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 32

however, after the agency’s budget crisis was over, Walker’s views on marijuana changed, and he came to oppose the proposed federal Marihuana Tax Act, probably out of concern over its unenforceability. 153

By and large, California was unfazed by the famous reefer madness campaign of the later 1930s. The state having already outlawed the drug, the push for a federal law received little notice. U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics Harry Anslinger singled out California for having exemplary narcotics laws which needed no amendment.154 In 1937, the state did add cannabis cultivation as a separate offense. In the next legislature for the first time the word “marihuana” was written into the law when the narcotics code was rewritten as part of the new Health and Safety Code.155

Not until 1940 did the state finally publish a brief pamphlet, “Marihuana: Our Newest Narcotic Menace.” 156 It reported, among other items:

Up to about ten years ago...this dangerous drug was virtually unknown in the United States... an excitant drug. It attacks the central nervous system and violently affects the mentality and the five physical senses...

Marihuana has no therapeutic or medicinal value that can not better be replaced by other drugs. It serves no legitimate purposes whatsoever...

In 1937, the state confiscated 2,926,802 grains [418 lb.], enough for 300,000 cigarettes...

Fortunately marihuana is not habit forming to the extent that other drugs are... [W]hen deprived of his drug...the marihuana user will at most feel a mere hankering or craving much like the user of tobacco or alcohol. Considering the dangers involved, there can be no excuse for using or peddling marihuana: anyone guilty of either should be brought promptly to the most severe punishment provided by law.

After taking a back seat to the war, anti-narcotics efforts revived in the 1950s. Penalties for marijuana possession were hiked to a minimum 1 - 10 years in prison in 1954, and sale was made punishable by 5 - 15 years with a mandatory 3 years before eligibility for parole. Two prior felonies raised the maximum sentences for both offenses to life.

None of this did anything to prevent a surge of marijuana use in the late 1950s. Arrests for marijuana soared from 140 in 1935 to 5,155 per year in 1960. Over the next decade, the trend exploded into a mass phenomenon, propelled by the sixties counterculture. By 1974, arrests had skyrocketed to a record 103,097, almost all of them felonies. Overwhelmed by the law enforcement costs, the legislature passed the Moscone Act in 1975, eliminating prison sentences for minor marijuana offenders. Arrests promptly plummeted to about half their

153 Jim Baumohl, “‘Now We Won’t Call It Lobbying,” op. cit., and personal communication July 14, 1998.

154 H.J. Anslinger, “The National Narcotic Situation,” in the Report on Drug Addiction in California by the [State] Senate Interim Narcotic Committee (Sacramento, 1936), pp. 16-17.

155 Statutes of California, 1939 Chapter 60.

156 “Marihuana: Our Newest Narcotic Menace,” Division of Narcotic Enforcement, Sacramento 1940. Walker was out of office by the time this pamphlet was written.

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