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Historical References
Marijuana, the First 12,000 Years

Marijuana - The First Twelve Thousand Years

A Nation of Drug Takers

America's Drug Users

We here offer a perfectly safe and reliable cure to those addicted to the habit of using opium or morphine in any manner whatever.

This advertisement appeared in the 1905 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue. The price per bottle for this cure: sixty-nine cents.

At the turn of the century when this notice first appeared, about one million Americans were addicted to drugs such as opium and morphine. Most Americans have an image of the drug addict as a decadent denizen of a dirty inner-city metropolis. Not so during America's adolescent years. In the early 1900s, when most Americans still lived in the country, the typical addict lived in a small town or on an isolated farm, he attended church regularly on Sunday, and would have been astounded if anyone intimated that because of his addiction he was a degenerate, a deviate or a criminal.

Opium, in fact, had been part of the American home-remedy drug cabinet almost from the time of the first settlements in America. Morphine, the active ingredient in opium, had been isolated in 1803. Inexpensive, potent, and reliable, morphine became a staple of the family drug arsenal as early as the 1830s. The invention of the hypodermic syringe in 1845 eventually led to such indiscriminate administration of this powerful pain killer during the Civil War that withdrawal came to be known across the nation as the "army disease".

After the war, the ranks of the addicted were swelled as well-meaning but ill-informed physicians, many of them little more than quacks, dispensed morphine at the sound of the faintest moan. To the doctor, morphine was a panacea that relieved pain and earned him a patient's gratitude and respect. Other sufferers, too isolated or poor to see a doctor, could treat themselves, as many did, with a variety of nostrums, usually laced with morphine, opium, or alcohol, which were available through the mail or from travelling medicine men.

The fact is that America is now, and has always been, a nation of pill poppers. At the same time, it is a nation that prides itself on the virtues of temperance and hard work. In advertising another of its elixirs, "White Star Secret Liquor Cure", for instance, Sears claimed that this potion "has saved many from that awful monster, Drink, and has protected thousands against a life of disease, poverty and degradation... a higher moral tone is upheld; in a word, it makes him a man among men."

Unlike opium, morphine, or alcohol, cannabis was a relatively obscure drug. The so-called hashish vice was still confined to the large cities and to a minority of writers, students, thrill seekers, and the bored upper classes. Had it not been for certain social and economic changes and an ambitious bureaucrat who saw the marijuana issue as a way to save his dying department and his job as czar of narcotics enforcement, most Americans probably would not have heard about marijuana or hashish until the 1960s.

Drugs and Minority Oppression

The story of how marijuana and hashish, drugs about which most Americans were totally ignorant and could not have cared about at the time they were outlawed, begins in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the events that led to the unprecedented criminalization of the drug user in America.

In the latter part of the 1860s, thousands of Chinese immigrants poured into the American west to work on the railways that were beginning to tentacle across the country. By the end of the 1870s, the construction boom petered out and there were more men than jobs. The railway and mining companies, the large farm owners, and manufacturers took advantage of the situation and offered the lowest possible wages for whatever work they had available. Although white laborers were unwilling to accept the pittances being offered, the Chinese had no such scruples. They needed to survive and they took what they could find. White laborers reacted by blaming the Chinese for ruining the economy and taking jobs away from native Americans.

Most of the Chinese held menial jobs, but some saved enough to become shop owners and eventually became wealthy businessmen. Some became rich by opening brothels. With men outnumbering women by a ratio of almost twenty to one, these flesh shops did a thriving business. Still others became well-to-do by opening up opium houses where drug-induced stupor assuaged the loneliness and despair of these impoverished immigrants, strangers in a land thousands of miles away from homes and families.

