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
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Although marijuana prohibition is commonly supposed to have begun with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, cannabis had already been outlawed in many states before World War I during the first, Progressive Era wave of antinarcotics legislation. California, a national leader in the war on narcotics, was among the first states to act, in 1913. The tale of this long-forgotten law, predating the modern marijuana scene, casts light on the origins of twentiethcentury drug prohibition. The 1913 law received no attention from the press or the public. Instead, it was promulgated as an obscure amendment to the state Poison Law by the California Board of Pharmacy, which was then pioneering one of the nation's earliest, most aggressive anti-narcotics campaigns. 1

Inspired by anti-Chinese sentiment, California was a nationally recognized leader in the war on drugs. In 1875, San Francisco instituted the first known anti-narcotics law in the nation, an ordinance to suppress opium dens, which was adopted by the state legislature in 1881. In 1891, the State Board of Pharmacy was created to oversee the practice of pharmacy, including the sale of poisonous drugs. In 1907, seven years before the U.S. Congress restricted sale of narcotics by enacting the Harrison Act, the Board quietly engineered an amendment to California's poison laws so as to prohibit the sale of opium, morphine and cocaine except by a doctor's prescription. The Board followed up with an aggressive enforcement campaign, in which it pioneered many of the modern techniques of drug enforcement, employing undercover agents and informants posing as addicts, promoting antiparaphernalia laws and the criminalization of users, and flaunting its powers to the public with a series of well-publicized raids on dope-peddling pharmacists and Chinese opium dens.

Early History of Cannabis in California

Throughout this era, “marijuana” was unknown in California. As a fiber crop, it was familiar as hemp or cannabis sativa. As a drug, it was known to pharmacists by its alternative botanical name, cannabis indica (originally regarded as a different species). As an intoxicant, it was barely heard of, going by the name of hashish or Indian hemp, indulgence in which was an exotic vice of Asiatic foreigners and a handful of bohemians. "Marihuana," the Mexican name for the drug, was unknown in the state until the twentieth century. Prior to this the evidence for the use of hemp intoxicants in California is notably slim.2

1 The story of California’s early war on narcotics and the State Board of Pharmacy has been largely neglected. Partial accounts may be found in: Jim Baumohl, "The 'Dope Fiend's Paradise' Revisited: Notes from Research in Progress on Drug Law Enforcement in San Francisco, 1875- 1915," The Driving and Drug Practices Surveyor 24: 3-12, June 1992; Patricia Morgan, The Political Uses of Moral Reform: California and Federal Drug Policy, 1910-1960 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Univ. Cal. Santa Barbara, 1978); and Jerry Mandel, "Opening Shots in the War on Drugs," in Jefferson Fish, ed., How to Legalize Drugs (Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, N.J., 1998), pp. 212-58.

2 When this article was originally published in 1999, aside from a single story in the San Francisco Call (1895), the words “hashish,” “cannabis” and “Indian hemp” did not appear in any California newspaper or periodical index prior to 1914. The situation has improved with the

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