The Story of Cannabis Prohibition: Why Was Pot Made Illegal?

In the last two decades, cannabis has taken back its rightful place as an amazingly powerful medicinal plant, but the story of how it first became illegal after millennia of free use is filled with lies, deception and careful manipulation of the masses.

The reason for the unjust and illegitimate demonization of cannabis which started at the turn of the 20th century, and subsequently climaxed during the 1930’s resulting in a full-blown illegalization in the United States, was in fact a brilliantly planned, and carefully orchestrated scheme which only had profit as its core principle.

Needless to say, forcefully influencing the public’s opinion was much easier to accomplish back in the day, because the only sources of information were newspapers and books.

I recommend you take all of this with a lot of skepticism because some of these claims are quite difficult to prove.

But I can honestly say, as I’ve spent a significant amount of time researching this topic, that some things really do add up. When you look at the big picture a lot of it seems very logical.

Actually logical and sinister combined.

There are four key players in this narrative, the first one being Harry J. Anslinger, who was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a predecessor of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency—the DEA), where he served as an acting commissioner for 32 years, which is by today’s standards unimaginable.

harry jacob anslinger

Harry J. Anslinger

It is suspected that Anslinger was placed on that position by Andrew Mellon (of Mellon Bank), who was during that era the wealthiest American, and also the Treasury Secretary. This is highly disputable, but some sources claim that Anslinger married Mellon’s niece, and other pieces of the puzzle suggest that there was indeed some sort of a connection between the two men.

aw mellon

Andrew Mellon

The third was William Randolph Hearst, a powerful publishing magnate and businessman, who’s sensationalistic style of journalism heavily influenced the perception of the masses regarding cannabis. At that time his newspaper and magazine empire was the biggest in the world.

william randolph hearst

William Randolph Hearst

The fourth and final was Lammot DuPont, of the famous DuPont family, who at the time ran a colossal family-owned explosives, chemical and pharmaceutical company. They invented several artificial patents that could have easily been replaced by hemp. The DuPont empire is also believed to have been heavily backed by Mellon Bank.

lammot dupont

Lammot DuPont

We’ll get to these individuals a bit later in the article, but first we need to take a step back and look at how was cannabis perceived prior to their era, and what exactly happened that made these powerful men see it as a major threat to their enormous business empires.

How were cannabis and hemp perceived before the Mexican Revolution

Even before the United States territories officially became America, the production of hemp was already in full swing on the North American continent.

Hemp is the non-psychoactive variation of the cannabis plant, at the time mostly used for the production of fabric and ropes, but it also has a wide range of other possible appliances, which we’ll cover later on.

At the beginning of the 17th century, King James I declared that every English settler in the new territories is obligated to grow one hundred hemp plants, which would be exported back to England to be used for the creation of rope and fabric for sails and uniforms, all for colonization purposes.

This order was a part of the Virginia Company decree. Hemp continued to be a very important crop during the Civil War, as the requirements for rope and various other fabrics significantly grew during wartime.

On the other hand, medicinal properties of the cannabis plant were also realized early on.

American medical journals from the late 18th century had various remedies from hemp seeds and roots for conditions like inflammation, venereal diseases and incontinence.

At the beginning of the 19th century, an Irish doctor named William O’Shaughnessy traveled to India, and found that cannabis and its extracts were used for a very wide range of medical issues.

William O’Shaughnessy

William O’Shaughnessy

O’Shaughnessy returned with this knowledge to Europe, and of course brought some cannabis seeds and plants with him. The news spread quickly, and Europeans and Americans were able to purchase various cannabis extracts in pharmacies and other institutions for ailments such as chronic pain, insomnia, headaches and migraines, inflammation and appetite.

The work of O’Shaughnessy was continued by the French scientist and doctor Jacques-Joseph Moreau, who was also fascinated by the versatile nature of the cannabis plant. His findings were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Jacques-Joseph Moreau

Jacques-Joseph Moreau

He was also a member of the Club Des Hashischins, which was a Paris-based group of socialites comprised mostly of writers like Charles Baudelaire, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, where they experimented with substances like hashish and opium.

During this era it was common for scientific and literary circles to explore the effects of these substances, for recreational – but also inspiration-inducing purposes.

Specifically, doctor Moreau became fascinated with hashish which he discovered on his four year long military expedition to Egypt with Napoleon Bonaparte.

