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 26

Like its predecessor, the 1915 cannabis law received no attention at the time.109 Later it would be recorded by drug historians - incorrectly - as the state's first anti-cannabis law.110 No doubt the 1913 law was overlooked because it was an amendment to the obscure paraphernalia law. Moreover, of course, the cannabis problem was itself still obscure, so much so that even its original discoverer soon forgot about it when, in a 1917 lecture, Finger declared that the only difference between the Harrison Act and California's pharmacy law was that the latter also restricted chloral hydrate - forgetting entirely about cannabis indica!111

In sum, it appears that cannabis-using Hindoos and Mexicans were merely a handy excuse for the Board to work its will. In the political climate of the era, no further excuse was needed. The early 1910s marked the high tide of progressivism in California, when public opinion supported government regulation of social purity. The same decade saw the culmination of the alcohol prohibition movement, which secured passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. Although Californians were resistant to “bone-dry” prohibition, many of them, including Finger and his colleagues in the pharmacy profession, favoring wine and beer as healthful "temperance" beverages,112 there was broad agreement on the evils of hard liquor and intoxication in general. 113 In 1914 and 1916, prohibition initiatives made the state ballot. Meanwhile, the legislature was tackling such morals issues as prostitution, racetrack gambling, prizefighting, and liquor zoning, not to mention oral sex.114 Amidst this profusion of vices, Indian hemp was but a minor afterthought.

The First Marijuana Busts

Although passage of the law attracted no notice, the Board’s enforcement efforts soon brought marijuana to public attention in Los Angeles, where the

109 The Sacramento Bee briefly noted that a bill was passed "making more difficult the obtainment of drugs or narcotics by fiends" (March 24, 1915, p.5). The San Francisco Examiner (March 24) and Los Angeles Examiner (March 25) mentioned only the bill's more controversial provisions concerning the sale of paregoric and corrosive sublimate of mercury.

110 The 1915 date is given by Morgan, op. cit.; Bonnie & Whitebread, The Marihuana Conviction: A History of Marihuana Prohibition in the United States (University of Virginia, Charlottesville 1974) p. 354; Ron Hamowy, Dealing With Drugs (Lexington Books, Lexington MA 1987) pp. 10-11; and California Attorney General Evelle Younger, "The Development of California's Drug Law: An Historical Perspective," Journal of Drug Issues 8(3): 263-70 (Summer 1978). A likely source of the error is the Surgeon General's report, "State Laws Relating to the Control of Narcotic Drugs and the Treatment of Drug Addiction," Supplement #91 to the Public Health Reports (1931), p. 48.

111 H.J. Finger, "Law and Pharmacy," The Pacific Pharmacist 11: 30 (May 1917).

112 Like many of his colleagues in the California pharmacy profession, Finger was of German parentage, an ethnic group that opposed prohibition of beer and wine. Thus the Pacific Pharmacist, edited by Albert Schneider, condemned the saloon but judged wine to be a "wholly ethical business": Pacific Pharmacist 8:71 (Aug. 1914).

113 On the politics of alcohol prohibition in California, see Gilman M. Ostrander, The Prohibition Movement in California, 1848-1933 (University of California, Berkeley 1957).

114 Franklin Hichborn chronicled the proceedings of the Progressive era legislatures, including that of 1913, with some attention to alcohol and morals issues, but never mentioned narcotics: Story of The California Legislature 1909; 1911; 1913; 1915 (James H. Barry Co., San Francisco, 1909-15).

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