Whether the Chinese immigrant had a taste for opium before he crossed the Pacific, or whether he developed the habit once he settled in America, the fact is that the m den became the visible symbol of the Chinese presence on the West Coast and as such became the target of anti-Chinese sentiment. "Opium and the Chinese, to the mind of your average newspaper reader, are inseparable," wrote one newsman. [1]

The growing spectre of the opium den in the Chinatowns of many of the nation's cities kindled the resentment of many Americans toward what they regarded as a backwards race of degenerates. An editorial in the February 13, 1882, edition of the Tombstone Epitaph did not mince its bigotry:

The Chinese are the least desired immigrants who have ever sought the United States... the almond-eyed Mongolian with his pigtail, his heathenism his filthy habits, his thrift, and careful accumulation of savings to be sent back to the flowery kingdom. The most we can do is to insist that he is a heathen, a devourer of soup made from the flagrant juice of the rat, filthy disagreeable, and undesirable generally, an incumbance that we have determined shall not increase in this part of the world. [2]

In 1875, San Francisco passed the first city ordnance against the smoking or possession of opium in America. A year later, Virginia City, Nevada, enacted a similar law. Ostensibly, the reason for these laws was the adoption of opium smoking by young white boys and girls. Oregon's legislators gave their own reason for enacting its state law against opium: "Smoking opium is not our vice, and therefore, it may be that this legislation proceeds more from a desire to vex and annoy the 'Heathen Chinese' in this respect than to protect the people from the evil habit." [3]

When they passed these laws against opium, city and state lawmakers were merely adding one more restriction to those already aimed at ignobling the Chinese such as the queue ordinance of 1870, which required all prisoners in San Francisco's county jails to have their heads shaved.

It was not so much the seduction of children by opium, although this was a concern if not a reality, which was on the mind of many Americans when the country became opium conscious. Rather, it was the growing realization that middle-class America was in danger of decadence through overindulgence in drugs. Besides opium and morphine, chloral hydrate was reputedly enslaving Americans. College students were allegedly being corrupted by ether and chloroform fumes. Cocaine was reported to be inciting southern blacks to mayhem. Not for want of reason had America been christened "a nation of drug takers." [4]

With the increasing publicity being given to the looming menace of drug abuse, state governments were pressured to do something, especially where the opium problem was concerned. Unless steps were taken to restrict opiates, critics warned that "soon, the residents of our American cities will all be opium slaves." [5]

The Pure Food and Drug Act

To some extent, the antiopium laws adopted by various states were not meant solely to harass the Chinese, but were instead a reaction to what many saw as a real drug menace in America. The Chinese were merely the scapegoats.

Most of the laws promulgated by individual states attempted to curtail availability of drugs by requiring prescriptions for any opiates purchased. Pharmacists were obliged to retain these records for at least a year in some states. However, the Proprietry Association of America, which manufactured the opiate-laden over-the-counter drugs, was able to obtain a number of exemptions to various state laws whereby limited amounts of narcotics could still be sold in patent medicines without need for a prescription. These patent medicines were readily available and were liberally used for any and all illnesses, imagined or real, from headaches to alcoholism.

The more the public relied on these nostrums, the more dependent on their contents they became. While various states attempted to control the dispensing of narcotics by physicians through the prescription process, the restraints on the patent-drug industry were minimal. Restrictions on the medical profession were similarly lax and doctors could evade them in different ways.

"Dope doctors" who had no desire to comply with the law or who resented the paperwork involved in recording their drug dispensations, merely ordered drugs from companies in other states that had no such restrictions. These drugs could then be sold directly to patients without disobeying the law. Other doctors, who resented the competition of the patent-medicine manufacturers and the exclusion of proprietory medicines from state control, began to consider legal means to regulate the distribution of drugs at the national level.

The Constitution, however, made no provision for the regulation of drugs by the federal government. The only powers Congress might use involved the authority to regulate interstate commerce and impose taxes. After a long and involved examination of the problem, it was decided that the mandate over interstate traffic was authority enough to oversee the patent-medicine business.

On the premise that Americans were addicting themselves simply because they were unaware of the contents of the nostrums they were taking, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required that all patent medicines shipped across state lines had to list their ingredients if they contained more than a specified amount of opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, chloral hydrate, or cannabis. Three years later, Congress would adopt a second major drug law. This time, however, the impetus for such a law would come from international considerations.

Federal Antiopium Laws

In 1882, anti-Chinese feeling had risen to such a point that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for the next ten years. China reacted to this insult to its citizens by adopting an embargo against American manufactures. Faced with the loss of the lucrative Chinese market, and aware of China's efforts to eradicate its own domestic opium problem, President Theodore Roosevelt convened an international conference in 1909 in Shanghai to help China eradicate the problem of opium addiction among its inhabitants. By trying to impress China with its goodwill and concern about her drug crisis, the United States hoped to change China's attitude toward American goods.

