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Carl Olsen's Marijuana Archive

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Now, first again, does everybody see the date, 1937?  You may have thought that we have had a national marijuana prohibition for a very long time.  Frankly, we haven't.

     The marijuana prohibition is part and parcel of that era which is now being rejected rather generally -- the New Deal era in Washington in the late 30s.

     Number two, you know, don't you, that whenever Congress is going to pass a law, they hold hearings.  And you have seen these hearings.  The hearings can be extremely voluminous, they go on and on, they have days and days of hearings.  Well, may I say, that the hearings on the national marijuana prohibition were very brief indeed.  The hearings on the national marijuana prohibition lasted one hour, on each of two mornings and since the hearings were so brief I can tell you almost exactly what was said to support the national marijuana prohibition.

     Now, in doing this one at the FBI Academy, I didn't tell them this story, but I am going to tell you this story.  You want to know how brief the hearings were on the national marijuana prohibition?

     When we asked at the Library of Congress for a copy of the hearings, to the shock of the Library of Congress, none could be found.  We went "What?"  It took them four months to finally honor our request because -- are you ready for this?  -- the hearings were so brief that the volume had slid down inside the side shelf of the bookcase and was so thin it had slid right down to the bottom inside the bookshelf.  That's how brief they were.  Are you ready for this?  They had to break the bookshelf open because it had slid down inside.

     There were three bodies of testimony at the hearings on the national marijuana prohibition.

     The first testimony came from Commissioner Harry Anslinger, the newly named Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.  Now, I think some of you know that in the late 20s and early 30s in this country there were two Federal police agencies created, the FBI and the FBN -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

     In our book, I talk at great length about how different the histories of these two organizations really are.  But, the two organizations, the FBI and the FBN had some surface similarities and one of them was that a single individual headed each of them for a very long time.  In the case of the FBI, it was J. Edgar Hoover, and in the case of the FBN it was Harry Anslinger, who was the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 until 1962.

     Commissioner Anslinger gave the Government testimony and I will quote him directly.  By the way, he was not working from a text that he had written.  He was working from a text that had been written for him by a District Attorney in New Orleans, a guy named Stanley.  Reading directly from Mr. Stanley's work, Commissioner Anslinger told the Congressmen at the hearings, and I quote, "Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death."  That was the Government testimony to support the marijuana prohibition from the Commissioner.

     The next body of testimony -- remember all of this took a total of two hours -- uh ... you understand what the idea was, don't you?  The idea was to prohibit the cultivation of hemp in America.  You all know, because there has been some initiative here in California, that hemp has other uses than its euphoriant use.  For one, hemp has always been used to make rope.  Number two, the resins of the hemp plant are used as bases for paints and varnishes.  And, finally, the seeds of the hemp plant are widely used in bird seed.  Since these industries were going to be affected the next body of testimony came from the industrial spokesmen who represented these industries.

     The first person was the rope guy.  The rope guy told a fascinating story -- it really is fascinating -- the growth of a hemp to make rope was a principle cash crop right where I am from, Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland at the time of the Revolutionary War.  But, said the rope guy, by about 1820 it got cheaper to import the hemp we needed to make rope from the Far East and so now in 1937 we don't grow any more hemp to make rope in this country -- it isn't needed anymore.

     If you heard that story, there are two things about it that I found fascinating.  Number one, it explains the long-standing rumor that our forefathers had something to do with marijuana.  Yes, they did -- they grew it.  Hemp was the principal crop at Mount Vernon.  It was a secondary crop at Monticello.  Now, of course, in our research we did not find any evidence that any of our forefathers had used the hemp plant for euphoriant purposes, but they did grow it.

     The second part of that story that, to me is even more interesting is -- did you see the date again - 1937?  What did the rope guy say?  We can get all the hemp we need to make rope from the Far East, we don't grow it hear anymore because we don't need to.

     Five years later, 1942, we are cut off from our sources of hemp in the Far East.  We need a lot of hemp to outfit our ships for World War II, rope for the ships, and therefore, the Federal Government, as some of you know, went into the business of growing hemp on gigantic farms throughout the Midwest and the South to make rope to outfit the ships for World War II.

     So, even to this day, if you are from the Midwest you will always meet the people who say, "Gosh, hemp grows all along the railroad tracks."  Well, it does.  Why?  Because these huge farms existed all during World War II.

     But, the rope people didn't care.  The paint and varnish people said "We can use something else."  And, of the industrial spokesmen, only the birdseed people balked.  The birdseed people were the ones who balked, and the birdseed person was asked, "Couldn't you use some other seed?"

     These are all, by the way, direct quotes from the hearings.  The answer the birdseed guy gave was, "No, Congressman, we couldn't.  We have never found another seed that makes a bird’s coat so lustrous or makes them sing so much."

