The Roots of Pot Prohibition: an excerpt from “Marijuana is Safer”

The following is an excerpt from Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano, and Mason Tvert. It has been adapted for the Web.

Why is it that our state and federal laws embrace alcohol—a drug that is a known cause of a frightening array of adverse health effects and behaviors— while criminalizing the use of marijuana, which is seldom associated with such problems?”

Good question. After all, it wasn’t always like this. Throughout most of America’s history, marijuana and alcohol were both legal. In 1920, the federal government decided to outlaw booze, yet members of Congress had yet to enact any legal restrictions on the consumption of cannabis. However, by the 1930s the political climate had changed dramatically. In 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, repealing alcohol prohibition. Yet just four years later, on August 2, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act into law, ushering in a new form of prohibition—one that remains with us to this day.

So what the hell happened?

The Tide Turns

For the first three hundred years of our nation’s history American farmers cultivated cannabis—then known exclusively as either “hemp” or “Indian hemp”—for its cordage fiber content. Some historians believe that colonists harvested America’s first hemp crop in 1611 near Jamestown, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, The British Crown ordered settlers to engage in wide-scale hemp farming1—a practice that continued in earnest up until the turn of the twentieth century. Even into the early part of the 1900s, the United States Department of Agriculture extolled the virtues of hemp as a high-yield, low-maintenance crop.2 At that time, Americans no more considered the plant to be a recreational drug than someone today would label corn or soy an intoxicant. Domestically grown cannabis possessed very little THC content and was not consumed recreationally. In fact, the term marijuana was not yet a part of the American lexicon.

In addition to its industrial uses, much of the public was also familiar with the plant’s utility as a medicine. While practicing in India in the early 1800s, Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy first began documenting the medical uses of cannabis, which he later introduced into Western medicine in 1839. By the 1850s, the preparation of oral cannabis extracts became available in U.S. pharmacies, where they remained a staple for the next sixty years.3 Typically these products were marketed under the plant’s alternative botanical name, cannabis indica. (Unlike industrial varieties of the crop that were grown domestically, pharmaceutical supplies of cannabis were often imported from other countries, like India.4) Despite the drug’s widespread availability as a medicine, reported recreational abuses of cannabis were virtually nonexistent in the literature of that time. In fact, during Congressional hearings leading up to the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914—the nation’s first federal antidrug act—witnesses argued against prohibiting cannabis, stating that “as a habit forming drug its use is almost nil.”5 Congress heeded their advice and excluded marijuana from the statute.

By the early 1920s, however, public and political acceptance of cannabis had changed significantly. The plant’s popularity as both a commercial crop and folk remedy was on the wane, as competing commercial products like cotton-based textiles and opiate-based medications began to gain a wider share of the market. At the same time, newspapers and law enforcement personnel, primarily in the American Southwest, began reporting on the use of a new, highly dangerous “narcotic” called marijuana (or as it was typically spelled then, marihuana). From the papers’ and police officers’ salacious accounts of the drug’s purported effects, it’s unlikely that most Americans had any idea that the so-called “loco weed” and cannabis hemp were actually one and the same.

The Rise of “Reefer Madness”

Aside from infrequent accounts of hash smoking by East Indian and Lebanese immigrants, there is little, if any, evidence that the recreational use of marijuana had any cultural foothold in America prior to the influx of Mexican laborers in the early 1900s.6 However, the Mexicans’ custom of smoking the flowering tops of the female plant almost immediately drew concern from public officials and law enforcement—who alleged that inhaling the drug empowered users with “superhuman strength and turned them into bloodthirsty murderers.”7

As early as 1913, a handful of cities and states in the American south began prohibiting the use of marijuana, and by the early 1920s, numerous western states—including California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming—had outlawed possessing pot.8 In many of these states, the public rationale for this crackdown was as racially motivated as it was transparent: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff (referring to marijuana) is what makes them crazy.”9 Other regions of the country followed suit—including many states that had virtually no Mexican immigrant population and virtually no reported incidents of marijuana use to speak of—arguing that legislation was necessary to preemptively stop the spread of “the Devil’s Weed” before it reached their borders.

By the late 1920s, lurid newspaper headlines and editorials promoting the alleged dangers of marijuana began sweeping the nation. This excerpt, taken from a July 6, 1927, New York Times story, epitomizes the content and tone of much of the reporting of this era:

Mexican Family Go Insane

Five Said To Have Been Stricken By Eating Marihuana

A widow and her four children have been driven insane by eating the Marihuana plant, according to doctors, who say there is no hope of saving the children’s lives and that the mother will be insane for the rest of her life.