His prime interest in hashish and other opiates was based on the belief that these substances because of their psychoactivity could replicate mental illnesses, and by doing so aiding the curing of patients who suffer from various mental disorders.

His book from 1845 “Hashish and Mental Alienation” was observing the similarities between dreams, illusions, hallucinations and hashish-induced psychoactive states. His work greatly assisted the advancement of modern psychopharmacology, and the use of psychotomimetic treatments.

“Hashish and Mental Alienation” was also the first book published by a scientist which revolved around a “drug”, even though cannabis and its extracts like hash in my opinion shouldn’t be considered as such, since they are entirely natural.

Unlike using just seeds and roots of hemp, utilizing cannabis flowers of the female plants has a much more powerful effect, because of the cannabinoids and terpenes that are located in this part of the plant.

The same goes for hash, which is an even more potent trichome-rich derivative of the cannabis plant. Trichomes for the unacquainted are the resin-producing glands located on the flowers (or buds), and for both medical and recreational consumers, the most important part of cannabis.

Both cannabis and hash extracts were added to the United States Pharmacopeia, (called the US Dispensatory at the time, which as an official abridgment of drug information), for the identification of medicinal compounds, published by a governmental authority.

Cannabis was listed in 1851, and entered as “Extractum Cannabis”, or Extract of Hemp, and it remained in the Pharmacopeia until 1942, even though it was declared illegal on a federal level in 1937.

In the 1851 (1) passage on cannabis it says:

“Extract of hemp is a powerful narcotic (here meaning sleep-producing drug), causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucinations, and, in its subsequent action, drowsiness and stupor, with little effect upon the circulation. It is asserted also to act as a decided aphrodisiac, to increase the appetite, and occasionally to induce the cataleptic state. In morbid states of the system, it has been found to cause sleep, to allay spasm, to compose nervous disquietude, and to relieve pain. In these respects it resembles opium; but it differs from that narcotic in not diminishing the appetite, checking the secretions, or constipating the bowels. It is much less certain in its effects, but may sometimes be preferably employed, when opium is contraindicated by its nauseating or constipating effects, or its disposition to produce headache, and to check the bronchial secretion. The complaints in which it has been specially recommended are neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium tremens, insanity, and uterine hemorrhage.”

pharmacopeia excerpt

Excerpt from the US Dispensatory (Pharmacopeia)

This information indicates without a shadow of a doubt that the US government knew at the time how exactly beneficial cannabis was, so all the subsequent manipulation, propaganda and false-flagging had to serve a specific hidden agenda.

We’ll cover the reasons behind this crime in the next part of the article, which is about why was this all-natural, probably the most health-beneficial plant in the world made illegal.

The fictitious reasons for the prohibition

Following the violence of the Mexican Revolution which started in 1910, over 200,000 thousand refugees fled from Mexico, and the majority of them settled in the United States.

During this time, both cannabis and its non-psychotropic cousin hemp were heavily used in the US for a wide variety of reasons including the creation of medicine, textile, plastic, food products, body care products, construction elements, nutrition supplements and much more.

A big part of this deceit was that the American public was only accustomed to liquid cannabis extracts and solid hashish (which was consumed orally), and were utterly unfamiliar with smoking cannabis.

The other part was in the name itself. The general population was familiar with the name cannabis, because this is the actual name of the plant.

Once the Mexican immigrants started pouring to the states seeking shelter, the authorities started using the name marijuana, which is a Mexican slang term for cannabis. Actually the Mexicans called it marihuana, and it’s believed that the misspelling was also intentional, to further confuse the public.

One of the conspirators, William Randolph Hearst, lost an extremely large amount of land in Mexico during the rebellion. It is speculated to have been over 800,000 acres.

Even for a dominant magnate such as him, this would’ve been quite the blow, and a reasonable motive to hold a serious grudge against the Mexican people, and seek revenge in whichever way he can.

Unfortunately for the peasant refugees who fled to the US to escape the perils of war, they became his prime target.

Also his businesses heavily relied on the production of paper from timber (he had a lot of land in the US used for this reason), and hemp was threatening to overtake this segment of economy, as a superior and generally more cost-effective crop.