     So, on the ground that the birdseed people needed it -- did you know that the birdseed people both got and kept an exemption from the Marihuana Tax Act right through this very day for so-called "denatured seeds"?

     In any event, there was Anslinger's testimony, there was the industrial testimony -- there was only one body of testimony left at these brief hearings and it was medical.  There were two pieces of medical evidence introduced with regard to the marijuana prohibition.

     The first came from a pharmacologist at Temple University who claimed that he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died.  When asked by the Congressmen, and I quote, "Doctor, did you choose dogs for the similarity of their reactions to that of humans?"  the answer of the pharmacologist was, "I wouldn't know, I am not a dog psychologist."

     Well, the active ingredient in marijuana was first synthesized in a laboratory in Holland after World War II.  So what it was this pharmacologist injected into these dogs we will never know, but it almost certainly was not the active ingredient in marijuana.

     The other piece of medical testimony came from a man named Dr. William C. Woodward.  Dr. Woodward was both a lawyer and a doctor and he was Chief Counsel to the American Medical Association.  Dr. Woodward came to testify at the behest of the American Medical Association saying, and I quote, "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug."

     What's amazing is not whether that's true or not.  What's amazing is what the Congressmen then said to him.  Immediately upon his saying, and I quote again, "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug", one of the Congressmen said, "Doctor, if you can't say something good about what we are trying to do, why don't you go home?"

     That's an exact quote.  The next Congressman said, "Doctor, if you haven't got something better to say than that, we are sick of hearing you."

     Now, the interesting question for us is not about the medical evidence.  The most fascinating question is: why was this legal counsel to the most prestigious group of doctors in the United States treated in such a high-handed way?  And the answer makes a principle thesis of my work -- and that is -- you've seen it, you've been living it the last ten years.  The history of drugs in this country perfectly mirrors the history of this country.

     So look at the date -- 1937 -- what's going on in this country?  Well, a lot of things, but the number one thing was that, in 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt was reelected in the largest landslide election in this country's history till then.  He brought with him two Democrats for every Republican, all, or almost all of them pledged to that package of economic and social reform legislation we today call the New Deal.

     And, did you know that the American Medical Association, from 1932, straight through 1937, had systematically opposed every single piece of New Deal legislation.  So that, by 1937, this committee, heavily made up of New Deal Democrats is simply sick of hearing them: "Doctor, if you can't say something good about what we are trying to do, why don't you go home?"

     So, over the objection of the American Medical Association, the bill passed out of committee and on to the floor of Congress.  Now, some of you may think that the debate on the floor of Congress was more extensive on the marijuana prohibition.  It wasn't.  It lasted one minute and thirty-two seconds by my count and, as such, I will give it to you verbatim.

     The entire debate on the national marijuana prohibition was as follows -- and, by the way, if you had grown up in Washington, DC as I had you would appreciate this date.  Are you ready?  The bill was brought on to the floor of the House of Representatives -- there never was any Senate debate on it not one word -- 5:45 Friday afternoon, August 20.  Now, in pre-air-conditioning Washington, who was on the floor of the House?  Who was on the floor of the House?  Not very many people. 

     Speaker Sam Rayburn called for the bill to be passed on "tellers".  Does everyone know "tellers"?  Did you know that for the vast bulk of legislation in this country, there is not a recorded vote.  It is simply, more people walk past this point than walk past that point and it passes -- it's called "tellers".  They were getting ready to pass this thing on tellers without discussion and without a recorded vote when one of the few Republicans left in Congress, a guy from upstate New York, stood up and asked two questions, which constituted the entire debate on the national marijuana prohibition.

     "Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?"

     To which Speaker Rayburn replied, "I don't know.  It has something to do with a thing called marihuana.  I think it's a narcotic of some kind."

     Undaunted, the guy from Upstate New York asked a second question, which was as important to the Republicans as it was unimportant to the Democrats.  "Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?"

     In one of the most remarkable things I have ever found in any research, a guy who was on the committee, and who later went on to become a Supreme Court Justice, stood up and –– do you remember?  — the AMA guy was named William C. Woodward — a member of the committee who had supported the bill leaped to his feet and he said, "Their Doctor Wentworth came down here.  They support this bill 100 percent."  It wasn't true, but it was good enough for the Republicans.  They sat down and the bill passed on tellers, without a recorded vote.

     In the Senate there never was any debate or a recorded vote, and the bill went to President Roosevelt's desk and he signed it and we had the national marijuana prohibition.

     Well, now once you buy it, the ball is going to roll like crazy.

The Early State Marijuana Laws

1938 to 1951

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