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On This Date: FDR Made Marijuana Illegal 81 Years Ago

by Countable | Updated on 8.1.18

On August 2, 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the first federal marijuana law, which prohibited the substance beginning in October of that year (yes, that’s how they spelled marijuana back then). It effectively banned the possession of pot by requiring users to obtain a tax stamp, which they couldn’t buy without providing details about the amount and location of their marijuana, thereby incriminating themselves in the process.

While the law was overturned by the Supreme Court and was officially repealed by Congress in 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act simultaneously — thus ensuring that marijuana remained illegal. The prohibition continues to this day at the federal level, though a growing numbers of states have chosen to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational uses.

Why ban marijuana?

In the early decades of the 1900s, many states enacted laws restricting the use of cannabis (the plant the drug comes from) for medical and recreational purposes in order to prevent addiction. By the 1930s, every state had adopted uniform regulations that were aimed at controlling marijuana. The U.S. also became a party to the International Opium Convention in 1925, which prevented “Indian hemp” from being exported to countries where it was banned, and could only be sent to countries where it would only be used for medical or scientific purposes.

The primary case made against marijuana by the federal government was that its use had become “a national menace” in the words of Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the DEA’s predecessor). In congressional testimony Anslinger urged members to vote for the Marihuana Tax Act and described what he believed to be marijuana’s effect:

“Some individuals have a complete loss of sense of time or a sense of value. They lose their sense of place. They have an increased feeling of physical strength and power. Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes. Other people will laugh uncontrollably. It is impossible to say what the effect will be on any individual.”

Aside from raising concerns about the effects of marijuana, Anslinger stoked cultural fears by citing several instances of minorities using the drug before committing crimes, leading some to allege that racial bias played a role in its prohibition. Increasing numbers of Mexicans were immigrating to the U.S., and the use of marijuana was common among those who worked on farms in the southwest and western parts of the country. Additionally, a concentrated type of marijuana known as hashish was used by some immigrants from the Middle East and surrounding regions.

Anslinger’s congressional hearings lasted a total of one hour, while the American Medical Association testified that there is “no evidence” of marijuana’s danger. Lawmakers were unmoved. The House Ways and Means Committee held one hearing of its own before approving the bill, which was then passed by the House of Representatives as a whole following 90 seconds of debate. The Senate followed suit after holding a brief hearing shortly thereafter, sending the bill to FDR’s desk for a signature.

What did the legislation do?

The Marihuana Tax Act was relatively simple — it levied a tax of about $1 on all who bought, sold, imported, grew, or prescribed marijuana. Violations of the law could lead to up to five years’ imprisonment or a $2,000 fine (that’s about $34,490 in today’s dollars). The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was granted administrative and regulatory powers while being tasked with enforcing the law.

If a doctor, for example, wished to prescribe marijuana to one of their patients they were required to report its use in a sworn statement that detailed the patient’s name and address, their illness, plus when and how much marijuana they were prescribed. Failure to immediately provide that information put both the doctor and the patient at risk of a fine or imprisonment.

The first two arrests for violating federal marijuana law came the day the Marihuana Tax Act went into effect, as Moses Baca was arrested for possession and Samuel Caldwell charged with dealing after selling Baca a few joints. Baca was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, while Caldwell was fined $1,000 and sentenced to four years hard labor.

What impact has it had since?

The prohibition of marijuana (and the “War on Drugs” more generally) has had a profound effect on U.S. crime and law enforcement policy to this day. The Drug Policy Alliance notes that over 700,000 Americans were arrested or cited for violating marijuana laws in 2014 — 88 percent of which were for possession only.

Another lingering point of contention in the marijuana debate is the so-called “gateway drug” theory, which suggests that using the drug will lead to the use of more dangerous drugs. That suggestion was controversial even in the 1940s, as New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned a study on marijuana use in the city. The research rebutted the notions put forward by Anslinger (who dismissed the study), finding that its use didn’t contribute to the use of harder drugs or a factor in causing crimes or juvenile delinquency.

Following a lawsuit brought against the U.S. government by Timothy Leary — a famed advocate for psychedelic drugs — challenging the constitutionality of the Marihuana Tax Act, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law in 1969 because it required self-incrimination and violated the Fifth Amendment as a result. Congress formally repealed the law a year later, but simultaneously passed the Controlled Substances Act to ensure that marijuana remained illegal.

Since then, things are beginning to change for marijuana and its advocates. Thirty states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical pot, while voters in another eight states (Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada) have chosen to regulate and tax recreational marijuana sales. D.C. voters did the same, but the plan to regulate marijuana was shut down by Congress, while Vermont became the first state to have its legislature legalize recreational marijuana.

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving / Public Domain)

Countable

Written by Countable

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(90)
  • Gail
    08/02/2017
    ···

    I think Countable needs to dig deeper as they are giving the reasons fronted by the government at the time. The real reason marijuana was made illegal is because the hemp plant, which has many uses because of its strength, was a threat to DuPont which was developing synthetic alternatives. It was then as it is now, all about corporate money. During Hoover’s presidency, Andrew Mellon became Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury and Dupont’s primary investor. He appointed his future nephew-in-law, Harry J. Anslinger, to head the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. These financial barron's held secret meetings to develop the strategy of criminalizing marijuana. Hemp was declared dangerous and a threat to their billion dollar enterprises so hemp had to go. They took an unknown Mexican slang word: ‘marihuana’ and pushed it into the consciousness of America by use of yellow journalism to promote Anslnger's crusade. They used the marijuana name because everyone knew of how amazing and useful hemp was. Hemp continued to be used around the world, but Americans had to import it as it could not be grown here until very recently. Always follow the money people. Pharmaceutical companies do the same thing here to block the sale of natural substances with healing properties so as to maintain a market for their drugs. Medical professionals expressed that the claims Ansnger was making were unfounded. Why didn't people listen? Fear. Americans need to realize how often they are manipulated by fear and take the time to really understand the issues so they are not just duped into supporting a campaign run by subterfuge. Countable, dig deeper and present more of the history please or don't bother explaining it.