. . . Two hours after the mother and children had eaten the plants, they were stricken. Neighbors, hearing outbursts of crazed laughter, rushed to the house to find the entire family insane. Examination revealed that the narcotic marihuana was growing among the garden vegetables.10

The public’s concern over the supposed marijuana menace grew, and in 1930 Congress responded by establishing the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Selected to head this new agency was a “law and order” evangelist named Harry J. Anslinger. For the next three decades, Anslinger would single-handedly dictate U.S. drug policy. Many of his highly sensationalized views on weed linger in the public mind to this day.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, Anslinger and the FBN launched an unprecedented (for the time) media campaign warning Americans of the alleged perils of pot. By this time, the drug’s use was not only popular among Mexican immigrants, but it had also become vogue among certain segments of the African American community, most notably southern jazz musicians. The Bureau warned that smoking marijuana inspired blacks and Hispanics to commit rape and engage in other acts of uninhibited violence. “His sex desires are aroused and some of the most horrible crimes result,” one widely disseminated FBN news bulletin reported. “He hears light and sees sound. To get away from it, he suddenly becomes violent and may kill.”11 Seizing upon many white Americans’ preexisting racial prejudices, Anslinger often emphasized that these alleged acts of violence were primarily directed toward Caucasian women.

Anslinger further claimed that Mexican “dope peddlers” frequently offered free samples of marijuana cigarettes to children on their way home from school. “Parents beware! Your children . . . are being introduced to a new danger in the form of a drugged cigarette, marijuana,” Anslinger warned in a prominent FBN radio address. “Young [people] are slaves to the narcotic, continuing addiction until they deteriorate mentally, become insane, [and] turn to violent crime and murder.”12

Possessing a flair for the theatrical, Anslinger bragged about keeping a “gore file” consisting of outrageous, unsubstantiated, and sometimes fraudulent newspaper stories that detailed pot’s supposedly mind-altering and behavioral effects. One such account read, “While under the influence of the drug, the subject thrust his hand through his hair, and found that his fingers passed through his crackling skull and into his warm, cheesy brain.”13

Predictably, Anslinger’s and the FBN’s antipot diatribes fueled national headlines and prompted legislative action. By 1935, most states in the country had enacted laws criminalizing the possession and use of pot, and newspaper editors were frequently opining in favor of stiffer and stiffer penalties for marijuana users. As Anslinger’s rhetoric became prominent, he found additional allies who were willing to carry his crusading message to the general public. Among these were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Hearst newspaper chain—the latter of which luridly editorialized against the “insidious and insanity producing marihuana” in papers across the country.14

Members of state and local law enforcement also joined the FBN’s antimarijuana crusade. Writing in The Journal of Criminology, Wichita, Kansas, police officer L. E. Bowery asserted that the cannabis user is capable of “great feats of strength and endurance, during which no fatigue is felt.” Bowery’s overwrought screed, which for years thereafter would be hailed by advocates of prohibition as the definitive “study” of the drug, concluded: “Sexual desires are stimulated and may lead to unnatural acts, such as indecent exposure and rape. . . . [Marijuana use] ends in the destruction of brain tissues and nerve centers, and does irreparable damage. If continued, the inevitable result is insanity, which those familiar with it describe as absolutely incurable, and, without exception ending in death.”15

The Marihuana Tax Act

By 1937, Congress—which had resisted efforts to clamp down on the drug some two decades earlier—was poised to act, and act quickly, to enact blanket federal prohibition. Ironically, by this time virtually every state had already ratified laws against cannabis possession. Nonetheless, local authorities argued that the marijuana threat was so great that federal intervention was also necessary.

On April 14, 1937, Representative Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced House Bill 6385, which sought to stamp out the recreational use of marijuana by imposing a prohibitive tax on the drug. The measure was the brainchild of the U.S. Treasury Department, and mandated a $100 per ounce tax on the transfer of cannabis to members of the general public. Interestingly, a separate antimarijuana measure introduced that same year sought to directly outlaw possession and use of the drug. However, this proposal was assumed at that time to have been beyond the constitutional authority of Congress.

