The History of Americas Failed Efforts to Prohibit Marijuana use

This summer, the US will mark the 70th year of federal prohibition of marijuana. With the passage of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Stamp Act, the Cannabis plant joined heroin and morphine on the roster of “most dangerous substances” in America. It has stayed on that list ever since, and despite a national (if under-reported) debate on the merits of medical marijuana, and despite the billions of dollars that are spent each year enforcing laws against simple possession, sales, or distribution, the only path the federal government seems willing to take to address the problems around this drug is “stay the course.”

Like the failed American experiment in alcohol prohibition, the outlawing of marijuana had more to do with race and class oppression than with the prohibitionists’ ostensible goal of protecting the public health. While Protestant groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and others opposed alcohol use partially due to personal or religious conviction, the main thrust of that prohibition movement was directed at immigrants. Irish, Italian, and German Catholic immigrants, arriving in great numbers during the early decades of the last century, brought their drinking habits with them to a land that already had a significant drinking population. Fearing that these newcomers posed a threat to the status quo, native whites did everything in their power to dry out these foreigners. The 1919 passage of the federal Volstead Act was the culmination of their efforts.

Similarly, the war against marijuana arose out of ethnic prejudice. Mexican migrant workers, toiling in the beet fields of the American southwest, brought marijuana with them as they crossed the border. Local elites started passing laws against the immigrants’ intoxicant, laws based only on the impudence that Mexican laborers demonstrated to their overseers while stoned. Fictional anecdotes of Latinos who smoked marijuana and became violent influenced lawmakers unfamiliar with the drug, and beginning in the mid-1910s southwestern states started criminalizing the substance.

The seminal American port city of New Orleans quickly followed suit. West Indians, Cubans, and Jamaicans started entering the city, bringing weed with them. The drug soon became established in Storyville, the famous red-light neighborhood where prostitution was legalized by the city council in the late 1800s, and the birthplace of the music we call jazz.

Responding to warnings from a handful of medical professionals, the New Orleans city council passed its law against marijuana in May of 1923, criminalizing the possession or sale of the drug. Some of these professionals did this with full understanding that cannabis extract, derived from marijuana, was and had been a legal ingredient in many patent medicines of the time. Indeed, the US Pharmocopeia listed cannabis as a medically useful substance as late as 1942.

As happens in politics from time to time, these factual subtleties had no impact on the prohibition campaign. In 1926, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst launched a media blitz to further demonize the drug and vilify its users, using strategies that later came to be known as “yellow journalism.” The news baron had an ally in Harry J. Anslinger, prohibition officer turned drug czar, who was no amateur in creating anti-weed propaganda of his own.

Having lost many property holdings in Mexico after Pancho Villa led his revolutionary army to victory in that country, Hearst happily ordered his writers to fabricate or exaggerate crime stories in order to implicate weed, the Mexican’s intoxicant of choice. Hearst’s campaign met with success, as state after state began outlawing cannabis, and ultimately, the US Congress took action in 1937 to criminalize marijuana.

Now, seventy years later, marijuana prohibition is still going strong. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans are arrested for possession, sales, or distribution of marijuana, and billions of dollars are spent to arrest, try, and incarcerate offenders, disproportionately African-American or Latino.

Yet the demand for marijuana remains strong, and despite the fact that the nation’s top law enforcers routinely ignore them, state-level referendums to legalize pot for medical purposes are generally approved by voters. Marijuana prohibition is another example of the hysteria, racism, and hidden agendas that have always shaped America’s political culture, and sadly, that culture doesn’t appear to be doing anything different to truly deal with our nationwide epidemic of substance abuse.