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  • William
    Voted Angry
    08/02/2018
    ···

    It's not addictive, has multiple health benefits, no one has ever died from an overdose, and is a huge success to increase government income. We have examples in the USA and countries out side of the US.

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  • Ronald
    08/02/2017
    ···

    Isn't 80 years long enough to prohibit an item which (is easy to acquire anyway) and is also FAR BETTER than ALCOHOL?

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  • Mariah
    Voted Angry
    08/02/2018
    ···

    It is an extremely valuable plant with hundreds of uses!!!!! We have the natural receptors the plant provides!!! Make Cannabis federally legal!!

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  • Robert
    08/02/2017
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    Making marijuana legal and taxing it makes more since than fighting a losing battle.

    Like (25)
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  • Lauren
    08/02/2017
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    I support the legalization of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use. Legalize it, regulate it, tax it.

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  • Andrea
    08/02/2017
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    Marijuana should be legalized. Way better than alcohol and think of the taxes it can generate. It could pay for health care!

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  • Steven
    08/02/2018
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    The U.S. federal government has no constitutional authority to criminalize marijuana, nor any other substance. Those powers were delegated to the states & the people as per the 10th Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

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  • AlexaB
    08/02/2017
    ···

    What are the negative features? Besides not having something to test like a breathalyzer that is the only issue. Technology will find a way, make this HARMLESS plant legal and have it aide in natural recovery paths for our sickest friends. There is no reason that cannabis should be a schedule 1 drug. Should be treated like alcohol and cigarettes.. honestly better than those considering the amount of deaths they cause per year compared to cannabis at 0 deaths EVER. Let's make some tax money on this and get it out of the black market.

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  • BananaNeil
    08/02/2017
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    "Adam Ruins Everything" did an episode on this. It's definitely worth watching. I think you can find it on YouTube.

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  • Joshua
    08/02/2018
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    Whether this is accurate or not, most Americans can agree that it’s absurd that marijuana is still a schedule 1 narcotic. It had also been proven to be less damaging to an individual’s health when compared to alcohol. I hope some of the closed minded old timers in D.C. change their stance soon. States across the our countries have made great strides for legalization, decriminalization, and for medicinal purposes as well.

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  • Lesley
    08/02/2017
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    Every state should be following Colorado 's lead.

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  • Alex
    08/03/2017
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    And marijuana is still illegal! We need to legalize it now!

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  • Kimberly
    08/02/2017
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    This is outdated law. We know so much more about it now, and it has helped so many people. Why should it be classified as a drug when it's not near the same as heroin, cocaine or meth? It's a plant that has been used for so many years by so many people groups. No one has died from it, yet millions die from prescription drugs, which can be addictive. Please fight for this to be legalized in Tennessee.

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  • Poodle
    08/02/2017
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    Marijuana should be legal period! If alcohol is legal so should marijuana

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  • Jeff
    08/02/2017
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    Legalize marijuana.

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  • Keith
    08/02/2017
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    There are more deaths caused annually by aspirin than there are by marijuana. More simple than that, there are more deaths caused by sugar, due to diabetes, than there are marijuana. Moreover, alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous substances than marijuana, far more physically addictive (there's a difference between a mental addiction and a physical addiction, physical being the dangerous one) and we continue to sell them. Whereas research has found that marijuana can be used to treat glaucoma, cancer, anxiety and depression, insomnia, pain, opioid addiction, and the list goes on. If something that has such health benefits, is considered far less dangerous than the two major substances that are on the market, or even sugar, this means it is time to consider decriminalizing it, or at least making it medically available in all 50 states and territories. It is also documented that the Nixon administration used the myths of marijuana to discredit anti-Vietnam protesters. (If the hippies were shown to be dangerous drug addicts, they're message could be ignored, and we could continue to wage our war.) If 18 and 21 year olds are considered mature enough to smoke cigarettes, join the military, vote, and drink alcohol, then we must agree that they are mature enough to make this decision. Lastly, if I may cater to your conservative roots, Colorado has shown that legalization creates an economic boom. Within a year of legalization, they were having to give money back to the people. Think about it: this would create a way to lower income taxes, without putting an unnecessary burden on any of the classes, as well as provide state revenue. Being that you (my representatives) are conservatives, why would you not jump at this opportunity? There are far more myths about marijuana than actual empirically supported facts. And something that has this much benefit, with far less risk than our legal substances, needs to be decriminalized. We even have a constitutional right to own and operate something that kills millions more than marijuana ever has (marijuana still being 0, because it would take smoking literally thousands of pounds nonstop for weeks, to overdose).

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  • Bluewitsend
    08/02/2017
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    Legalize marijuana. Tax the sale. Use the tax money for treatment and to fight against hard drugs like opioids and heroine. Relieve our legal system of this burden.

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  • Robert
    08/02/2017
    ···

    Marijuana should be legal in all states, it has many beneficial uses. What hurts families isn't marijuana is the laws against marijuana that create havoc and family discord through imprisonment. Alcohol causes numerous problems in the United States.

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  • Maggie
    08/02/2017
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    It's very informative to see how Portugal has fared in the nearly two decades since decriminalizing all drugs. Overall their crime rate has dropped by double digits, among other significant benefits.

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