Members of Congress held only two hearings to debate the merits of Doughton’s bill. The federal government’s chief witness, Harry

Anslinger, told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that “traffic in marijuana is increasing to such an extent that it has come to be the cause for the greatest national concern. . . . This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”16 Other witnesses included a pair of veterinarians who testified that dogs were particularly susceptible to marijuana’s effects. “Over a period of six months or a year (of exposure to marijuana), . . . the animal must be discarded because it is no longer serviceable,” one doctor testified.17 This would be the extent of “scientific” testimony presented to the committee.

The American Medical Association (AMA) represented the most vocal opposition against the bill. Speaking before Congress, the AMA’s legislative counsel Dr. William C. Woodward challenged the legitimacy of the alleged “Demon Weed.”

We are told that the use of marijuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit. An informal inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.

You have been told that school children are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children. Inquiry of the Children’s Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and know nothing particularly of it.

. . . Moreover, there is the Treasury Department itself, the Public Health Service. . . . Informal inquiry by me indicates that they have no record of any marijuana or cannabis addicts.18

Woodward further argued that the proposed legislation would severely hamper physicians’ ability to utilize marijuana’s therapeutic potential. While acknowledging that the drug’s popularity as a prescription medicine had declined, Woodward nonetheless warned that the Marihuana Tax Act “loses sight of the fact that future investigations may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.”19

Woodward’s criticisms of the bill’s intent—as well as his questions regarding whether such legislation was objectively justifiable—drew a stern rebuke from the chairman of the committee. “If you want to advise us on legislation, you ought to come here with some constructive proposals, rather than criticism, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the federal government is trying to do,” the AMA’s counsel was told. “Is not the fact that you were not consulted your real objection to this bill?”20

Despite the AMA’s protests, the House Ways and Means Committee approved House Bill 6385. House members even went so far as to elevate Anslinger’s propaganda to Congressional findings of fact, stating: “Under the influence of this drug the will is destroyed and all power directing and controlling thought is lost. . . . [M]any violent crimes have been and are being committed by persons under the influence of this drug. . . . [S]chool children . . . have been driven to crime and insanity through the use of this drug. Its continued use results many times in impotency and insanity.”21

Anslinger made similar horrific pronouncements before members of the Senate, which spent even less time debating the measure than did the House. By June, less than three months after the bill’s introduction, the House of Representatives voted affirmatively to pass the proposal, which was described by one congressman as having “something to do with something that is called marijuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.”22

Weeks later, after the Senate had approved its version of the bill, the House was asked to vote once again on the measure. Prior to the House’s final vote, one representative asked whether the American Medical Association had endorsed the proposal, to which a member of the Ways and Means Committee falsely replied that the

AMA’s “Dr. Wharton [sic]” had given the measure his full support.23 Following this brief exchange of inaccurate information, Congress gave its final approval of the Marihuana Tax Act without a recorded vote.

President Franklin Roosevelt promptly signed the legislation into law. The Marihuana Tax Act officially took effect on October 1, 1937—thus setting in motion the federal government’s foray into the criminal enforcement of marijuana laws that continues to this day.


  1. Lester Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered, 2nd ed. (Oakland, Cal.: Quick American Archives, 1994).
  2. United States Department of Agriculture, Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: USDA, 1913).
  3. Dale Gieringer, The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California, rev. ed. (San Francisco: NORML, 2006),
  4. Ibid.
  5. David Musto, “History of the Marihuana Tax Act,” Archives of General Psychiatry 26 (1972): 101–8.
  6. Ron Mann, Grass: The Paged Experience (Toronto: Warwick Publishing, 2001).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Gieringer, The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California, 35.
  9. Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States (New York: The Lindesmith Center, 1999).
  10. As cited in Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin’s/Griffin, 1998).
  11. Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered, 17.
  12. Grass: The Movie, directed by Ronn Mann, 2000.
  13. Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 60.
  14. Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 100–101.
  15. As cited by Rowan Robinson, The Great Book of Hemp: The Complete Guide to the Environmental, Commercial, and Medicinal Uses of the World’s Most Extraordinary Plant (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1995), 147.
  16. Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 66.
  17. Ibid., 68.
  18. Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 165–66.
  19. Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 76.
  20. Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 172.
  21. Ibid., 172–73.
  22. Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana, 80.
  23. Bonnie and Whitebread, The Marijuana Conviction, 174.

(Source: Chelsea Green)


Businesses Should Stay on Marijuana’s Good Side

(Source: Huffungton Post)  A recent brouhaha between Starbucks Coffee and marijuana legalization advocates raises an important question for the broader business community: Can major national companies be successful absent the patronage of marijuana consumers and others who support marijuana policy reform?

