originally published November 27, 2013
Children, pull up a spot o’ rug and pass the old man his USS Enterprise-shaped bong. I’d like to tell you a tale of corruption and weirdness, of cruel and unusual punishment and a nation that has only recently begun to peel back the charred scab of failed policy and misdirected prosecution.
Most committed connoisseurs of the cannabinical arts (you probably know them as ‘potheads’) will tell you that marijuana is illegal due to a conspiracy. Some will blame the alcohol industry, others point their finger at William Randolph Hearst. No doubt some will ascribe some sort of otherworldly shenanigans that extend as far up the ladder as FDR’s personal toenail buffer. The reality is more complex, but well worthy of your suspicion.
So let’s see if we can’t untangle this murky monkey’s fist and come up with some semblance of the truth, hopefully before I get distracted by that bag of Cheetos over there. The beginning of this tale takes us back to colonial times, back before the D.E.A., before the F.B.N., even before Willie Nelson.
King James I – you know, the guy whose stamp of A-OK approval is all over that Bible in your hotel room drawer – decreed via the Virginia Company that every colonist in the New World was to grow 100 hemp plants specifically for export to England. Hemp was used extensively for rope, blankets and Phish t-shirts all over the world at that time, but it was a savvy young Irishman named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy – whose research would eventually lead to the invention of intravenous therapy – who first came up with the idea to use cannabis sativa for medicinal purposes.
Once the genie was out of the water-pipe, once people found there were medical benefits to be had from smoking the stuff, word started to leak out about its side effects. Whatever the 19th century word for ‘groove-tastic’ might have been, cannabis was it. By the 1860s the first laws were in place to restrict the purchase of cannabis without a doctor’s note. This was a time when the pharmaceutical world was excruciatingly unregulated, and people could sell medicines without actually saying what they were.
According to an 1854 New York Times article, recreational dubage was considered to be a ‘fashionable narcotic’ along the east coast, along with tobacco and opium. It’s believed that as many as 500 hashish parlors peppered the streets of New York, offering a bit of variety for the denizens of the local opium dens. Hemp cigarettes were spotted among Mexican soldiers as early as 1874.
Around this time, if your doctor were to prescribe cannabis for whatever ailed you (possibly bad humors or an imbalance of your fire and earth elementals), the container would come labeled as ‘Poison’. That was standard pharmaceutical practice back then, and the only way some states in the nation was trying to protect its citizens from the dangers of medical goodies.
In 1906 the Pure Food And Drug Act was passed by Congress, attempting to limit the sale of all narcotics (including cannabis) to pharmacies. State laws came forward with more restrictions throughout the 1910’s, as America leaned closer and closer to the grand buzz-kill of a national prohibition policy. This was also (not coincidentally) roughly when the world of intoxicants was removed from the hands of the medical field and locked in the trunk of organized crime.
The passage of marijuana laws out west was more of a touchy subject. Many Mexicans enjoyed a mellowing doobie after a hard day of working in the fields, and with the proliferation of Mexicans streaming over the border to work on American farms, this became a matter of economics and race. Being anti-marijuana meant being pro-American (or pro-white-people) in the agricultural world.
Then came the Uniform State Narcotic Act, which took the seven years between 1925 and 1932 to roll out. This was how drugs became a federal matter and not up to a state’s particular leanings. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed up by professional party-quasher Harry J. Anslinger, began to focus its efforts on the evil weed. Anslinger claimed publically that marijuana caused people to commit violent acts and become overly sexual. Propaganda films like Reefer Madness showed up and were taken seriously by the naïve public. This is where the shadowy goop of conspiracy plops ominously onto the table.
The first seven years in the life of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was spent carving a questionable path toward the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. It’s important here to pause a moment for a little etymology break.
Before 1937, ‘marijuana’ was a slang term, believed to be of Mexican origin. Cannabis was the technical term for the plant that the pharmaceutical industry had been prescribing since Bill O’Shaughnessy’s day. The weird deformity of ‘marihuana’ was the official federal government spelling – perhaps they thought an unpronounced ‘j’ was a little too wild for an official government document. After the Act was passed, marijuana became the accepted official term for the drug.
But back to our conspiracy.
Some say the purpose of the Act was really to stomp down the hemp industry, courtesy of William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon and the Du Pont family. Hemp paper was becoming a low-cost thing, which threatened Hearst’s timber holdings. Du Pont had just invented nylon, which was in direct competition with hemp fabric, and Mellon, the richest man in the country, was an investor. Seems a little fishy? Well let’s also remember that Andrew Mellon was the Secretary of the Treasury and in a very powerful position to puff the winds in whatever direction he desired in Washington. Hearst also controlled a significant portion of the media, and would have had no problem spreading the ills of marijuana and hemp.
The American Medical Association went on record as being opposed to the Act, as it imposed a hefty tax on any physician who prescribed pot or any pharmacist who sold it.
And this was the thing – it was a tax law, not an outright criminalization of the drug. Instead they threw so many taxes and regulations on the stuff it was an impossible headache to overcome. If you were caught with a bag of shake and you hadn’t paid your $100-per-ounce special tax and registered under section 2 of the Act, you were breaking the law.
And if you wanted to register? Well, you’d be telling Uncle Sam that you planned on having pot in your possession. It was an invitation for investigation. Marijuana wasn’t technically illegal, but about as close as you could get.
I’ll continue this story later… I just overheard something from the TV next door… something about a two-for-one pizza sale. Priorities, y’know.