Drug Policy

Return With Me Now to the Thrilling Days When Marijuana Was Spelled With an H


Today is the 70th anniversary of the Marihuana Tax Act, which Franklin Roosevelt signed into law on August 2, 1937. Ostensibly a revenue measure, the act effectively banned marijuana by imposing prohibitive taxes and onerous requirements for legal possession. In 1970 (by which time Congress had stopped pretending to care about constitutional limits on its powers) the Controlled Substances Act banned marijuana directly, classifying it as a Schedule I drug along with heroin and LSD.

Fun fact: The year before Congress passed the CSA, psychedelic evangelist Timothy Leary persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that the Marihuana Tax Act violated the Fifth Amendment's ban on compelled self-incrimination because it required even unregistered (and therefore illegal) possessors of cannabis to pay a "transfer tax." Leary was convicted of failing to pay the tax after he was caught at the U.S.-Mexican border with a small amount of pot (his daughter's, actually).

To give you an idea of how much thought Congress put into passing the first federal marijuana ban, here is an exchange that occurred when the bill came to the House floor on the night of June 10, 1937 (emphasis added):

Rep. Robert L. Doughton (D-N.C.): I ask unanimous consent for the present consideration of the bill (H.R. 6906) to impose an occupational excise tax upon certain dealers in marihuana, to impose a transfer tax upon certain dealings in marihuana, and to safeguard the revenue therefrom by registry and recording.

Rep. Betrand Snell (R-N.Y.): Mr. Speaker, reserving the right to object, and notwithstanding the fact that my friend, Reed [Rep. Chauncey Reed (R-Ill.)], is in favor of it, is this a matter we should bring up at this late hour of the afternoon? I do not know anything about the bill. It may be all right and it may be that everyone is for it, but as a general principle, I am against bringing up any important legislation, and I suppose this is important, since it comes from the Ways and Means Committee, at this late hour of the day.

Rep. Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), future speaker of the House: Mr. Speaker, if the gentleman will yield, I may say that the gentleman from North Carolina has stated to me that this bill has a unanimous report from the committee and that there is no controversy about it.

Snell: What is the bill?

Rayburn: It has something to do with something that is called marihuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.

Fred M. Vinson (D-Ky.), future chief justice of the U.S.: Marihuana is the same as hashish.

Snell: Mr. Speaker, I am not going to object, but I think it is wrong to consider legislation of this character at this time of night.

To the extent that members of Congress had heard of marijuana, they knew it as a drug that drove its users mad and caused them to commit horrendous crimes. Fortunately, we are much wiser today.

The Marijuana Policy Project's Rob Kampia sums up the achievement of the courageous legislators who didn't let their ignorance about cannabis prevent them from banning it:

Federal government estimates indicate that marijuana use has increased approximately 4,000 percent since the Marijuana Tax Act took effect. A study by researcher Jon Gettman, Ph.D., published in December 2006 and based on government data, found marijuana to be the country's number-one cash crop, exceeding the value of corn and wheat combined. The federally funded Monitoring the Future survey reports that approximately 85 percent of high school seniors describe marijuana as "easy to get"—a figure that has remained virtually unchanged since the survey began in 1975. In 2005 (the most recent figures available), U.S. law enforcement made an all-time record 786,545 marijuana arrests—89 percent for possession, not sale or trafficking.

Happy anniversary.

NEXT: The Revolution Ends Now

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  1. I cannot envision a scenario today in which any Congressman would hesitate for a moment to vote on a bill simply because he had no comprehension of its contents or effects (Patriot Act? Sounds good to me!).
    Ahh, the good old days.

  2. If I were any angrier, I would punch my computer screen and/or my grandmother.

  3. “Federal government estimates indicate that marijuana use has increased approximately 4,000 percent since the Marijuana Tax Act took effect.

    I, for one, welcome our ganjaman overlords.

  4. Watching the COPS tv show and seeing this in action is horrifying, then depressing. I recently watched an episode where the ones with badges were posing as dealers, then confiscating the cars of, and arresting, the folks trying to buy a bit of weed. The guys with badges were pretty proud of stealing each citizen’s assets, and ruining their lives. At least no one got high on their couch that night!

