Anslinger, Hearst, and the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act

Recreational use of cannabis was not evident in the United States until the first decade of this century. It appeared first on the Mexican borders, when marihuana cigarettes were brought in by migrant labourers. Cannabis had been in use in South America and the Caribbean for many years by then. With the onset of alcohol Prohibition, its popularity burgeoned and by the 1930's there were many hundreds of hash bars in New York alone.

During this period, a few efforts were made at banning recreational use of the stuff in several states. But it was not until 1937 that the all-encompassing Marihuana Tax Act effectively thwarted cannabis use, whether medicinal, practical or recreational, for future generations.

The historical origins of this act are particularly interesting. In 1930, Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon appointed Harry J. Anslinger, his niece's husband, to the fledgling Federal Bureau of Narcotics. At the time, one of Mellon's chief financial interests was Mellon Bank, a principal backer of the chemical company DuPont.

DuPont, previously a munitions firm, were by now expanding into the field of plastics and synthetic fibres, a market they have dominated ever since. A statement by their corporate president hints at DuPont's intentions:
"Synthetic plastics (made from mineral, chemical, petroleum, and fossil fuel deposits) find application in fabricating a wide variety of articles, many of which in the past were made from natural products."
Furthermore, their archives reveal they had designs on Congress:
"The revenue raising power of government may be converted into an instrument for forcing acceptance of of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganization."

At this time, hemp was an enormous industry in the States, where new extraction technology was being developed that made hemp products, such as paper and fabric, cheaper than ever before. Hemp seed oil was being used to manufacture paints and varnishes. The first plastics had been manufactured from cellulose, and hemp, with its huge cellulose content, was at the forefront of the nascent plastics industry.

Anslinger set about whipping up a frenzy of popular opinion against "the Killer Drug", which was mostly used by Blacks and Mexicans. By playing on people's racism, he was able to justify the blanket ban on all forms of hemp, in spite of the fact that most industrial hemp produces very little psychoactive resin. He found vocal support from the media magnate William Randolf Hearst, a.k.a. Citizen Kane.

Not only did Hearst own the newspapers, he owned the papermills and the forests as well. The elimination of hemp from the market would do him no harm at all. He was also a virulent racist with a particular dislike for Mexicans - in 1898 he had had 800,000 acres of prime Mexican timber land siezed from him by Pancho Villa. Since 1916, he had been orchestrating a campaign against "marihuana" in his newspapers, pedalling disinformation about its deleterious effects. Reporting concealed the medicinal and practical applications of the plant, which were then well known to the American public, by simply not telling people that marijuana was exactly the same as stuff as hemp.

Between them, the two men used Hearst's newspapers to trumpet the dangers of the "powerfull narcotic in which lurks MURDER! INSANITY! DEATH!"

When the bill reached Congress, it had been written using the catch-all term "marihuana" throughout, overshadowing the plant's legitimate uses in medicine, where it was broadly known as "cannabis", and in the fibre industry, where its name was "hemp". This ploy concealed the real implications of the legislation. Thus, an obscure slang word was redifined to cover all cannabis sativa products. The bill proposed a nominal tax of one dollar on all shipments of so-called marihuana, and at its heart was a maze of legislation designed to make it impossible for anyone who wished to deal with cannabis, in any form, to do so. This included the doctors who prescribed it and the farmers who grew it.

The bill did not go unopposed. Congress was lobbied by William C. Woodward, of the American Medical Association, and Ralph Lozier of the National Oil Seeds Institute, representing the interests of lubricant and paint manufacturers. Woodward testified that the plant was perfectly legal and harmless, and said, tellingly:
"We cannot understand yet, Mr Chairman, why this bill should have been prepared in secret for two years without any initiative, even to the profession, that it was being prepared... No medical man would identify this bill with a medicine untill he read it through, because marihuana is not a drug, simply a name given to cannabis..."
He later wrote to the committee, warning that:
"The obvious purpose and effect of this bill is to impose so many restrictions on the medicinal use as to prevent such use altogether... It may serve to deprive the public of the benefits of a drug that on further research may prove to be of substantial value"
How true.

Lozier testified eloquently that the bill was "too inclusive" and predicted "the crushing of this great industry under the supervision of a bureau - which may mean its suppression." Both lobbyists were ridiculed and denounced at the hearings, and the bill sailed quietly through congress. Because of its low profile and sly wording, many congress people were unaware that one of America's biggest and most profitable industries was being legislated into history. Over the years that followed, thousands of farmers were driven out of business, and doctors who continued to prescribe cannabis were discredited.

As a result of Ansliger's indefatigable efforts, Hemp, which has been described as "the most useful plant known to man", is strictly controlled and scarcely grown anywhere in the world for applications outside the narcotics industry. Anslinger and Hearst were undoudtedly motivated by racial hatred and prejudice, but an entire industry completely unrelated to narcotics production was wiped out within a few years. The evidence for a "special interest" subsidy is largely circumstantial, but it is very hard to see any othe motive in such a ludicrously stupid and damaging piece of legislation.

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