Cannabis has gone through the ringer in America, from being America’s cash crop to “making people into murderers.” Laws and taxes were put in place for this reason or that, but no one can truly say why. That is, except for those in power, like rich corporate tycoons or even lawmakers.
The first law in relation to marijuana, passed by the US Congress in 1906, was the Pure Food and Drug Act. It required that certain drugs, cannabis included, label its contents correctly. It came about following the days that you could buy a magical tonic from a circus sideshow to cure your “spells.” Around 1910, legislation tightened the regulations even more, and restricted cannabis sales to pharmacies with a required prescription from a doctor.
Nearly 30 years later, the federal government legally defined cannabis, or as the government of the day called it, marijuana, as a “dangerous drug,” and 41 states had outlawed it by this time. Nevertheless, there was a move to add marijuana to the nation’s drug control laws, which could rightly be attributed to Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the newly instated entity of the government, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, now known as the DEA.
In 1937, Anslinger drafted the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and it was quickly passed by Congress. Technically, the Act did not make medical marijuana illegal. What it did was make the process of paperwork and fees so difficult that it was almost impossible to follow without committing a crime. Anyone who bought, sold, imported, distributed, cultivated or prescribed it as a medicine, was subject to paying a tax. This was strictly enforced through audits on record keeping of those who took part in any facet of marijuana. Both the tax and reporting of record keeping was to be immediately provided to the federal government at the point of sale, otherwise the doctor and patient would both face a hefty fine or imprisonment.
Not long before this act was passed, there was an accompanying surge of literal “Reefer Madness,” both the title of the notorious anti-cannabis film itself, and the fear mongering pushed right along with it. It was financed by a church group and pushed hard by the government to “warn” people about the “dangers of cannabis use.” The mass media put out emotionally jarring headlines based on what Anslinger told them, to which they were steeped in racism. He made claims that black jazz musicians were making “the devil’s music” by smoking it. He ranted that it was a “shortcut to the insane asylum” and could make “a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man.” All of this over smoking the cannabis plant. But was it really about smoking it?
Many people speculate that marijuana prohibition had little to do with smoking marijuana, and more to do with hemp, the fibrous industrial plant, also in the cannabis family, and also part of what was prohibited. Hemp was believed to be a low-cost substitute for paper pulp and plastic alternatives, two of the main reasons that Anslinger had help pushing his agenda.
William Randolf Hearst, an American businessman and newspaper publisher, had heavily invested in the timber industry. After his investment came the invention of the decorticator, a machine that made processing the hemp plant easy and affordable, and had less environmental impact than logging. It seems as though he did not want any competition in his endeavors. Hearst, being the newspaper magnate that he was, had plenty of power and control to help spread the propaganda of cannabis nationwide. He was not going to let this plant stand in his way.
Another who stood to lose a battle against cannabis was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. He had a monopoly on the US petroleum market at that time, and much like he’d supported alcohol prohibition in that people were forced to run their cars on gasoline instead of farm-made ethyl alcohol, he was a huge supporter of marijuana prohibition in that diesel fuel couldn’t be made out of hemp oil, and instead had to use the resources that his companies produced. Going forward, he had no competition from hemp whatsoever.
So why was cannabis exiled so harshly? Because powerful people stood to personally lose. Whether it’s power in laws or government, or monopolistic trade, these rich men acted for the benefit of themselves and no one else, to remove cannabis from the market, and if it was found, to legally be punishable by law.