100th Anniversary of the First Anti-Marijuana Law
April 29, 2011
The Government's Hundred Years' War on Marijuana
April 27, 2011 by Dale Gieringer, California NORML
This week marks a centennial worth notice if not celebration, the
100th anniversary of the nation's first anti-marijuana law. On April
29th, 1911, Massachusetts enacted a statute making it illegal to sell
or possess cannabis or other "hypnotic" drugs such as opium without a
prescription. Violators were subject to a $100 fine and up to six
months in jail, and just being present could get you three months.
Ironically, there is no record of any public concern about cannabis
at the time. "Marijuana," the Mexican name for cannabis leaf rolled
into cigarettes, was still unknown outside a few border settlements
in the Southwest.
The Massachusetts law was not primarily aimed at cannabis, but at
opium, morphine and other narcotics, abuse of which had become a
concern among Progressive Era reformers and temperance advocates. By
prohibiting the use of narcotics without a prescription, it was hoped
their abuse could be stemmed. Cannabis was added for the sake of
completeness, being one of the familiar hypnotic drugs traditionally
available in pharmacies. This incidental decision would turn out to
have far-reaching consequences, aptly illustrating the dangers of
governmental misjudgment in matters of drug regulation.
Significantly, the law expressly permitted pharmaceutical sales of
cannabis, the medical value of which was widely acknowledged at the
time. Only in 1937 was medical cannabis suppressed at the insistence
of federal narcotics boss Harry Anslinger, whose last-century "reefer
madness" policy sadly remains with us today.
Other states soon followed Massachusetts in passing anti-cannabis
laws of their own, beginning with California, Maine, Indiana and
Wyoming in 1913. As in Massachusetts, there was no public concern
about marijuana at the time.
Significantly, the laws were the handiwork of pharmacy boards and
Progressive era advocates of government regulation, who believed
that drug use should be restricted by force of law. Officials
admitted that cannabis was not a problem at the time, but warned that
it might become one unless steps were taken to prevent it.
Ironically, only after being prohibited did cannabis become widely
popular. During the 1920s, marijuana use spread inexorably, from
Mexican and Caribbean immigrants to jazz musicians, hipsters, and
reprobate youth. As usage proliferated, so did laws against it.
Over 30 states had prohibited marijuana by 1937, when Congress
enacted the first federal prohibition law, and penalties were further
enhanced in the 1950s. None of this did anything to prevent an
explosion in marijuana use in the late 1960s and 1970s. The result
was to leave marijuana firmly established as America's second most
popular intoxicant after alcohol, a status it seems destined to enjoy
for the foreseeable future.
Ironically, America's problems with marijuana post-date the laws that
were supposed to prevent them. Since 1911, the number of consumers
has soared from a handful to tens of millions Americans. Meanwhile,
over 20 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges;
over 40,000 are now in prison for marijuana crimes; marijuana
production has become a multi-billion dollar illicit industry;
billions of taxpayers dollars have been spent on eradication and
enforcement, and thousands of lives lost in prohibition-related
violence in Mexico and elsewhere. Over the same time, not a single
death has been recorded from a toxic reaction to marijuana.
In sum, the evidence is overwhelming that the 100-year war on
cannabis has failed. In practice, prohibition has served as a
crime-creation program, criminalizing otherwise innocent Americans,
promoting a criminal market, and generating disrespect for the law.
In the wake of this historic failure, public support for
re-legalizing marijuana has recently risen to record levels, reaching
majorities in the West Coast and New England. As in 1911, so today
it is government officials, drug cops and bureaucrats, now entrenched
in a multibillion-dollar complex of anti-drug agencies and programs,
who are the staunchest supporters of the failed system that keeps
them on the public payroll. Americans would be well advised to
reject their bankrupt paternalism and reclaim their historical
freedom to use cannabis.
[For more on early anti-cannabis laws see: "The Forgotten Origins of
Cannabis Prohibition in California,"
Dale Gieringer, California NORML
April 27, 2011
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