By the time the turn of the century rolled around and people celebrated the year 1900, US laws were being frequently passed limiting the pharmaceutical industry in their product labeling to quell the “snake oil” salesmen, and any products that didn’t comply were inherently labeled “poisons.” Unfortunately for cannabis, which was used extensively throughout the pharmaceutical industry at the time, it was often roped in with other herb preparations such as opium, and was considered a poison in 8 states by 1905. The increased crackdown of pharmaceutical products came to a head in 1906 with the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring a strengthening of medicine labeling and the removal of “loophole” poisons. The District of Columbia became the first US territory to outright ban cannabis, officially labeling cannabis and its derivatives as poisons. In 1909, the San Francisco Police Department reported only one case of the use of hashish resulting in an Emergency Hospital visit in the last six years, and that it was accidental and a result of polydrug use with opium.
Following the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, waves of Mexican immigrants began crossing into the US, bringing with them their recreational use of a “new” substance, marijuana. Prior to 1910, the Spanish term “marijuana” was mostly unknown in the US, and cannabis was instead always called hashish or hemp. The vast majority of people assumed that hemp and marijuana were two entirely different substances. In 1911, Hamilton Wright was promoted to the Chief Architect of the US narcotics policy. He categorized all mind-altering substances as “drug evils,” and thought that if the ban of opium and its derivatives, opioids, were to happen, people would only move to hashish. He specifically targeted the “very undesirable Hindoos” (referring to Sikhs and Punjabis, among other East Indian immigrants), claiming they were spreading their terrible drugs to white people. Racism soared in the area, and during the first Progressive Era wave of anti-narcotics legislation, California became the first US state to outlaw cannabis in 1913. New York and Maine quickly followed suite in 1914, Wyoming in 1915 and Texas in 1919.
The US’ prohibition of alcohol in 1920 played a major hand to the spreading popularity of cannabis throughout the country. Speakeasies were springing up around the US, providing another home for cannabis enthusiasts who preferred its cheapness to the newly illegal alcohol. Cannabis’ popularity soared even higher as jazz musicians toured the country, reaching points where a viper (term at the time for a cannabis smoker) could roll and smoke a joint on a public road with no legal repercussions. Numerous companies jumped at the opportunity as well, and branded cannabis cigarettes became rather popular. Brands like Cannadonna, Cigares De Joy and Grimault all contained cannabis, specifically marketed for the treatment of asthma, but typically used recreationally. Physicians at the time agreed with cannabis’ effects as well, and in 1921 alone, over 3 million prescriptions included cannabis. Despite this, the racist attitudes towards hashish continued, and Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Arkansas joined the others in banning it in 1923.
As the Great Depression hit, the availability of work began to become more scarce, and racist attitudes only continued. Mexican immigrants, who frequently consumed marijuana after a long day’s work, were seen as the new enemy by the white working class. Contrary to public opinion, US military personnel working in Panama at the time had happily picked up the habit of smoking marijuana on their breaks, prompting the governor of the Panama Canal Zone to issue an investigation into its “deleterious effects.” The report concluded in 1925 that any deleterious effects from marijuana consumption were exaggerated, and that no restrictions should be placed on the use of the drug.
In 1925, the International Opium Convention was held in the Netherlands, and just as before, cannabis was roped into the same measures as the opium plant. However, citing a 1912 edition of the Swedish encyclopedia Nordisk Familijebok, it was made clear that European hemp and Indian hashish appeared to be different species, as hemp produced no mind-altering effects. Before they knew what it was, this was the first acknowledge of THC in cannabis indica varieties and not cannabis sativa. Despite this clarification, Mexico continued with an overall cannabis prohibition later in 1925.
In the early 1930s, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, head of the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh and the richest man in America at the time, appoints his future nephew-in-law as the Commissioner of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), a man by the name of Harry J. Anslinger. Mellon had been working on a new nylon product to replace hemp as the desired fiber for mass production, happily supported by the Du Pont family who had a monopoly on the petrochemical industry and was likewise competing with hemp’s newly found biofuel properties. Being only one of two banks that the Du Ponts did business with, Mellon encouraged Anslinger to demonize their competitor, coming at a time when Anslinger already had mass amounts of his funding cut. William Randolph Hearst, still one of the richest figures in American history, likewise contacted Anslinger about hemp overtaking the wood pulp industry following the invention of the decorticator, a hemp processing machine that streamlined the entire process and cut costs tremendously. Seeing increased pressure, Anslinger was happy to comply with their demands, as there was plenty of incentive for him as well.
