Historically, marijuana drug laws are the product of a lack of knowledge, and what must either be described as propaganda or complete lunacy. Prior to the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, 27 states had passed laws against marijuana. Those states could be categorized into three groups: Southwestern, Northeastern and Utah.
Looking at the legislation, it's obvious the Southwestern states outlawed marijuana to control an undesired Mexican population. It wasn't marijuana that legislatures were fighting, it was its users; cheap Mexican labor was a problem. Congressmen rallied around statements such as, "All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] is what makes them crazy," and "Give one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona."
Northeastern states had entirely different reasons for the ban. According to a 1919 New York Times editorial, "No one here in New York uses this drug marijuana. We have only just heard about it from down in the Southwest, but we had better prohibit its use before it gets here. Otherwise all the heroin and hard narcotics addicts . and all the alcohol drinkers . will substitute this new and unknown drug marijuana."
Utah, however, enacted a marijuana law for its own reasons. When the Mormon Church decreed polygamy a mistake in 1910, those in disagreement fled to Mexico. Failing to establish settlement, the group returned to Utah in 1914 with marijuana. The Church, opposed to euphoriants of any kind, declared marijuana prohibited and wrote it, with other religious prohibitions, into the state's criminal law.
With 27 states prohibiting marijuana, it wasn't long until federal legislation tried to control this "growing problem." Not yet able to mandate criminal law, a common states' rights issue of the time, the legislation came in the form of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 moved through congress very quickly. The Congressional committee hearings lasted one hour each over two days. The hearings featured several testimonies: Harry Anslinger (the newly named Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics), industry spokesmen for rope, paint and birdseed, and medical testimony from Drs. James C. Munch and William C. Woodward.
Each argument can easily be paraphrased. Mr. Anslinger essentially said marijuana was a "national menace." The paint and rope spokesmen didn't care; they could use other resources. The birdseed spokesman claimed they absolutely needed marijuana seeds to produce shiny coats and to this day possess an exemption to use "denatured seeds."
Dr. Munch conducted an experiment, from which he couldn't draw a conclusion. Dr. Woodward, a representative of the American Medical Association, stated, "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug."
The bill went to the Congressional floor on Aug. 20, 1937. It was there for less than two minutes.
When asked what the bill concerned, the Speaker replied, "I don't know. It has something to do with a thing called marihuana. I think it's a narcotic of some kind."
When asked if the AMA supported the bill, one member of the committee replied, "They support this bill 100 percent." This was a lie, but the bill passed anyway.
It then cleared the Senate without debate, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law.
Afterward, Mr. Anslinger named Dr. Munch his expert witness, a position he held until 1962. During that time, Dr. Munch went on to repeatedly testify, "After two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned into a bat," and claimed that he flew around the room for 15 minutes before finding himself at the bottom of a 200-foot high ink well.
From that point on, when the public perceived an increase in drug use, the answer was new criminal law with harsher penalties in every offense category.
When the federal government discovered that organized crime was funded through illegal narcotics, even harsher penalties were enacted.
Through repetition of this pattern, drug penalties increased eightfold over 20 years. The war on drugs had begun.
Don't believe me? You can read all the original documents here: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/history/history.htm.
- Nick Panetta is the public relations director of UGA NORML.