Not too long ago, it was absolutely necessary for businesses to maintain an appearance of opposition to marijuana use and legalization. But the times they are a-changin’, and it is beginning to seem like many major companies are striving to maintain an appearance of NOT opposing marijuana use and legalization.

Late last month, Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) — the organization I run — called for a nationwide boycott of Starbucks Coffee after it and other companies appeared on the “sponsor” page of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association (CDIA), a shady group of law enforcement officials lobbying to wipe out the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana system and keep marijuana as illegal as possible. With a board of directors composed almost exclusively of narcotics agents, along with a website and merchandise decorated in a skull motif with images of the grim reaper, military helicopters, and the slogan “Death on Drugs,” it’s safe to say these guys are not so much concerned with public safety as they are with fighting — and maintaining — an endless war against marijuana and other drugs. After all, it provides them with job security, and marijuana enforcement is their bread and butter.

Word of the boycott spread quickly across the web, and with a boost from some traditional media coverage (including some in Starbucks’s hometown of Seattle) resulted in thousands of Americans contacting CEO Howard Schultz to let him know they would not be giving their business to his company until it did some explaining. Not long after, Starbucks issued a formal statement in which it distanced itself from the CDIA and assured the Starbucks faithful it does not support such anti-marijuana crusaders. Another business listed as a “sponsor” on CDIA’s website was The North Face, one of the leading producers of hiking and mountain sports equipment and apparel. After receiving messages from people swearing off their products, the company took action to ensure everyone knows they are not actually a sponsor of the CDIA and do not support the group’s mission. In light of all the bad publicity and these major companies disputing any tie to the CDIA, the organization removed its Web site entirely. Apparently they do not have quite the level of support from the business community that they were suggesting.

As the Seattle Weekly reported, there’s more to this story than meets the eye:

Starbucks was just one of many local and national companies whose logo was on CDIA’s website. (Also included: The North Face and Enterprise-Rent-a-Car.)…
But what Starbucks, or any of those other brands, did for CDIA isn’t really clear. According to Starbucks HQ, no money was involved. So most likely…the “sponsorship” CDIA bragged about probably came down to a couple free lattes handed out at one or two stores.

Either way, it’s nothing but a minor brew-ha-ha. But more evidence that we’ve now entered an (amazing) alternate dimension, where speaking out against pot actually gets you more bad PR than speaking out for it.

In the past, businesses faced with anti-marijuana publicity would either remain silent or speak out to assure the public they are opposed to marijuana use and its legalization. Yet the major companies mentioned above did not stay silent; instead, they took action to ensure the public knows they are NOT opposed.

In some sense, this was the case with Subway and several other companies that opted to stick with Michael Phelps after his bong hit heard ’round the world. In fact, Subway even seemed to work the situation into its marketing, incorporating the tag-line, “Be yourself,” into the Phelps commercials and launching a new Web site — “”. As for the one business that dropped him, the Kellogg Company, it found itself on the wrong end of a highly publicized nationwide boycott that drew more customers’ attention than its tainted peanut butter recall.

Indeed, it seems like more and more big businesses are beginning to realize the importance of staying on the good side of those who support marijuana reform. And rightly so. The latest polls are finding that a majority of Americans support treating marijuana like alcohol, and support is even greater on both highly populated U.S. coasts.

Moreover, this particular community happens to be one of the most vocal out there. When President Barack Obama solicited questions from the public for an on-line forum, the three most popular among the 3.5 million votes were related to marijuana legalization. And just last week, marijuana-related questions topped the list of those asked of the President for his on-line “CitizenTube” address.

Nevertheless, many companies are still towing the anti-marijuana line. YouTube is under fire for censoring those marijuana questions from the President’s address, and Chase Bank just sparked the ire of drug policy reform advocates when it completely cheated a national student-based organization out of a grant it legitimately won in the company’s on-line grant contest. Of course there are also the professional sports leagues and Olympic organizations that punish players for using marijuana (including last year’s National League Cy Young Award Winner, last year’s Super Bowl MVP, and of course the greatest Olympian in history).

But the fight rages on, and those vocal marijuana reform supporters do not seem to be tiring. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has called for a boycott of Chase Bank that has already convinced thousands of people to swear off using it, and organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) are pushing hard to ensure the blogosphere is aware of YouTube’s censorship.

Sooner or later, these companies will come to realize that they must respect the fact that marijuana consumers and supporters of reform are everywhere. And if they expect to keep their business, maintain their market-shares, and ensure healthy bottom lines, they must end their anti-marijuana madness.