  5. Today is the 70th anniversary of the Marihuana Tax Act, which Franklin Roosevelt signed into law on August 2, 1937

    I enjoy pointing this out to pot smoking liberal/progressives.

  6. *hopes “holy crap” doesn’t hit grandmother with the screen*

  7. SIV-But who was president in 1970, mmmmm?

  8. In 1970 (by which time Congress had stopped pretending to care about constitutional limits on its powers) the Controlled Substances Act banned marijuana directly, classifying it as a Schedule I drug along with heroin and LSD.

    The Dems had a HUGE majority in congress then.

  9. While it’s still not a good thing, let’s not pretend it was for purposes of “revenue” as Jacob Sullum puts it. The tax was $1 per year for anyone dealing in mary-jane. That’s not exactly a huge deal–even 70 years ago. The strictness comes from steep penalties for “procedural violations.”

    Source: http://www.freakonomics.com/blog/2007/08/02/and-today-is-44/

  10. Interestingly (or maybe not), by June 10, 1937 there were apparently at least 6,906 pieces of legislation introduced in the House that year. That is more than double the amount introduced so far this year.

  11. @Simian ImmunoVirus:

    so, ultimately, everything’s the fault of the Democrats?

  12. so, ultimately, everything’s the fault of the Democrats?

    Only about half.

  13. If only it was this simple today.

    No, SIV, ultimately everything IS the fault of the Democrats. The Republicans are merely bit actors in a surreal play where they continuously trot three steps behind the Democrats carrying a shoe shine kit screaming Me Too! Me Too!

  14. SIV-But who was president in 1970, mmmmm?

    And who controlled CONgress, who, if I am correct, actually enacts legislation.

  15. Brian, you’re right that the onerous registration requirements (and severe penalties for violating them) were a crucial part of the scheme. But also note that the law imposed a tax of $100 per ounce for transfers to unregistered parties. That’s nearly $1,500 in current dollars, which I’d call prohibitive.

  16. TWC,

    I was referring to the WoDs.
    Had he asked if everything was the fault of progressivism I would have answered YES.

  17. Watching the COPS tv show and seeing this in action is horrifying, then depressing. I recently watched an episode where the ones with badges were posing as dealers, then confiscating the cars of, and arresting, the folks trying to buy a bit of weed. The guys with badges were pretty proud of stealing each citizen’s assets, and ruining their lives. At least no one got high on their couch that night!

    The local paper here recently ran a pot-bust story that contained this sad excerpt:

    “One (of those arrested) actually gave a bowl of food to an undercover officer in exchange for implied marijuana – proving how desperate some people become for drugs,” said [Lancaster cop Anthony] Weaver, who announced the arrests on Monday.

    As a commenter in the ensuing discussion thread noted, I don’t see the person offering food as the desperate one in this transaction.

  18. Bowl of cereal for an eighth? Sounds like a good deal to me.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I’m already three hits along into my morning toke.

  19. “implied marijuana”?

    I wonder what the penalty for possessing implied marijuana is…

  20. Well, Nixon pretty much was the driving force behind the WoD during his presidency. Then it ebbed away until Reagan once again made it a priority. Thanks guys! Love ya both!

  21. I wonder what the penalty for possessing implied marijuana is…

    Among the several people print-perp-walked through the end of the article is one fellow charged with “criminal attempt to possess marijuana.” So there you go… I guess if you attempt to possess it, you’re liable under the law, even if that which you attempted to possess didn’t necessarily exist.

  22. Cost of prohibition: $7.7 billion.

    Chance to ruin the lives of otherwise law-abiding potheads: Priceless!

  23. Under Nixon, the U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This legislation is the foundation on which the modern drug war exists. Responsibility for enforcement of this new law was given to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and then in 1973 to the newly formed Drug Enforcement Administration.


    Did you skip CIVICS class to get high?

  24. SIV:

    It’s “Tamsin,” not “Tasmin.” And you are a rude jerk.

    Sure Congress passed the legislation. Nixon could hardly do it himself now could he?

    Currently, I am reading this book:

    Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, by Dan Baum.


    As stated at the above link, Baum interviewed 175 people who were involved in drug policy, law enforcement, etc., from the Nixon administration through the late 90s.

    I find Baum’s well documented argument that Nixon was the impetus behind the War on Drugs to be more compelling and meritorious than anything you could ever say about it.