This may sound like a harsh interpretation of the events, but Anslinger himself actually admitted to this version of his story later in his life, stating he was aware all along. This is evident even before he became Commissioner of the FBN, as before he had financial incentive to squash cannabis, he is quoted as saying that “there is probably no more absurd fallacy than the claim that [marijuana] caused violent crime.” Many of the finer details of the inner dealings of these individuals – Harry J. Anslinger, William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon and the Du Pont family – were intentionally lost to time. Many of them had truly devious intentions and connections. For example, the Du Ponts would go on to patent synthetic plastic fibers from I.G. Farben Corporation, a German industrial supergiant. The Du Ponts continued relations with this company and ended up financing approximately 30% of their endeavours, specifically including the production of Zyklon-B gas in the late 1930s, used by the Nazi party to gas millions of Jewish, homosexual and drug using people.
With hefty pockets and a new drug to vilify, he began the Reefer Madness campaign, backed by the US Government, which publicly blamed the Mexican and black communities for trying to poison America’s youth with this new drug; marijuana. Falsified ads and paid-off doctors made the plant out to be worse than any other substance in the nation, and Hearst’s own newspaper, widely regarded as the epitome of yellow journalism, was more than happy to print stories like “Marijuana Makes Fiends of Boys in 30 Days,” and “Hasheesh Goads Users to Blood-Lust,” of course with no evidence. Harry J. Anslinger gave a statement before Congress, “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death!” He would go on to say, in this same statement to Congress, that “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women seek sexual relationships with Negroes,” “Makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” “Makes Mexicans thirst for white blood,” and is “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
Anslinger’s use of the term marijuana was calculated and intended, as it was generally unknown to physicians attending the original Congressional Hearings, and as such, they were unaware of the actual substance being attacked, therefore unwilling to defend it. They weren’t aware of what was being lost until it was too late, and the physicians that did dispute his claims were met with literal threats from Anslinger himself. His speech spread throughout the nation, and within days, his false propaganda was being reported as complete truth. His statement that “Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes may be traced to the use of marihuana” was followed by entire police departments supporting the claims by stating that cannabis is the cause for the majority of murders and “sex outrages,” mostly from minorities. A propagandic movie was commissioned by the federal government in 1936 called Reefer Madness, whose plot revolves around a group of teenagers who smoke marijuana and proceed to murder someone with their car, commit suicide, attempt to rape people, hallucinate and descend into madness.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed the next year, effectively banning all marijuana in the country and eliminating a potential multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical and industrial industry. It slipped past numerous venues through the House Ways and Means Committee, and was under many people in government’s radar entirely. It received the stamp of approval from Committee Chairman Robert L. Doughton, a Congressional ally of the Du Ponts. Joints were specifically targeted, with newspapers and even school textbooks stating that “harmless” tobacco cigarettes were being spiked with marijuana, sometimes clarifying that it’s specifically being done by Mexicans or black people, to drive white children insane.
Technically, the new law didn’t outright illegalize cannabis as a plant. Instead, one was now required to purchase a Treasury Department tax stamp before they could legally cultivate, possess, use, sell or give away cannabis. However, attaining this stamp included a nightmarish maze of affidavits, sworn statements, depositions and thorough investigations by the Treasury Department police. Any person wishing to prescribe, grow, use, extract or consume cannabis had to provide all information on themselves and anyone they were planning to do business with to the government, and if at any point the deal was rejected, the citizen faced a $100 fine ($2,206 in today’s money) per ounce of cannabis involved, and up to 5 years’ imprisonment. You can see how it was suddenly preferable to not take the risk to be involved in this industry in any manner. An estimated 45% of patent medicines at the time had some form of cannabis in it before the ban; over 99% of them were removed from prescription circulation in the following years.
In the following year, 1938, Anslinger convened a meeting of 23 individuals to discuss the implementation of this prohibition, and included an information session to learn more about cannabis. The experts Anslinger had at the hearing were clearly planted and only there to further his own views and goals. Psychologist James C. Munch, regarded as an expert on cannabis’ effects on the brain, claimed that THC shrunk the brains in rat and dog models, but was conveniently unable to provide the study data. Munch would later testify at a murder trial in which the defendant was claiming marijuana-induced insanity, defending these claims by saying he had tried two puffs of marijuana before and it caused him to transform into a bat, fly around the room and down into a deep inkwell. The gathered hemp experts claimed issues with the flowers of their plants vanishing from their hemp farms, as the neighbors seemed to enjoy them. Fearful of the flowers being psychologically active, researchers performed a Beam test on the flowers, an outdated measurement test from 1911, and turned up trace evidence of CBD. With no further evidence or research, they decided CBD was what gave the “high” associated with smoking marijuana, and included hemp in their overarching cannabis ban.
