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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previous level. Since then, they have continued at an average rate of about 18,000 felonies and 34,000 misdemeanors per year. As of December 31, 1997, the state prison system held a record 1,905 marijuana felons.157

Conclusion: Prohibition a Bureaucratic Initiative

Cannabis was outlawed in California not in response to any perceived public outcry, but as the result of a bureaucratic initiative by the State Board of Pharmacy. Unlike the prohibition of alcohol and opiates (and perhaps cocaine), the prohibition of cannabis was not accompanied by any widespread concern or awareness of problems surrounding its use. Prior to 1914, the recreational use of hemp drugs was largely unknown in California. Unlike the East Coast, California produced no known hashish literature, no medicinal cannabis research, no tales of hashish dens. Nor was there any public alarm concerning cannabis use. Ironically, it was only after cannabis was outlawed in 1913 that stories of marijuana began to appear in the press, when the first enforcement measures were taken in the Mexican community of Los Angeles. The entirety of the modern “marijuana problem” arose after cannabis was prohibited.

The origins of cannabis prohibition in California defy the traditional explanation of marihuana prohibition, as related in the story of the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Unlike its federal successor, the 1913 law had nothing to do with the “reefer madness” campaign, the propaganda of William Randolph Hearst or the bureaucratic machinations of Harry Anslinger. Still less was it due to a fanciful conspiracy of Hearst and Du Pont to suppress industrial hemp, as proposed by some modern-day hempsters. 158 Neither can it be blamed on anti-Mexican hysteria: prejudice against Mexicans was not a signficant factor in California politics until the 1920s, and even then their use of “marihuana” attracted no notice.159 Nor, finally, was the 1913 law due to anti-Oriental

157 California Department of Corrections, “Characteristics of Population in California State Prisons by Institution,” 1997.

158 This myth was widely popularized in the 1990 and subsequent editions of Jack Herer’s underground classic, The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy (ed. Chris Conrad, HEMP Publishing, Van Nuys, CA), in Chapter 4 “The Last Days of Legal Cannabis.” The story goes that Hearst and Du Pont conspired to suppress industrial hemp because it competed with their manufacturing interests (Hearst’s in wood-pulp- based paper, Du Pont’s in coal-and-oil-based plastics). Herer has never produced an iota of evidence to substantiate this theory. To the contrary, according to Hearst’s biographer, W.A. Swanberg, Hearst’s newspaper empire was heavily dependent on imports of Canadian newsprint, rising prices of which left him seriously strapped for cash by 1939. It therefore seems that it would actually have been in Hearst’s interest to promote cheap hemp paper substitutes, had that been a viable alternative. W.A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1961), pp. 581-2.

159 The thesis that opposition to marijuana was rooted in anti-Mexican sentiment is expounded by John Helmer in Drugs and Minority Oppression (Seabury Press, N.Y., 1975), Chapter 4, “Mexicans and Marijuana,” but Helmer focuses on the period of the late 1920s and 30s, after the first laws were passed. An upsurge in Mexican immigration hit California around 1914, but labor shortages kept Mexicans in demand as agricultural workers through World War I, and not until the 1920s did their numbers inspire significant anti-Mexican sentiment: Matt Meier and Feliciano Ribera, Mexican Americans/American Mexicans (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y., 1993), pp. 111-26.

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