It was with some degree of embarrassment, however, that the United States delegates to the Shanghai convention realized that their own country had no federal laws prohibiting the smoking of opium. To avoid being accused of hypocrisy, Congress quickly enacted such a law. Henceforth, importation of opium into the United States except at specific entry points, and then only with the provision that it was to be used exclusively for medical purposes, was prohibited. It was now a crime for anyone to buy or sell opium in the United States. By making the opium user a criminal, Congress attempted to suppress opium traffic in America.

Coming as it did while the Shanghai conference was in session, the delegates were greatly impressed with America's earnestness to deal with the problem. However, the various representatives attending the conference had not been empowered by their governments to write or adopt any international treaty for the control of world traffic in opium, so all they could do was congratulate the Americans and promise to make recommendations to their respective governments concerning such a global measure.

But the United States had not achieved its primary objective of gaining access to the Chinese markets, and so in 1911 the United States urged a second international meeting, this one to be held at The Hague. The British were cool to the proposal since India, its territorial province, was still supplying enormous quantities of opium to the Chinese market. Any restrictions on the opium trade would cut off this lucrative trade. Persia and Turkey were lass than enthusiastic for the same reason.

Undeterred, the Americans pressed on. Said Hamilton Wright, the American delegate: "Our move [the Shanghai conference] to help China in her opium reform gave us more prestige in China than any of our recent friendly acts toward her. If we continue and press steadily for the [Hague] Conference, China will recognize that we are sincere on her behalf, and the whole business may be used as oil to smooth the troubled water of our aggressive commercial policy there." [6]

To gain this foothold in China, Wright pressured Congress to adopt wide-sweeping antinarcotics laws. His appeal was aimed at American prejudices. Opium smoking in America, Wright declared, had been introduced by the Chinese and "one of the most unfortunate phases of the habit... was the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives and cohabiting with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities." [7]

Wright also incited latent racial fears. "It has been authoritatively stated," he said, "that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes of the South and other sections of the country." [8]

As initially proposed, the law required pharmacists to purchase tax stamps for narcotics, including cannabis, and demanded that they keep meticulous records of purchases of such drugs, regardless of amount.

The National Wholesale Druggist Association (NDWA) vehemently objected to such measures since the use of stamps and detailed record keeping would greatly increase the cost of doing business. The NDWA also objected to the inclusion of cannabis on the proscribed list. Dr. Charles West, their spokesman, said that there was no reason to consider cannabis in the same class as opium, morphine, and cocaine, since it was not habit forming. Dr. William Muir, spokesman for the New York Pharmaceutical Association, pointed out that cannabis was a major ingredient in corn cures. Having to keep detailed records of every sale of corn cures was ridiculous.

Eventually, the retail interests won out and the proposed legislation was defeated. Wright accurately foresaw the course of events at The Hague conference now that the United States was in the position of advocating international control of narcotics without having its own domestic laws against such drugs. Other nations that had such laws accused the United States of hypocrisy, since without domestic restrictions the United States would not have to abide by any international agreements to ban narcotics. Wright assured his fellow delegates that adoption of such legislation was only a matter of time, but he was not persuasive enough and the conference disbanded without agreement.

The Harrison Act

Disappointed but not yet beaten, Wright persuaded Congressman Francis Burton Harrison to introduce an amended antinarcotics bill in the House. The newly drafted legislation considerably simplified the record-keeping process, which pleased the pharmacists. However, the law did require pharmacists dispensing narcotics to register with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and pay for a tax stamp. By framing the law as a revenue measure, Congress felt that it could constitutionally oversee a law whose real intention was to regulate possession of opiates. When Congress adopted its antimarijuana law, this tax stamp pretext was again resorted to so that the federal government could constitutionally regulate possession and use of that drug as well.

The tax stamp measure also enabled federal officers to keep track of all legal dispensations of narcotics and placed federal enforcement of the law under the Internal Revenue Branch of the Treasury Department. Private individuals were not allowed to purchase these tax stamps, and therefore they were unable to obtain narcotics lawfully on their own. Possession of such drugs by a nonmedical individual was henceforth permitted only if prescribed by a physician or dentist. Physicians, however, were permitted to dispense narcotics directly to their patients while attending them, without having to record such actions.