One of the worst parts of this ordeal is that the US Government was fully aware that Harry J. Anslinger’s claims had no evidence to back them up. Wishing to better understand how cannabis works on a molecular level, Roger Adams, a renowned American organic chemist, discovered THC in 1940. He would go on to isolate CBN and CBD from cannabis as well, successfully synthesize them and even develop THC acetate. Unaffiliated scientists, baffled by the claims made by Anslinger and now capable of testing the molecules themselves, were contracted by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1944 to participate in the LaGuardia Commission. These scientists showed through numerous studies that marijuana had no connection to violence, infidelity, insanity, addiction or many of the other negative claims Anslinger had been making. Despite these findings, the US government went ahead and removed cannabis from the United States Pharmacopeia in 1942.
Though taking a very negative view of cannabis use from the public, the US government heavily relied on the plant during much of World War II for its use in making uniforms, canvas and rope. In 1942, they produced a propagandic film titled Hemp for Victory promoting it as a necessary crop to win the war, and continued to urge farmers in Kentucky and much of the Midwest to plant over 400,000 acres of hemp between 1942 and 1945 in response to the Philippines falling to Japanese forces. This mass planting of hemp for its fiber continued until 1957. Other world powers cultivated it for use in their industrial complex as well, most notably Russia who contributed heavily to the 350,000 metric tonnes of hemp produced worldwide in the early 1940s.
Roger Adams would go on to give a lecture at the National Academy of Sciences detailing his work, and casually remarked that marijuana had “pleasant effects.” This statement caused an uproar, with one reporter stating Anslinger himself visibly snarled. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) requested that Adams be labeled a security risk, and called on the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover to intervene. Hoover believed this was a massive overreaction, and decided to tell ONI that Adams was a common name and they must have gotten the wrong guy to try and save Adams’ reputation. He was still placed on ONI’s list of “people to be watched” after this event.
Despite the US government’s public view of cannabis, they began experiments with THC as a possible truth serum in 1943. Under the orders of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, and conducted by St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC, THC infused cigarettes were administered to personnel within the immensely classified Manhattan Project, presumably due to their high security clearance. With no results, THC was then used on soldiers at US army bases, again yielding no results, and the program was closed with THC being classified as a “non-truth-inducing drug.”
Interest in the compound didn’t yield, however, and government chemists began playing with the molecular structure of THC to try and produce different effects. Dimethylheptylpyran (DMHP) was invented in 1949 by the US Army Chemical Corps and tested by Edgewood Arsenal, a company producing chemicals for classified human subject research in Maryland. Initially contracted in 1948 until 1975, Edgewood took the public form of a vaccine and pharmaceutical laboratory, but whose actual documented purpose was psychochemical warfare for the US military involving over 7,000 human subjects. DMHP was specifically created to produce stronger effects than THC, of which it is very chemically similar to, and intended to be used as a non-lethal incapacitator for use in single-dose agents; the assumed intent was for US spies to use this substance to subdue targets quietly. DMHP was found to be over 1000 times more potent than THC, and could create a high lasting over 48 hours. In declassified trials, it produced hallucinations, severe dizziness, fainting, ataxia and muscle weakness, to the point of patients being too weak to stay standing up. Deaths occurred in many animal models, typically from hypothermia, but was preventable with supportive treatment. Edgewood concluded their tests a success, but DMHP was eventually dropped and replaced with another Edgewood chemical, 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ), which proved more effective.
In the early 1950s, the CIA’s continued interest in THC and its related compounds meant more experiments. Edgewood Arsenal’s findings with DMHP, as well as other tests they conducted using LSD, piqued their interest the most. Approved and sanctioned in 1953, now declassified documents have revealed the conspiracies surrounding Project MKUltra were found to be mostly true. Tasked with creating a chemical capable of mind control, THC laced cigarettes were used in early trials on unwilling prisoners, mental patients, vagrants and sex workers, but yielded no results. MKUltra would move on to more serious compounds, like LSD, for the remainder of its testing until 1973.
More publicly, mandatory sentencing was first introduced for cannabis possession from the Boggs Act of 1952, and further clarified in the Narcotics Control Act of 1956. These acts made first-time cannabis possession result in a mandatory sentence of 2 to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000. Despite the increased criminalization of cannabis use, its prevalence began steadily increasing in the 1950s and onwards with the appearance of the beatnik subculture, and their usage would only increase into the 1960s.
