ACLU’s “Marijuana: Time for a Conversation”
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In colonial times, marijuana was cultivated for rope, canvas, paper, soap,
oil and other goods. Until the early 20th century, marijuana was known
in the United States either as “hemp,” the English term describing this
fi brous plant, 20 or “cannabis,” its botanical name. It was included in
the U.S. pharmacopoeia in 1870, prescribed by American doctors and
dispensed by American pharmacies. “Mariguana” or “marihuana” was
the Mexican slang name for the plant, one that American journalists and
politicians began using in the early 1900s when they wanted to denigrate
the use of the plant by Mexican immigrants.
A. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
The first anti-marijuana laws passed in the United States were enacted
between 1915 and 1933 in the western states, where prejudice against
Mexican newcomers was common. As authors Richard Bonnie and
Charles Whitebread noted,
Whether motivated by outright ethnic prejudice or by simple
discriminatory lack of interest, the proceedings before each
legislature resembled those in Texas and New Mexico in
1923. There was little if any public attention and no debate.
Pointed references were made to the drug’s Mexican origins,
and sometimes to the criminal conduct which inevitably
followed when Mexicans used the “killer weed.”
During these years, newspapers throughout the country began printing
inflammatory and often racist accounts of marijuana’s effect on its users.
For example, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver reported that marijuana
was “used almost exclusively . . . by the Mexican population employed in the
beet fields,” and several Hearst newspapers published an editorial claiming
that “the insidious and insanity producing marihuana has become among
the worst of the narcotic banes, invading even the school houses of the
country . . .”
Against this backdrop of growing hysteria, Harry J. Anslinger, a federal
alcohol prohibition offi cial, was appointed commissioner of the new
Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) created in 1930.26 Anslinger lobbied
state legislatures to adopt both the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act and
an optional provision making marijuana illegal. He initially had little
success with lawmakers, who did not want to assume the expense of
enforcing the act. So, in late 1934, Anslinger and the FBN jumped on
the “marijuana menace” bandwagon, harnessing and contributing to
the media’s anti-marijuana propaganda and tales of “reefer madness.” By
1937 the FBN had succeeded in convincing half the states to adopt the
version of the act that included marijuana prohibition.
Ironically, Anslinger’s anti-marijuana campaign may have worked too
well. He was hesitant about introducing federal legislation that would
ban marijuana outright due to concerns about its constitutionality.
But his campaign against marijuana had taken on a life of its own.
In 1935, members of Congress introduced a pair of bills proposing a
federal prohibition on the shipment and transportation of cannabis in
interstate or foreign commerce and requested the Treasury Department’s
position. Responding to the pressure for federal action, the Treasury
announced no objection to such legislation! The bills did not pass in
that session, but the stage was set for a national law.
In 1937, the Treasury Department itself proposed H.R. 6385 – the
Marihuana Tax Act. Rather than directly prohibit marijuana, the Act
created a “prohibitive tax”: all manufacturers, importers, dealers and
practitioners were required to register and pay a special occupational tax
that, theoretically, would allow them to distribute marijuana to users.
However, these transfers were subject to a massive $100 per ounce tax,
making any legal exchange financially impossible.
The lone dissenting voice was the American Medical Association. The
AMA opposed the bill on the grounds that there was no research or
factual basis for a federal ban and the ultimate effect would be to inhibit
any research into the medical uses of marijuana. The association’s
position was ignored, and in June 1937 – without scientific evidence
– Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, establishing the nationwide
prohibition of marijuana that still exists today.
B. The LaGuardia Report
The following year, concerned by the widespread propaganda about
the dangers of marijuana, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia
requested the advice of the New York Academy of Medicine. At the
academy’s recommendation, Mayor LaGuardia appointed a committee
of 31 scientists to conduct a thorough study of the effects of marijuana
Six years later, the results were released in the LaGuardia Report. The
committee had found that marijuana was “not the determining factor in
the commission of major crimes” and that “juvenile delinquency [was]
not associated with the practice of smoking marijuana.”
Anslinger was furious and used his media connections and political
ties to discredit the report and its authors. Marijuana prohibition
C. The Shafer Commission
Another challenge to the laws arose after Anslinger’s retirement. In
1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which reduced
simple possession of all drugs, including marijuana, to a misdemeanor
under federal law and created the National Commission on Marihuana
and Drug Abuse. One of its assignments was to conduct a yearlong,
authoritative study of marijuana.
The commission was commonly referred to as the Shafer Commission
in honor of its chair, former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer.
It was a bipartisan body with 13 members, nine appointed by President
Nixon and four by Congress. Advocates for marijuana law reform
sharply criticized Nixon’s appointees for being “out of touch,” politically
predisposed to the status quo and unlikely to have an open mind on the
President Nixon had no qualms about attempting to influence its
deliberations. At a press conference six weeks after the commission began
its work, he made the following statement to a reporter:
As you know, there is a Commission that is supposed to
make recommendations to me about this subject, and in
this instance, however, I have such strong views that I will
express them. I am against legalizing marihuana. Even if the
Commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not
follow that recommendation.
Despite Nixon’s apparent stacking of the deck, when the commission
issued its report, Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, in
March 1972, it made some unexpected findings. The commission
recommended that marijuana be decriminalized at both the state and
* Possession of marihuana in private for personal use
would no longer be an offense; and
* Distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no
remuneration, or insignifi cant remuneration not
involving profi t would no longer be an offense.
President Nixon was not pleased. Just as Harry J. Anslinger had buried
the LaGuardia Report, Nixon consigned the Shafer Commission’s report
to the library bookshelves. Neither he nor Congress took any action to
implement its recommendations.
D. State laws
Although the Nixon Administration ignored the Shafer Commission
recommendations, 12 states took action, passing marijuana
decriminalization laws in the 1970s:
Nevada decriminalized marijuana possession in 2001, and Massachusetts
decriminalized in 2008. According to the most recent population
estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, states where marijuana is
decriminalized represent over 35% of our nation’s population. These
states have substantially reduced the social costs associated with the
enforcement of marijuana prohibition, while experiencing little or
no impact on rates of use by their residents, according to research
by Eric Single of the University of Toronto’s Department of Public
Health Sciences. In other words, decriminalization has benefited the
individuals and communities in those states, without any accompanying
( source )