75 Years of a Pointless, Disastrous War Against Marijuana

This year marks the 75th anniversary of federal marijuana prohibition in the United States. It only took 13 years for Americans to realize the futility of alcohol prohibition. Can you believe we’ve let 75 years of marijuana prohibition go by?

The marijuana plant has a long history of medical, religious and industrial uses dating back thousands of years. Yet few Americans had even heard of it when it was first federally prohibited in 1937. Today, it’s the most widely used controlled substance in the U.S. and the world. More than 100 million Americans – about 42 percent of adults – admit to having tried it. The value of marijuana produced in the U.S. is estimated to be more than $35 billion, making it far and away the nation’s largest cash crop. Despite its ubiquity, though, almost half of the roughly 1.7 million people arrested for drug law violations in the U.S. every year are arrested for nothing more than a low-level marijuana offense.

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was essentially the beginning of federal marijuana prohibition. It imposed an excise tax on anyone who commercially produced marijuana and required a tax stamp to prove they were a valid producer. Once the law passed and someone wanted to apply for the stamp, though, they had to demonstrate they were a commercial marijuana producer. If they had the marijuana to prove it, they must have grown it without having the stamp, thus incriminating them. 

A few states and localities passed some of the first laws against marijuana in the late 1800s, often with little public attention. Amidst a growing fear of drug use and criminality, several state governments petitioned the feds throughout the 1920s for a single act to unify laws and increase enforcement on narcotics. While drafting the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act, marijuana was included in its list of “habit-forming drugs” merely because it was previously listed as a narcotic in many state laws. The American Medical Association fought to keep marijuana available for medical purposes.  But Harry Anslinger, who rose to power during alcohol prohibition as the assistant prohibition commissioner and first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, made it his mission to impose harsh penalties for drug use and to criminalize a broad array of widely used substances. 

In 1934, he started to publicly denounce marijuana as a serious threat to society. He created racist propaganda that associated blacks and Latinos with marijuana and blamed marijuana use for socially deviant behavior like murder and rape. In fact, “marijuana” was known to almost everyone as “cannabis” until Anslinger popularized the term common among Mexicans at this time. Anslinger also condemned jazz music – predominantly played by black entertainers – as Satan’s music, and associated it with marijuana.

Coincidentally – or not – Anslinger launched his crusade only months after the repeal of alcohol Prohibition in December 1933. Anslinger saw tremendous political and economic opportunities in criminalizing marijuana; he could stigmatize Mexican migrant workers while eliminating hemp as a valuable resource, enabling his friend William Randolph Hearst to rule the paper industry.

The Marijuana Tax Act went pretty much unchallenged for 30 years until Timothy Leary was arrested for marijuana possession and his case was brought to the Supreme Court. In Leary v. United States (1969), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Marijuana Tax Act was unconstitutional because it required self-incrimination, thus violating the Fifth Amendment. This decision helped prompt a congressional review of national drug policy and led to the dreadfully flawed Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and President Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs in 1971. 

Law enforcement’s overwhelming focus on marijuana arrests plays out in all kinds of sickening ways that are difficult to quantify. One recent example is Ramarley Graham, the 18-year-old who was chased into his home and fatally shot by police officers as he tried to flush a small amount of marijuana down the toilet. Every day thousands of young people in communities of color are subjected to invasive stop-and-frisks – ostensibly intended to remove weapons from our streets, but much more often resulting in low-level marijuana arrests. Thanks to policies like these, there are more black people under correctional supervision today than were enslaved in 1850 – and millions more are saddled with criminal records that relegate them to lifelong status as second-class citizens. 

Perhaps the most peculiar hypocrisy of all this is that the federal government regularly supplies a handful of patients with marijuana produced by the National Institute on Drug Abuse – while telling the rest of the world there’s no such thing as medical marijuana. Starting in the 1970s, the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program supplied medical marijuana to seriously ill patients until it stopped taking new applicants in 1992 and the few people in the program at that time were grandfathered in. Today, the DEA raids medical marijuana dispensaries operating legally under state law on a near-daily basis and our drug czar is statutorily required to oppose any efforts to change the legal status of marijuana or other illegal drugs, effectively impeding and undermining state and local governments willing to try a new approach to sensibly regulating marijuana.

While states and localities were responsible for initiating marijuana prohibition, today they are vital to repealing it. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws, while voters in Colorado and Washington will decide this November whether to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Let’s make this 75th anniversary the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition.

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