After all, it’s not just those prime-time athletes who enjoy marijuana, but in many cases the fans… and the bank account holders… and the on-line video watchers… and the mountain climbers… and, of course, the coffee drinkers.


Starbucks No Longer on Medical Marijuana Advocates’ “Naughty” List

Editor’s note: While Starbucks may be off the marijuana advocate’s boycott, they should still be boycotted for their treatment of a 16 year old barista, using hard-ball tactics and her sexual history as a defense in court.

Kati Moore told her story to ABC News’ “20/20,” which aired a report on sex in the workplace Friday.  Watch partial coverage here.

Article Tab : Kati Moore of Orange County tells ABC News she felt pressured to have sex with her supervisor at Starbucks.
Kati Moore of Orange County tells ABC News she felt pressured to have sex with her supervisor at Starbucks.

Tim Horton, the supervisor, pleaded guilty to felony sex with a minor and was sentenced to 180 days in jail last February.

After Moore agreed to appear on the show, a federal judge unsealed records detailing her sexual history.

While Moore has a right to keep her sexual history private, Starbucks also has a right to “defend themselves in the court of public opinion,” Federal judge Andrew J. Guilford wrote in the order.

“They are trying to defend themselves by calling me a slut,” Moore told the program. (source)

Round 1 to SAFER – Starbucks/CDIA Update

(Source)  SAFER and supporters of marijuana policy reform have won Round 1 in the fight against the Arrest and Prosecution Industry and the companies that sponsor their efforts to keep marijuana illegal.

After being subjected to an action that resulted in thousands of e-mail messages and several unflattering news accounts, the Colorado Drug Investigators Association (CDIA) shut down its Web site entirely and many of its “sponsors” distanced themselves from the extremist anti-marijuana organization. Apparently this law enforcement group has far less support in the community than it had led people to believe on its Web site. Needless to say, we’re not surprised. We are, however, shocked that this group would list any company as a sponsor without receiving permission.

Starbucks, the largest “sponsor” listed and a primary target of SAFER’s call to action, released a public statement to ensure everyone knows it does NOT support the anti-marijuana group at the national level. Rather, the company said, “It is up to the discretion of our local teams to support those groups that are relevant in their neighborhoods.”

Although we feel Starbucks should develop a policy prohibiting its stores from lending support to these types of groups, and that it should be looking into groups like the CDIA who have used their logo without permission, SAFER is no longer calling for a nationwide boycott of Starbucks or these other companies.

Rather, we urge you and all supporters of marijuana reform to use YOUR “discretion” and decide for yourself whether you wish to give them your business. After all, no local store or company should be lending its support to such these extremist organizations lobbying to maintain Marijuana Prohibition so they can continue to arrest and prosecute people for marijuana. SAFER will continue to keep an eye out for stores or other companies that lend support to the Arrest and Prosecution Industry and shady groups like the CDIA, and we will be sure to keep everyone posted on how you can take action if the need should arise.

As the Seattle Weekly‘s blog put it:

“[This Starbucks boycott is] nothing but a minor brew-ha-ha. But more evidence that we’ve now entered an (amazing) alternate dimension, where speaking out against pot actually gets you more bad PR than speaking out for it.”

If you support SAFER’s efforts to expose these types of shady partnerships and take on these anti-marijuana groups, please help us continue to do so by visiting and making a donation today. If you contribute $25 or more you can receive any one of SAFER’s T-shirts or a copy of Marijuana Is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink? signed by coauthor and SAFER Executive Director Mason Tvert.


Alcohol and Tobacco Are More Harmful Than Many Illegal Drugs

Our happy hour fact to amaze your drinking buddies with.

Heroin and cocaine are the two most dangerous drugs; but alcohol and tobacco rate as riskier than most illegal substances.

(Source)  In what many drug experts feel is the most objective assessment of the relative danger of different illicit substances, British researchers rated 20 drugs on physical harm, risk of dependency and social costs. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows these things that both alcohol, which was fifth on the list, and tobacco, which was ninth, were judged to be more dangerous than marijuana.

What is a bit more surprising is that drugs with scary-sounding names and known traits, such as LSD and ecstasy, received lower overall scores than even pot with regards to how much harm they can cause.

With five of the nine most dangerous substances either available from your doctor or at your local convenience store, one can imagine that a properly targeted war on drugs would definitely shake things up.