Eighty years ago today, on August 2 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed House Bill 6385: the Marihuana Tax Act into law. The Act for the first time imposed federal criminal penalties on activities specific to the possession, production, and sale of cannabis — thus setting in motion the federal prohibition that continues to this day.
Members of Congress held only two hearings to debate the merits of the bill, which largely relied on the sensational testimony of Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger — who opined, “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.” Over objections from the American Medical Association, whose representatives opposed the proposed federal ban, members of the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure by voice votes.
Commenting on the 80-year-anniversary, NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said:
“Today, as was the case eighty years ago, the enforcement of cannabis prohibition is failed policy that financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, impedes legitimate scientific research into the plant’s medicinal properties, and disproportionately impacts communities of color.”
“It is time for federal lawmakers to acknowledge this reality and the error of their ways. It is time to stop ceding control of the marijuana market to untaxed criminal enterprises and for lawmakers to implement common-sense regulations governing cannabis’ personal use by adults and licensing its production.”
“In 2017, we are experiencing the death rattle of marijuana prohibition, with eight states and the District of Columbia having legalized the adult use of cannabis and 30 states permitting physician authorized access to medical marijuana. Yet until we achieve reform at the federal level, patients and others still remain unduly at risk.”
Below is a brief background as written by NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano in The Citizens’ Guide to State By State Marijuana Laws:
Americans lived in harmony with the marijuana plant from the colonial era until just after the turn of the 20th century. Some historians believe that settlers harvested America’s first hemp crop in 1611 near Jamestown, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, the British Crown ordered colonialists to engage in wide scale hemp cultivation - a practice that farmers continued in earnest for the next 300 years.
Physician William O’Shaughnessy introduced Americans to the herb’s medicinal value in mid-1800s. While practicing in India, O’Shaughnessy began documenting the medical uses of cannabis, which he introduced into Western medicine in 1839. By the 1850s, the preparation of oral cannabis extracts became available in U.S. pharmacies, where they remained a staple for the next 60 years. Despite the drug’s widespread availability as an herbal remedy, reports of recreational abuses of cannabis were virtually nonexistent in the literature of that time. In fact, during Congressional hearings leading up to the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 – the nation’s first federal anti-drug act – witnesses argued against prohibiting cannabis, stating that “as a habit forming drug its use is almost nil.” Congress heeded their advice and wisely excluded cannabis from the statute.
But what was once reefer sanity quickly gave way to reefer madness. Over the following years, legislatures in several U.S. states, including California, Colorado, Maine, and Massachusetts outlawed the plant’s possession – often citing lurid, unsubstantiated claims about the weed’s adverse effects among predominantly poor and ethnic populations. By the late 1920s, newspaper headlines and editorials sensationalizing the alleged dangers of pot began sweeping the nation. Well respected publications like The New York Times proclaimed that marijuana intoxication caused incurable insanity, while law enforcement personnel alleged that pot use triggered wanton sexual desires, and irreparably destroyed the brain. “If continued, the inevitable result is insanity, which those familiar with it describe as absolutely incurable, and, without exception ending in death,” declared a 1933 editorial in The Journal of Law and Criminology. Few in the public, and even fewer elected officials disputed these claims.
By 1937, members of Congress – who had resisted efforts to clamp down on the drug some two decades earlier – were poised to take action. Following the lead of the states, most of which had now banned the plant’s possession and use, federal politicians readied to enact their own pot prohibition.
On April 14, 1937, Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced House Bill 6385. The measure sought to stamp out the recreational use of marijuana by imposing a prohibitive federal tax on activities involving the plant’s cultivation and possession. Members of Congress held only two hearings to debate the merits of the bill. The federal government’s chief witness during the hearings was Harry Anslinger, a law and order evangelist who directed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger’s anti-pot zealotry was legendary. Under oath, Anslinger told members of Congress, “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured” and called for its blanket criminalization. Over objections from the American Medical Association, which testified vociferously against the proposed federal ban, members of the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure. That August, President Franklin Roosevelt promptly signed the legislation into law. On October 1, 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act officially took effect, thus setting in motion the federal prohibition that continues unabated today.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. His writing and research have appeared in over 750 publications, scholarly and/or peer-reviewed journals, as well as in more than a dozen textbooks and anthologies. Mr. Armentano is the co-author of the book Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (2009, Chelsea Green), which has been licensed and translated internationally. His most recent book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws (2015), is available from Whitman Publishing. He is the 2013 Freedom Law School Health Freedom Champion of the Year and the 2013 Alfred R. Lindesmith award recipient in the achievement in the field of scholarship.