The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason.
The cannabis plant, also known as hemp, was widely grown in the United States for use in fabric during the mid-19th century. The practice of smoking it first appeared in Texas border towns around 1900, brought by Mexican immigrants who cultivated cannabis as an intoxicant and for medicinal purposes as they had done at home.
Within 15 years or so, it was plentiful along the Texas border and was advertised openly at grocery markets and drugstores, some of which shipped small packets by mail to customers in other states.
The law enforcement view of marijuana was indelibly shaped by the fact that it was initially connected to brown people from Mexico and subsequently with black and poor communities in this country. Police in Texas border towns demonized the plant in racial terms as the drug of “immoral” populations who were promptly labeled “fiends.”
As the legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread explain in their authoritative history, “The Marihuana Conviction,” the drug’s popularity among minorities and other groups practically ensured that it would be classified as a “narcotic,” attributed with addictive qualities it did not have, and set alongside far more dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine.
By the early 1930s, more than 30 states had prohibited the use of marijuana for nonmedical purposes. The federal push was yet to come.
The stage for federal suppression of marijuana was set in New Orleans, where a prominent doctor blamed “muggle-heads” — as pot smokers were called — for an outbreak of robberies. The city was awash in sensationalistic newspaper articles that depicted pushers hovering by the schoolhouse door turning children into “addicts.” These stories popularized spurious notions about the drug that lingered for decades. Law enforcement officials, too, trafficked in the “assassin” theory, under in which killers were said to have smoked cannabis to ready themselves for murder and mayhem.
In 1930, Congress consolidated the drug control effort in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by the endlessly resourceful commissioner, Harry Jacob Anslinger, who became the architect of national prohibition. His case rested on two fantastical assertions: that the drug caused insanity; that it pushed people toward horrendous acts of criminality. Others at the time argued that it was fiercely addictive.
He may not have believed his propaganda, but he fed it by giving lurid stories to the press as a way of making a case for federal intervention. This narrative had a great effect at Congressional hearings that led to the enactment of The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which tried to eradicate the use and sale of the drug through heavy taxation.
Mr. Bonnie and Mr. Whitebread report that the witness list for those hearings contained not a single person who had done significant research into the effects of cannabis. Mr. Anslinger testified that even a single marijuana cigarette could induce a “homicidal mania,” prompting people to want to kill those they loved. The bill passed handily; President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law.
It was not until 1951, when Congress again took up the issue, that a reputable researcher was called to testify. Dr. Harris Isbell, director of research at the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Ky., disputed the insanity, crime and addiction theories, telling Congress that “smoking marijuana has no unpleasant aftereffects, no dependence is developed on the drug, and the practice can easily be stopped at any time.”
Despite Dr. Isbell’s testimony, Congress ratcheted up penalties on users. The states followed the federal example; Louisiana, for instance, created sentences ranging from five to 99 years, without parole or probation, for sale, possession or administration of narcotic drugs. The rationale was not that marijuana itself was addictive — that argument was suddenly relinquished — but that it was a “Gateway” to heroin addiction. This passed largely without comment at the time.
The country accepted a senselessly punitive approach to sentencing as long as minorities and the poor paid the price. But, by the late 1960s, weed had been taken up by white college students from the middle and upper classes. Seeing white lives ruined by marijuana laws altered public attitudes about harsh sentencing, and, in 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse released a report challenging the approach.
The commission concluded that criminalization was “too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use,” and that “the actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.” The Nixon administration dismissed these ideas.
During the mid-1970s, virtually all states softened penalties for marijuana possession. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have made medical use of some form of the drug legal. The Justice Department’s recent decision not to sue states that legalize marijuana — as long as they have strong enforcement rules — eases the tension between state and federal laws only slightly but leaves a great many legal problems unresolved.
The federal government has taken a small step back from irrational enforcement. But it clings to a policy that has its origins in racism and xenophobia and whose principal effect has been to ruin the lives of generations of people.