How Marijuana Became Illegal
As the marijuana legalization movement in the United States continues to pick up steam, an important thought often overlooked question is: How marijuana became illegal? The answer to this issue involves some twists and turns, a handful of wealthy and powerful historical figures, and some disturbing political maneuvers aimed at inciting fears and manufacturing danger.
While there have been some studies into the historical development of how marijuana became illegal in the U.S., a significant portion of the story has been researched and documented in Jack Herer’s pot activist classic, The Emperor Wears No Clothes.
While working as Secretary of the Treasury under President Herbert Hoover in 1930, Andrew Mellon promoted his niece’s husband, Harry J. Anslinger, to become head of the recently formed Bureau of Narcotics. But Mellon didn’t just give Anslinger the job; it came with certain strings attached.
At the time, Mellon was the nation’s richest man, and he held massive investments in The DuPont Company, which had just invented nylon. The DuPont family was afraid that the new product would face too much competition from more traditional fiber, cloth, and rope made from hemp.
So, to ensure that the DuPont family’s latest invention had access to an extensive market, and to protect his sizable investment in The DuPont Company, Mellon put Anslinger in charge of the Bureau of Narcotics with the agreement that Anslinger would use his new position of authority to get hemp off the market.
To accomplish this, Anslinger turned to yet another dominant figure who supposedly also wanted to get hemp off the market: infamous journalist William Randolph Hearst.
The theory put forth by Herer and others maintains that Hearst had invested heavily in the timber industry to support his growing newspaper empire and wanted to make sure that his wood was used to produce paper.
Hemp fiber was, yet again, too big a potential competitor to tree-based paper and so to protect his investment, Hearst joined the group of rich and powerful men intent on exterminating hemp from the American landscape. With Hearst in the mix, all the pieces fell into place.
Anslinger whipped up all sorts of horror stories about cannabis-addled murderers and marijuana-crazed rapists, used Hearst’s control over the media to disseminate them, and sparked an entire culture war against anything deriving from the cannabis plant.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937
In a short time, Anslinger’s campaign won popular opinion, and various marijuana prohibition laws began popping up. In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act effectively made it illegal to possess or transfer cannabis in the U.S.
In 1952 and 1956, the federal government doubled down and created a new series of mandatory sentencing laws to deal with people caught with cannabis.
And in 1970, The Controlled Substances Act was created, effectively solidifying cannabis’s status as an illegal substance.
Taken together, the DuPont-Mellon-Anslinger-Hearst story—often referred to simply as “the hemp conspiracy”—initiated the decades-long effort to vilify cannabis to protect various industrial interests from hemp competition.
Obviously, we’re still dealing with the ongoing effects of this campaign, it’s easy to imagine how marijuana became illegal after being framed as a dangerous drug requiring heavy-handed, military-style policing.
Recognizing the ways that DuPont, Mellon, Anslinger, and Hearst protected their financial interests by demonizing the cannabis plant highlights the fact that, despite what authorities may say are the reasons for outlawing the plant, marijuana prohibition has nothing to do with public health or safety. It’s actually about economic interests and political power plays.
Several other writers, researchers, marijuana historians, and pot activists have added significant information to what we already know about cannabis prohibition in the United States.
Dale Gieringer, marijuana researcher, and director of California NORML has questioned Hearst’s need to exterminate hemp from the paper market. Pointing out that Hearst had fallen into debt to Canadian paper makers, Gieringer suggests that “it would have been in Hearst’s interest to promote cheap hemp paper substitutes, had that been a viable alternative.”
Similarly, Steven Wishnia, questions the degree to which the hemp conspiracy thoroughly explains the anti-marijuana law.
He argues that “historians find no evidence of a DuPont-Mellon connection” and suggests that while “secret cabals (political cliques) are simpler and sexier villains than sociopolitical forces,” the latter are much more likely culprits behind the prohibition of cannabis in the U.S.
Wishnia ultimately concludes:
“The belief that marijuana prohibition came about because of the secret machinations of an economic cabal ignores the pattern of every drug-law crusade in American history,”
which he and many others have pointed out is a pattern of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia.
This explanation says that whenever the U.S. outlaws certain substances, it is almost always part of a larger attempt to enforce certain ideas regarding race and national origin.
Consider, for example, that the
“first drug prohibition laws in the United States were opium bans aimed at Chinese immigrants.”
These laws were aimed less at public health and more at vilifying, marginalizing, and criminalizing a particular racial group.
The same can be said for the hysterical fear of crack in the 1980s, a campaign that was more interested in demonizing and criminalizing poor people of color, and especially black people, than anything having to do with public health. This craze also launched the war on drugs, which has had a disproportionately violent impact on communities of color throughout the U.S.
This more sociological, cultural explanation for marijuana prohibition is indeed backed up by some of the crazy sh*t Anslinger said and wrote back in the 1930s.
Here are a couple of samples to give you an idea of the racially inflected language Anslinger very often used to stir up fear of marijuana:
“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”
“Two Negroes took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery, she was found to be suffering from syphilis.”
Apparently, Anslinger drew on racist imagery to invoke fear in people at the same time that he used the growing fear of marijuana to reaffirm racist ideas.
The Final Thought
There doesn’t seem to be any reason to have to pick either one story or the other. In fact, it seems most likely that the market manipulation and political corruption of the DuPont-Mellon-Anslinger-Hearst connection worked hand in hand with the U.S.’s culture of racism. And the political tradition of outlawing certain substances and practices to criminalize certain populations. A combination of all these theories seems to provide a particularly reliable explanation for why cannabis was outlawed backward in the United States.
A combination of all these theories seems to provide a particularly reliable explanation for why cannabis was outlawed in the United States. Either way, one thing seems certain: how marijuana became illegal has nothing to do with public health or safety and everything to do with maintaining a nonsensical, backward political-legal-economic system.