overdose).

Although Wright found no public interest in cannabis in his survey, he nonetheless saw good reasons to have it included in the first draft of his proposed anti-narcotics bill, which would evolve into the Harrison Act.

In passing a Federal law that will prevent undesirable drugs, it will be necessary to look well into the future. I would not be at all surprised if, when we get rid of the opium danger, the chloral peril and the other now known drug evils, we shall encounter new ones. The habitués will feel that they must adopt something to take the place of the 'dope' they have lost through legal enactment. Hasheesh, of which we know very little in this country, will doubtless be adopted by many of the unfortunates if they can get it.70

With this in mind, Wright pressed to have cannabis included in the initial draft of national narcotics legislation along with cocaine and opiates. This proposal was ill received by the pharmaceutical manufacturers, who objected to the inclusion of a seemingly harmless ingredient of proprietary medicines.71

66 “Sad Chinatown Sees $20,000 Opium Bonfire: Mourners Gaze on Hissing Funeral Pyre,” San Francisco Examiner, May 10, 1912, p.1.

67 David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 1973), pp. 31-3.

68 Peter D. Lowes, The Origins of International Narcotics Control (Librairie Droze, Geneva 1966), p. 100.

69 Letter from Sgt. Arthur Layne to Capt. Thomas S. Duke, June 26, 1909, sent by the S.F. Chief of Police to Hamilton Wright in response to a letter of inquiry from the U.S. Opium Commission, in the National Archives, Record Group 43, Records of US Delegation to the International Opium Commission and Conferences of 1909-13 and Records of Hamilton Wright.

70 "Nations Uniting to Stamp Out the Use of Opium and Many Other Drugs," New York Times Magazine, July 25, 1909.

71 David Musto, "The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937," Archives of General Psychiatry 26: 101-8 (Feb. 1972).

Previous Page Next Page