Cannabis: A Short Legal & Political History, Part Three

The Great Cannabis Swindle:

With the players all lined up, let’s take a deeper look into the continued demonizing of cannabis as a reflection of early 30’s racial fears. In 1935 the Treasury Department drafted new tax laws; the most significant of which would excise a dealer tax and a ‘transfer tax’. A ‘marihuana’ tax bill was introduced to the House Ways and Means Committee on April 14, 1937. To make this secretive was a problem noted by William G. Woodward, MD, a physician and an attorney for the American Medical Association.  Testifying against the prohibition of cannabis Woodward protested, “ We cannot understand. . . why this[marijuana] bill should have been prepared in secret for two years.”1 He and the AMA were quickly denounced by Anslinger and the committee. When asked later in the hearing if anyone had consulted with the AMA, one representative stated that the AMA had been in complete agreement with the ban.

Image result for house and means committee 1937 cannabis

Anyone working with cannabis—imported, manufactures, sellers, etc.— were required to register with the Secretary of the Treasury and pay the occupational tax. Robert L. Doughton, another key ally of the DuPonts, quickly rubber-stamped the secret bill, despite objections by the AMA. Nowadays, we look at this as foolish. However, what is of major importance here is not just that it happened, but by how easy it was to pass it without most of the country noticing. They were outlawing by taxation. The term ‘marihuana’ was a clever political tool. Doctors would stand and defend cannabis, but no one was lining up for a strange Mexican drug called ‘marihuana’ cigarettes. The bill passed with little objection—as those who did were often derided publicly—  and became law in December of 1937. Anslinger continued to fan the flames of the ‘marihuana’ hysteria, and while he was unable to federally ban cannabis (later achieved by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970), by the late 1930s, anti-cannabis legislation of some type existed in every state.
Image result for mayor laguardiaNew York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had other ideas in mind. In 1938, he appointed a scientific committee to study marijuana use in New York City. The committee included pharmacologists, public health experts, and psychiatrists. The committee would present their findings in 1944. Despite the popular slander about cannabis, LaGuardia’s committee found “no proof that major crime was associated with marijuana or that it caused aggressive or antisocial behavior.” The committee would claim no evidence that marijuana was sexually overstimulating and did not change someone’s personality. The continued study of cannabis after the LaGuardia Report findings continued to enrage the Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger, who continued to denounce the report even sending a scathing letter to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  After continual harassment JAMA fell in line with the federal position regarding cannabis, even publishing an editorial dismissing the report as having a “thoroughly unscientific foundation.” Little did JAMA know that this cowardly decision would bolster the position of federal law enforcement and squash rescheduling of cannabis. This is the catch-22: the scheduling of cannabis as Schedule 1 makes it impossible for scientists and researchers to gain legal access to cannabis for study.

[1] Bonnie, R. J., & Whitebread, C.H. (1999). The marijuana conviction: A history of marijuana prohibition in the United States. New York: Lindesmith Center. 

 

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