Who Orchestrated the Prohibition of Marijuana?
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Cannabis as medicine in tincture form reached its peak popularity in the U.S. in about the year 1900. Because the active ingredients had not been identified, potency varied widely from batch to batch, and over time doctors became reluctant to prescribe it. Also in this era, police chiefs and sheriffs were pushing to make the herb illegal in states where marijuana was smoked mainly by Mexican Americans and black people. By the mid-1930s, tincture use was minimal and all but a few states had prohibited possession and sales of the plant. Then, in the spring of 1937, the U.S. Treasury Department presented Congress with a bill that would impose a prohibitively expensive tax on all transactions involving marijuana.
Harry Anslinger, the longtime commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, is widely considered the prime mover behind marijuana prohibition. But during the congressional debate on the subject, Anslinger was just one witness in a strange show trial. He testified that marijuana induces homicidal mania and so forth, but it was not Anslinger who designed the complicated prohibitive-tax strategy. That maneuver was thought up by the Treasury Department’s top lawyer, Herman Oliphant. Nor was Anslinger called back to refute William Woodward of the American Medical Association, who argued that a federal prohibition was uncalled for.
It was Congressman Fred Vinson of Kentucky who dealt with Woodward, subjecting him to a snide, relentless grilling. In the transcript of the hearing, Vinson comes across as an effective prosecutor committed to getting the prohibitive-tax bill enacted, while Anslinger seems like a carnival pitch man—yowza, yowza, yowza. Both men were carrying water for the Treasury Department, which had drafted the prohibition bill and was asking Congress to impose it on the nation.
When the final curtain fell in my imaginary drama, the actual villain seemed to be Vinson, not Anslinger. As I was mulling over the implications, Dave West referred me to his eye-opening essay, “ Low, Dishonest Decade,” published in 1999. West, who has a PhD in plant breeding and genetics, spent most of his career as a geneticist/breeder of “corporate maize” (his term). He pioneered the application of molecular markers in crop breeding.
West disputes the widely held notion that Harry Anslinger pushed through federal prohibition with backing from William Randolph Hearst (whose timber holdings would lose value if hemp could be used for newsprint), the Du Pont Chemical Corporation (whose newly developed nylon would face competition from hemp), and Andrew Mellon, the Du Ponts’ banker, who had been the Republican Secretary of the Treasury (1921-'33) and who appointed Anslinger to run the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930.
A conspiracy involving Hearst, Du Pont and Mellon was posited by Jack Herer, the man who in the 1980s discovered the suppressed history of hemp, its multiple uses and its economic potential. Herer shared his findings in a collage of documentation called The Emperor Wears no Clothes. Herer’s admirers should be open-minded about West’s take on the federal prohibition. Herer’s revelations and accomplishments are of an order of magnitude that won’t be reduced if his theory of three rich Republicans masterminding prohibition doesn’t pan out.
West posits a leadership role for Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the secretary of the treasury under Roosevelt from 1934 to 1945. (After FDR died, Harry Truman replaced Morgenthau with the above-mentioned Fred Vinson.) Morgenthau was well aware of the Nazi threat and the strong isolationist sentiment that could keep the administration from intervening on behalf of European Jews. He was tracking the expanding network of Nazi front groups in this country, and the German-American Bund. There were German-American hemp farmers in contact with Henry Ford, a leading anti-Semite. Morgenthau must have suspected they were associated with the Bund and wanted to keep tabs on them. As secretary of the treasury, Morgenthau was in charge of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which had law-enforcement and domestic-surveillance capabilities. Its commissioner, Harry Anslinger, was an ambitious bureaucrat out to maximize his agency’s power. West’s theory is that Morgenthau orchestrated the federal prohibition and that Anslinger’s railing against marijuana was part of the play.