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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Page 25

fact that the pharmacy journals never explained the 1913 law accurately indicates just how obscure the cannabis issue was. 104

How then did the cannabis law end up in Section 8 (a)? Perhaps it was just the result of a clerical error, the substitution of 8(a) for 8. Alternatively, the law may have been deliberately recast as a paraphernalia provision on the theory that hemp intoxicants, like opium pipes, were more closely associated with street users than with pharmacies. As we shall see, there is evidence that the Mexicans, like the Syrians, grew their own marijuana, and the Hindus, being agricultural workers, would no doubt have been similarly inclined. This being so, it might have seemed silly to list cannabis in Section 8, which was designed to restrict sales by pharmacies. After all, why force pharmacies to maintain detailed records of their cannabis transactions, when they weren’t the source of the problem? By placing hemp drugs in Section 8 (a), police could arrest errant hemp-heads, while leaving pharmacies free of unnecessary regulation.

In fact, though, there is evidence that pharmaceutical cannabis was occasionally diverted into recreational use in California. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of pharmacists along the Mexican border heard testimony that crude medicinal cannabis indica was sold to customers in Texas and other states, including California, for apparently non-medical purposes. 105

This loophole was eliminated in 1915, when California’s cannabis law was revised as part of a new package of technical amendments proposed by the Board of Pharmacy.106 The new law listed cannabis alongside opium, morphine, cocaine, and chloral hydrate in Section 8 of the Poison Law. Specifically, it forbade the sale or possession of "flowering tops and leaves, extracts, tinctures and other narcotic preparations of hemp or loco weed (Cannabis sativa), Indian hemp" except on prescription.107 Even though Section 8 permitted the possession of legally prescribed narcotics, the possession of hemp drugs other than corn remedies remained independently outlawed under the 1913 paraphernalia provision, which remained on the books until 1937. Thus hemp pharmaceuticals remained technically legal to sell, but not possess, on prescription! There are no grounds to believe that this prohibition was ever enforced, as hemp drugs continued to be prescribed in California for years to come.108

104 In an untypical journalistic error, the Pacific Drug Review 25(7):22 (July 1913) reported that the new law treated cannabis with "all provisions and penalties applying to it as now apply to the traffic in opium, morphine, cocaine, etc." The same error was repeated in the coverage of S.B. 630, an identical companion bill, by both the Pacific Drug Review 25(3):89 (March 1913) and the Drug Clerk’s Journal 2(5):12 (Feb. 1913).

105 1917 Report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Chemistry of investigations by R.F. Smith in the State of Texas, particularly along the Mexican border, of the traffic in and consumption of the drug known as "Indian Hemp," [photocopy from University of Virginia Law Library] pp. 12, 54, 73.

106 State Senate Bill 1120 (Crowley). The most controversial provisions in the bill concerned restrictions on the sale of paregoric and corrosive sublimate of mercury: San Francisco and Pacific Druggist 19(7): 17 (March 1915).

107 Statutes of California, Chapter 604 (1915).

108 Records from Wakelee's Pharmacy in San Francisco show 3 prescriptions containing cannabis among 300 prescriptions in November 1907, and 1 cannabis prescription among 300 in December 1917 (in the California Historical Society, San Francisco).

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