Known as the Harrison Act, the statute was eventually adopted and became law in December 1914. Although it evolved into America's foremost drug-abuse law, the intention of the Harrison Act at the time of its conception and passage was really never directed toward the eradication of narcotic drugs but was merely a face-save piece of legislation, a law passed to honor American pledges given at The Hague convention that the United States would take steps to curtail criminal control of drug traffic. It was never meant to stand in the way of any addict who wanted to continue using drugs. It was merely to be a record-keeping bill, a piece of legislation that would cause minimum of bother to all concerned.

The legislators did not intend to make addiction illegal. Addicts could obtain all the drugs they wanted, provided they got them through registered suppliers. The Narcotics Division of the Internal Revenue Bureau was created not as a law enforcement body, but as a bookkeeping department to supervise collection of tax stamp monies.

But Congress got more than it bargained for. The bureaucrats who moved into the department began to feel the need to justify their existence beyond that of mere bookkeepers and they began to look for ways to expand and improve their worth. One way of becoming important was to take a more active part in overseeing the Harrison Act. But to do so, the terms of the act had to be broadened. To expand, there had to be an issue, one that Congress could understand and appreciate and at the same time see the need to bolster the Narcotics Division.

The plan began with a media campaign aimed at the alleged evils of narcotics. The idea was to stir up the public, make it appear that the country was on the verge of a drug-induced moral collapse. The themes were calculated to arouse fear and apprehension: children were being victimized; narcotics were lethal and enslaving; drug users were criminals. The campaign was such an overwhelming success in spreading panic that the bureau resorted to the same ploy years later when it sought to outlaw marijuana.

At the same time as it began its media campaign, the Bureau of Narcotics also prepared a second front aimed at increasing the scope of the Harrison Act through judicial reinterpretation of its terms. While the courts held that federal authorities had no right to arrest physicians for prescribing narcotics to known addicts in US vs. Jim Fuey Moy (1916), it also ruled that physicians were not immune to paying the tax on narcotics in US vs. Doremus (1919). This meant that doctors had to keep records of their dispensations. In a second ruling rendered the same day, the court also held in US vs. Webb et al. that it was unlawful for a doctor to give opiates to narcotics addicts merely to keep them from experiencing withdrawal. Only in cases of senility or intractable pain could an addict legally receive narcotics.

These two decisions were to haunt the medical profession. Henceforth, many reputable physicians were closely watched by overly zealous Treasury agents. Harassment was inevitable; humiliation was commonplace. On the slightest suspicion, doctors were hauled into court to answer charges concerning their medical practices.

The medical profession also began to feel that the courts were interfering with the prerogatives of the doctor to treat his patient in a manner best suited to that patient's welfare. A new fear also began to emerge: the country appeared to be moving toward state-controlled medicine and possibly compulsory health insurance.

Once bitten, the American Medical Association was twice shy. Years later, when Congress debated outlawing marijuana, Dr. William Woodward, representing the AMA, was one of its most vigorous opponents.

By making narcotics illegal, the price skyrocketed and addicts were forced to commit petty crimes to pay for their habit. Whereas they had previously been able to obtain narcotics from pharmacists and doctors, these outlets were no longer available. To meet their needs, addicts turned to the underworld and banded together, forming a drug subculture in various sections of the nation's large cities.

Branded a criminal, faced with soaring costs for drugs, the addict began to live up to the bureau's labelling of him as a degenerate and a parasite. The more the public read of crimes allegedly committed by addicts, the more they were willing to believe that mind-altering drugs of any sort transformed normally law-abiding citizens into criminals.

For its part, the Bureau of Narcotics's campaign to expand its prerogatives and jurisdiction was a huge success. Each year the bureau grew in prestige and manpower. The mark of its achievement is most clearly seen in its budgetary allowance, which skyrocketed from a mere $292,000 in 1915 to $1,708,528 in 1932, an increase of over 400 percent.


Shortly after the adoption of the Harrison Act, the United States also passed the Eighteenth Amendment, outlawing the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol across state lines. (Consumption, on the other hand, was still legal.)

