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 34

sentiment, Finger’s letter about “Hindoos” notwithstanding. The Hindus’ hemp use was never widely known, but was merely an excuse for Finger to act on his own prohibitionist instincts. Had the Hindus come to California in 1895, their cannabis use would have stirred up no more reaction than did the Syrians.’

What had changed in 1913 was the emergence of a new class of professional public policy bureaucrats with the authority and will to regulate drugs in California. This class, represented by Henry Finger and the State Board of Pharmacy, came to power with the Progressive Era revolution in government. Prompted by temperance sentiment and the rise of the worldwide anti-narcotics movement, the Board enlisted the legislature in a policy of narcotics prohibition in 1907. The inclusion of cannabis was but a logical extension based on prohibitionist principles. As argued by Patricia Morgan, "The first mention of cannabis in the California statutes should not be seen as moral reform, but rather as an example of professional reform policy tied to the overall ideology of the Progressive Era."160

The 1913 law was essentially a pre-emptive law, aimed at preventing what was still a negligible problem. It also happened to coincide with the introduction of “marihuana” from Mexico caused by the revolution and resulting immigration to Southern California. Yet even without the Mexicans, the Board would likely have proceeded to outlaw Indian hemp anyway, just like Massachusetts, Maine, Indiana, and Wyoming. Anticipatory regulation of this sort is a common feature of the modern era, as noted by sociologist Edwin Lemert nearly fifty years ago. Lemert observed that 23 California communities “had trailer camp ordinances without, however, having any trailer camps to regulate.”161 Similarly, today, numerous California towns and cities have passed ordinances to regulate (or prevent) non-existent medical cannabis clubs.162 Lemert attributed such phenomena to the power of administrative elites to anticipate and define problems and recommend solutions. Henry Finger was a charter member of this elite, starting from the very first years of the State Board of Pharmacy.

The technocratic rationale for anti-cannabis legislation had been aptly laid out for Finger by Hamilton Wright, who argued that cannabis might become popular once opium was suppressed. As it turned out, Wright’s prediction was prescient: cannabis did increase in popularity, eventually far surpassing opium. Wright’s prescription proved less successful. What had begun as an idle preventative project became mired in prohibitionist futility. From 1913 to date, the population of Californians using cannabis has swollen from a tiny minority to several millions. In the same period, the state has incurred over 2,670,000 marijuana arrests, 1,240,000 of them felonies.163 Historically, it seems significant

Even then, neither anti-Mexican groups nor investigators concerned with Mexican labor and crime problems ever mentioned their use of marihuana: Patricia Morgan, op. cit., pp. 73-91.

160 Morgan, op. cit., p. 77 (like other commentators, Morgan mistakenly dates the first law to 1915).

161 Edwin M. Lemert, “Is There a Natural History of Social Problems?” American Sociological Review , 16:221(1951) (thanks to Jim Baumohl for bringing this article to my attention).

162 Including Atascadero, Concord, Martinez, San Rafael, Novato and Palo Alto, among others.

163 Based on arrest data 1960-2010 from the Bureau of Criminal Statistics, California Department of Justice, compiled by Michael Aldrich and Jerry Mandel, and by Dale Gieringer for California NORML (Press Release, August 2, 1998).

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