Although THC, CBD and CBN were first discovered by Roger Adams in 1940, many news outlets report they were discovered by Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1964, and credit to this discovery is almost always given to him. This mistaken credit is due to Mechoulam’s researchers having the benefit of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, something Adams did not have, which gave them the ability to clearly detect the molecular structure of these compounds. However, even before this new technology, Adams was able to successfully infer the chemical structure of THC, CBD and CBN essentially through guesswork. Mechoulam’s work was more of an affirmation of what was already known.
As the years pressed on, cannabis’ image in the US culture began to evolve. Millions began questioning what they had originally been taught, and following the Vietnam War, thousands of veterans were coming home with waterproof sea bags stuffed with hundreds of pounds of exotic hash oil and cannabis, fresh from Vietnam itself. In 1967, the Summer of Love, cannabis becomes an incredibly popular recreational substance among hippies, bikers, veterans and many other demographics. The government even began listening, and in 1969, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Leary v. United States case that the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was unconstitutional and a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The scientific community’s insistence for marijuana’s legalization, or at least decriminalization, came to a head in 1971 when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) petitioned the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the precursor to the DEA, recommending President Nixon remove the Marihuana Tax Act altogether and legalize cannabis. Nixon’s response was to form the Shafer Commission and the Nixon Marijuana Commission with the public goal of researching the substance to consider this move, but with the real goal of finding any reason to continue marijuana’s ban. The Shafer Commission later presented him with the Shafer Report in 1972, which included a wealth of scientific evidence in favor of the plant being decriminalized and allowed for at least medical use by adults. Soon after, the Nixon Marijuana Commission similarly recommended legalizing recreational cannabis. Instead of listening to the reports, Nixon disregarded them entirely, requested the commissions be disbanded, passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and soon after formed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973.
So began the infamous War on Drugs. Schedule I, the worst rank and new home of cannabis, is described as having no medical value and having a high chance for abuse. Hilariously enough, Marinol, which is chemically-identical synthetic THC, was placed in Schedule III. Following this shift in government opinion yet again and increased pressure from President Nixon to make cannabis the new “worst drug in the world,” the Supreme Court ruled in December of 1975 that it was “not cruel or unusual for Ohio to sentence someone to 20 years for having or selling cannabis.”
In 1994, Nixon’s aid and the White House Domestic Affairs Advisor from 1969 to 1973, John Ehrlichman, gave his reasoning behind this decision during an interview. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana, and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The criminalization of cannabis and the War on Drugs as a whole were a method to bully Nixon’s political opponents and attack minority groups, built on racism and lies. Not only was this an immoral act, it ended up being an enormous waste of money. Due to mandatory minimums, states were spending millions more than usual on enforcing the law against simple cannabis possession. Upon this realization, California introduced a new set of laws in 1976 that reduced the penalty for less than an ounce of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $100. After the law went into effect, annual spending towards cannabis laws went down 74%, from well over $100 million to around $35 million.
During the Reagan administration, crackdowns on drug offenses only continued. The Sentencing Reform Act provisions of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 created the Sentencing Commission, which established mandatory sentencing guidelines. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 reinstated these sentences and specifically included cannabis distribution, with a later amendment creating the three-strikes law, adding a mandatory 25 years imprisonment for repeated crimes, and the death penalty for “drug kingpins.” This renewed anti-cannabis legislation prompted NORML to once again petition the DEA to reconsider its classification of cannabis.
Francis L. Young, the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the DEA, began taking extensive hearings over the course of the next 2 years, gathering expert opinions and genuinely hearing out NORML’s concerns and requests. He personally reviewed government-sponsored research into cannabis, including the LaGuardia Commission and the prior Shafer and Nixon Marijuana Commissions that all contradicted the government’s stance on cannabis. In 1988, with the hearings concluded, Young sent a report to his superior Jack Lawn, Administrator of the DEA, stating “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” Young suggested a complete removal of cannabis from the CSA, further concluding, “The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for [the] DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record.”
Young’s requests were turned down by Lawn, who responded with the reiteration of Schedule I’s qualifier, “no currently accepted medical use.” Young instead tried to get cannabis simply moved down a schedule, from Schedule I to Schedule II in the CSA, but in December of 1989 he was turned down yet again. The decision to uphold the CSA’s scheduling was confirmed in 1994 by a US Court of Appeals ruling.
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