Although following in the footsteps of the antinarcotics legislation, the crusade against demon rum had been going on long before there was any interest or concern over narcotics addiction. But coming in the aftermath of the Harrison Act, Prohibition became part and parcel of the new attitude toward drugs that would eventually draw marijuana into its nets of legalized morality.

In contrast to the antinarcotics laws, however, Prohibition came about with little debate. But like the Harrison Act, Prohibition continued the pattern of using federal authority to dictate morality to Americans and of placing enforcement of the law under the watchful eye of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

The successes of the antinarcotics and temperance movements had the effects of encouraging other reformist groups to "clean up" America. The next targets were tobacco, dancing, and jazz. The cigarette was branded as evil. There was no "energy more destructive of soul, mind and body, or more subversive of good morals, than the cigarette. The fight against the cigarette is a fight for civilization." While some states in the south and west eventually did adopt laws outlawing cigarettes, these statutes were soon rescinded, too unpopular to enforce.

The new dance crazes were another bugaboo of the reformists. Accused of encouraging sex on the dance floor, the tango, hesitation waltz, turkey trot, black bottom, and the Charleston were all denounced as licentious.

Jazz was similarly censured as causing "mental drunkenness." Many agreed with the superintendent of schools in Kansas City, Missouri, who said, "This nation has been fighting booze for a long time. I am just wondering whether jazz isn't going to be legislated against as well."

The reformist sentiment represented village America's resentment of urban America. Village America was WASP land, home of white, middle-class, Protestantism, home of morality, fundamentalist religion, and rural-minded respectability. Men beat their wives and children, but did it in the privacy of their own homes and toolsheds, not in any crowded tenement where their neighbors could see and hear. When they drank to excess, their wives or a neighbor would fetch them home, not the police. Rural Americans, who far outnumbered urban Americans in their rate of drug addiction at the turn of the century, cast not the mote from its own eye. Instead, they denounced minority groups, such as the Chinese and the Negroes for their addiction to opium and cocaine, and the Italians and the Irish for their boozing. These immigrants had been pouring into America by the millions. They had different cultures, different religions, and they spoke different languages. They crowded into cities and lived in squalid tenements, scratching for survival and looking for a way to escape their poverty.

What if they should take it into their heads to start a revolution? What if they rose en masse and tried to take by force what native-born Americans had struggled so hard to achieve? Ordinarily, the likelihood of anything like that was not very great, but what if they lost their senses as a result of taking drugs?

The spectre of class warfare loomed behind the actions of the antidrug sentiment in America. Years later, when the focus of attention would be centered around the dangers of marijuana, the antidrug reformist would rant and rave about the infamy of the heinous Assassins who were provoked into a frenzy of uncontrollable violence by their indulgence in hashish. In an effort to anticipate, suppress, or eliminate the imagined danger of an uncontrollable mass of foreigners caught up in a paroxysm of drug-inspired violence, the watchdogs of American morality took it upon themselves to obliterate these evils from the nation. Caught up in the furor and fears of the drug menace scare that was sweeping the country, marijuana, a drug that most Americans had never heard of, let alone seen, smelled, tasted, or smoked, was about to become the victim of America's next drug witch hunt.

The attitude toward marijuana during the 1920s and 1930s was a logical extension of the class conflict and the fears surrounding opium abuse that arose during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Behind the efforts to outlaw marijuana was the belief that this drug could potentially release the inner city decadence of minority groups and America's own destitute poor. When the majority of addicts had been upright middle-class citizens, the country envisaged little danger to American society as a whole. However, when the bulk of the addict population began to be lower class, the danger seemed imminent. A society that harbored within it a body of indigent lazy men and women whose ways were contrary to the American work ethic seemed on the brink of economic chaos.

The attitude toward the drug addict changed overnight once he became a criminal. Drug addiction, which hitherto had been merely a personal vice, was now seen as a moral pestilence, a plague that destroyed the spirit and left the body to rot. Such was the campaign against addiction that all that was necessary to see marijuana as a threat was to brand it a narcotic. Automatically, it too became a diabolical substance, a drug that could enslave a man in its addiction, destroy his moral fiber, turn him into a degenerate and a parasite, and unleash the mad dog that hitherto had been securely restrained in his erstwhile healthy body.

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