While Hearst used his enormous newspaper empire to convince the public that these refugees were the devil incarnate (which I’ll elaborate on in the continuation of the text), Harry J. Anslinger also made some similar moves to destroy the reputation of both the immigrants, and the plant they were consuming.

In order to understand fully Anslinger’s motives, we need to take a step back.

He was appointed as the head of the newly-found government department FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics), which was supposed to be in charge of maintaining that the prohibition of alcohol was going smoothly.

This of course turned out to be a complete disaster as organized crime took control of the liquor market, and unregulated, some of the DIY alcoholic were poisonous, leaving numerous people dead in the process.

The state soon realised that the prohibition should be abolished. Anslinger remained in charge of the FBN, but there was practically nothing for him, or the entire department to do.

Before Anslinger and the FBN made “marijuana” public enemy number one, there is evidence that he spoke highly of cannabis, and when asked by an interviewer does it make people violent or insane he was quoted to have replied: “there is no more absurd fallacy”.

This pretty much translates to “that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard”.

Something had to happen for him to completely change his viewpoint.

As previously mentioned, there are some speculations that he was appointed the head of the FBN by Andrew Mellon. It is also speculated that Anslinger was married into the Mellon family, but as I’m having difficulties finding a really solid piece of evidence to make such a claim, I’ll avoid suggesting that this is entirely true.

This wiki talk has a ton of information on the Anslinger/Mellon connection, so to avoid going off topic, I suggest you give it a read if you’re additionally interested in this part of the story.

Nonetheless, even if the connection between these two men isn’t so direct, some kind of high authority influence definitely pushed Anslinger in the anti-cannabis direction, as he completely changed his way of thinking about pot.

Why Anslinger changed his Mind

anslinger quote

The theory is that Anslinger was heavily influenced and aided by Hearst, Mellon and DuPont in order to ban marijuana (read hemp and cannabis-infused medicine) on US soil.

Hemp was becoming recognized as a much more profitable crop then lumber, and this was a capital threat to William Hearst, who had massive timberland across America, used to create paper for his newspaper empire.

On the other hand DuPont was both a chemical and pharmaceutical company (and still is to this day). Lammot DuPont wanted hemp and cannabis to be pushed out of the market because they were a direct competitor. Some sources also suggesting that Mellon had direct financial ties to the DuPont corporation (2).

DuPont created rayon, which is an artificial (synthetic) fiber in 1924, and later its successor nylon, in 1935.

These petroleum-based fibers (and even gasoline), could have easily been replaced by hemp, the cheaper and completely natural alternative.

The thing that made hemp a real threat to these men was the invention of the hemp decorticator, a small farm machine which mechanically separated the fibers from the stalk of the plant.

hemp decorticator

In warm climates, on one acre of land the hemp plant produces four times more cellulose than one acre of trees, because it could be yielded three times during one year. By using the simple and affordable hemp decorticator, small farms could have made their own hemp and create cellulose.

Of course there are many other uses for the hemp plant, ranging from clothing, fuel, construction materials, food and much more.

hemp uses

Illustration on the possible uses of hemp

What’s also quite interesting in all this is that Henry Ford made the car body for his Model T by using hemp panels, which had an impact strength 10 times greater than a regular steel car body, and Ford even envisioned that the car could have also run on hemp fuel.

This prototype was made in 1941, which was possible because the Marijuana Tax Act from 1937 didn’t prohibit growing hemp (as is has minimal levels of cannabinoids), but it did paralyze small businesses as they’ve added a hefty transfer tax for anyone who wanted to grow this crop.

Monopoly was preserved, and hemp was placed under the rug. There it remained until World War II, when Japan blocked its supplies from the Phillipines to the US. American farmers were asked to grow hemp once more, to aid their nation in times of war. A private company called War Hemp Industries was created to subsidize the farming.

hemp help wanted

The US government also made an educational video called “Hemp for Victory” where they specify why and how hemp should be grown and processed in the times of great hardship.

Another saddening piece of the puzzle is the article published in the “Popular Mechanics” magazine in 1938, which named hemp as the “next billion dollar crop”, precisely describes all the potential uses of the plant, even though it was made insanely difficult for small business to pay the expensive taxes placed on hemp production.

billion dollar crop

In light of all this, it’s not that hard to imagine these shrewd tycoons trying their very best to squeeze hemp out of the picture, because it had a pretty good chance of overthrowing their industries, and as they understood this perfectly, they took action.

