America’s First Legal Marijuana Purchase Happened a Long Time Ago

TMZ calls 32-year-old Coloradan Sean Azzariti “the first man to make a legal weed purchase in the United States…  ever.”

But of course that’s wrong — and not just because people have been buying it legally for years in California, where getting a “prescription” couldn’t be much easier and marijuana shops abound in strip malls.

People somehow forget — or don’t know — that marijuana was legal in most of the country for most of U.S. history and everything was just fine.

So for those who aren’t familiar with this history, here’s a brief overview from my book, Libertarianism Today:

Cocaine and narcotics prohibition came about for dubious reasons — pleasing China, the pharmaceutical industry’s desire to eliminate competition, bigotry, World War I, and fanatical temperance activists — but the decision to prohibit marijuana was even less justifiable.

In 1930, the government established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by Commissioner Harry Anslinger. In his position, Anslinger essentially decided who could legally manufacture narcotics for medical purposes in the United States, and he granted that privilege to just a handful of companies. In exchange for favorable treatment, these companies would otherwise do Anslinger’s bidding; specifically, they would provide Congressional testimony as needed, including, when Anslinger wanted it, testimony as to the great potential harm of marijuana.

It is odd that anyone would have pursued marijuana prohibition in the 1930s, if only because so few people used it, but Anslinger targeted it anyway. No one is sure why, but one suggested reason is because, like any bureaucracy, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had to justify its budget, particularly during the Great Depression. Plus, some suggest, Anslinger and the bureau wanted publicity.

During the 1930s, Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics launched a propaganda campaign against pot. In speeches, Anslinger declared: “Take all the good in Dr. Jekyll and the worst in Mr. Hyde — the result is opium. Marihuana may be considered more harmful. . . . It is Mr. Hyde alone.” The bureau was eager to provide “information” on the putative dangers of marijuana to journalists; marijuana horror stories began to appear in newspapers and periodicals, virtually all of them acknowledging Anslinger’s bureau or its publications for their “facts.” A 1934 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article described the effects of marijuana:

[T]he physical attack of marijuana upon the body is rapid and devastating. In the initial stages, the skin turns a peculiar yellow color, the lips become discolored, dried and cracked. Soon the mouth is affected, the gums are inflamed and softened. Then the teeth are loosened and eventually, if the habit is persisted in, they fall out. . . . [People in traveling jazz bands] take a few puffs off a marijuana cigarette if they are tired. . . . It gives them a lift and they can go on playing even though they may be virtually paralyzed from the waist down, which is one of the effects marijuana can have.

Anslinger himself published an article in American Magazine called “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” in which he told of a young “marijuana addict” who, while “pitifully crazed,” slaughtered his family of five with an ax.

Another likely factor leading to prohibition was, once again, bigotry, this time mostly against Mexicans. Mexicans brought marijuana smoking to the United States when about one million of them migrated here after their country’s 1910 revolution. Some people resented Mexicans anyway, in part for their willingness to work for low wages during the Depression, and marijuana provided another excuse to attack them. Anslinger also testified before Congress that marijuana “causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.”

Powerful interests lined up in support of marijuana prohibition. Big pharmaceutical companies did so because they were beholden to Anslinger and because they did not want competition from marijuana, which they could not profit from themselves because it was a common plant. Chemical company DuPont supported the legislation because it would treat hemp (a form of cannabis that cannot be used to get high, but which serves numerous industrial purposes very well) just like other marijuana, which would eliminate competition for DuPont’s synthetic products.

Still, despite the propaganda and prejudice, there was not much public demand for marijuana prohibition when Congress nonetheless passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. There was not much evidence or debate, either. As legal scholars Charles H. Whitebread II and Richard J. Bonnie put it, the hearings “are near comic examples of dereliction of legislative responsibility.”

Anslinger was the primary witness at the Congressional hearings, and he presented stories of the boy with the ax, another man who decapitated his best friend while under the influence, a 15-year-old who “went insane,” and other anecdotes derived from newspaper clippings.

The American Medical Association provided a witness, a Dr. William C. Woodward, who pointed out that Anslinger had little more than hearsay evidence from newspapers to back up his claims. Although marijuana use in prisons and by children were supposed justifications for the law, Woodward pointed out that there was no evidence as to how many prisoners actually used marijuana, or how many children used it. For refusing to endorse the legislation, Congressmen accused Woodward of “obstruction.”

When the bill made it to the House floor, it received less than two minutes of debate. A Republican Congressman asked whether the American Medical Association supported the bill, and a committee member, Fred M. Vinson — who had been present and asked questions at length during the committee hearings, and who would later become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — responded with a bald-faced lie: “Their Doctor Wentworth (sic) came down here. They support this bill 100 percent.” It was late at night, so they passed the bill without further substantive discussion, and soon the president signed it.

For more history of the war on drugs, and background on a wide range of other topics, you can buy Libertarianism Today in paperback for just $3.95 or download the audiobook for free from Laissez-Faire Books. It’s also available in hardcover, for Kindle, and in the Google Play store

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