How was the smearing campaign, and subsequently the outlawing orchestrated

In order to confuse the American public to fit their agenda, the group heavily relied on the unfamiliarity of the general public towards using cannabis in the same manner as tobacco, in the form of cigarettes and with pipes.

By doing so they managed to convince the majority of the population that consuming “marijuana” a person would become extremely aggressive and under the influence would (by default) commit atrocious crimes.

The way in which they coordinated their vision seems almost comical by modern standards, but as I mentioned on the beginning of this piece, the opinions of masses was much easier to control and direct at the time, as they had so few sources of information, and none of them was uncensored.

Anslinger is infamous for creating some utterly ludicrous and extremely racist remarks about cannabis and the immigrants, but as they labeled it marijuana, nobody except some Mexicans who were already living in America knew what substance he was talking about.

Marijuana was a completely new word in United States.

He describes how a marijuana cigarette effects the common man.

“First, you will fall into a delirious rage. Then you will be gripped by dreams… of an erotic character. Then you will lose the power of connected thought. Finally, you will reach the inevitable end-point: Insanity.”

Here are a couple more quotes:

“Marijuana turns man into a wild beast. If marijuana bumped into Frankenstein’s monster on the stairs, the monster would drop dead of fright.”

“Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”

There are plenty more very similar to these mentioned, but I think you get what type of picture Anslinger was trying to paint.

Because these quotes appeared regularly in daily newspapers during the 1930’s, you can imagine what effect they had on the readers, especially when we consider that 99.9% of them didn’t have the slightest idea what marijuana is.

Also, the race-card was unfortunately very clever, as people naturally tend to fear things they don’t completely understand. It was much easier to convince a regular person that an immigrant of different color is smoking some devil-plant and is looking to rape his entire family, then for instance his caucasian next door neighbour.

These types of headlines appeared regularly on all of Hearst’s publications, and after reading such brainwashing garbage over extended periods of time, the public became extremely fearful of both the immigrants, and the spawn of Satan, marijuana.

satan marijuana

Connecting cannabis with devil worshiping was also very popular at the time, additionally contributing to the fear of the unknown.

devil's weed

devil's harvest

devil's harvest

For further indoctrination of the population, numerous films were made, in the likes of Reefer Madness (1936), and Marijuana: The Devil’s Weed (1936).

This unjust campaign lasted for a long time, persistently convincing the public that cannabis (titled marijuana) is something that will turn your daughter into a prostitute, and your son into a rapist murderer.

What did we learn?

The lengths these men went through to execute their plan, and the tactics they used is in one word—horrendous. Undoubtedly there were many other important figures that helped all of this become a reality, but they somehow managed to remain in the shadows.

In my opinion this story serves as a reminder that men who have such high positions of power will stop at nothing to get what they want, and I sincerely doubt that anything changed in regards to that over the course of the last 90 years.

It might be more difficult to change our perception about a specific topic in the 21st century, but the tools for disinformation and attention-occupancy with idiotic and shallow things also became much more powerful.

There is a brilliant quote from the 1st Baron of Acton, which goes:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

This short sentence entails something that people usually tend to forget, is that the human essence isn’t designed to hold such power over other people, because it is by default completely unnatural. The weight of this enormous power over other living creatures corrodes the spirit, and because of this men with such monstrous control are completely oblivious to any ethical and moral values.

J.R.R. Tolkien made a justful metaphor to this negative phenomenon in his Lord of the Ring series, where the ring-bearer becomes corrupted and malicious from the sheer presence of its power.

Just like in the book, some people handle this burden better than others, but the effect is always the same, and can be described as becoming evil.

In this particular case Anslinger served only as a puppet and holds no real power, but the other three who were multi-billionaires by today’s standards disregard any sense of common good and stop at nothing to fulfill their selfish needs, which are to maintain and increase their power for as long as they can.

References

  1. George B. Wood and Franklin Bache;1851, The Dispensatory of the United States of America, 9th edition; 332-334
  2. Jack Herer, Emperor Wears No Clothes, 1985
Categories Culture

A passionate cannabis enthusiast, Marco mainly writes about cannabis culture and basics. Intensely skeptical about the establishment and a firm believer of critical thinking.

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