    That is all.

  25. Tamsin,

    The war on drugs began when they made them illegal in 1914 and added Marijuana in 1937.
    Drug prohibition, like alcohol prohibition, is a Progressive policy.You will read in your book about how the Democrats in Congress were behind the ramping up of the Drug War in 1986 following the Death of Len Bias. Reagan took office in 1981 the draconian increase in sentencing and funding increases occured in 1986- FIVE years after he was elected when he was a lame duck rocked by scandal.

    The Republicans went along as they usually do but Democrats are of equal or greater responsibility for drug prohibition.

    The very idea of prohibition was/is to helppeople and it is firmly grounded in the PROGRESSIVE tradition not that of conservatives .

  26. Just say “no” to giving the Republicans a pass on their culpability in the WoD.

  27. SIV,

    There is a difference between prohibiting drugs and waging a war on them. I understand that it was progressive meddlers who were behind the temperance & prohibition of alcohol. However, when Nixon came along he used drug prohibition as a political ploy to gain votes by assuring Americans that he would return the nation to order after the upheaval of the counter-cultural movement. As president, he was responsible for radically altering the approach to prohibition, starting with making it a federal issue. It was under his leadership that the U.S. attempted for the first time to interfere with heroin production by paying off other countries to not grow poppies. He also created the first federal agency dealing with drug suppression (don’t recall the name),was the first to use federal agents to try and infiltrate the drug trade, and was the first to commit federal funding to drug rehabilitation – something Reagan tossed when he became president.

    Reagan clearly regarded the WoD as a personal moral mission, so despite his belief in small government, he brought new federal impetus to it. It seems his social conservatism was at odds with his belief in state/local control because he escalated things to unprecedented heights at the federal level.

    I appreciate your attempt to familiarize todays liberals with the progressive roots of drug prohibition, especially given the direction things are going with regard to food choices and apparently any behavior that can affect a person’s health. However, let it not blind you to the fact that conservatives with authoritarian leanings tend to want freedom within the confines of their idea of traditional moral order, and will suppress behavior that is in opposition to it.

    Yes, the book I’m reading (which is not “my book”) goes into the death of Len Bias. Baum draws a parallel between the period preceding the rise of crack in the 80s and the period preceding heroin use by US soldiers in the late 60s/70s. He argues that Nixon’s crackdown on the supply of pot to soldiers in Vietnam led to increases in the supply of heroin. One of the ways heroin supply was increased was by reducing its strength (increasing the quantity of the substances used to cut it). Soldiers responded by switching from smoking it to mainlining it, which increased addiction rates/negative consequences of heroin use.

    Similarly, as the the Reagan administration – during his first term – was cracking down on pot, it was ignoring cocaine. When pot became scarce, crack was developed so drug rings could continue to sell to poor people. It was the spectre of crack-using blacks and Hispanics that fueled the drug panic of the mid/late 80s, and it was the Reagan administration’s escalation of the drug war that led to crack.

    So yes, you successfully predicted some of the content of “my book.” But not all of it.

    BTW, I never credited the Democrats with being better on drug policy. But I’m pretty convinced about Nixon, and don’t need much prompting to be convinced about Reagan. I started high school the year he was elected and finished college during his last term. I remember those days, including changes in the drinking age. Protesting that was the first political action I ever took.

    Is it possible that the degree to which Democrats are less bad on drug policy than Republicans does not equal the degree to which they are good on drug policy?

  28. Tamsin,

    I referred to it as “your book” assuming you owned the copy.

    Nixon was not a “conservative Republican” in any sense he presided over a huge increase in Fed bureaucracies and instituted wage and price controls.His drug policy of more treatment combined with greater enforcement is what we could expect as Democrat drug policy.
    Feds were heavily invested in enforcing drug laws since the original 1914 law.

    As a result, on July 1, 1973, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) merged together to create the DEA.

    I am not claiming Republicans are “better” on drug policy, just that the Democrats aren’t either. I do credit conservatives as favoring Federal Judges philosophically disposed to reigning in some of the extra-Constitutional excesses of Government (see Clarence Thomas on Raich).

    I’m only a few years older than you-the drinking age rose as I did from 18-21- and was no fan of Reagan at the time. I don’t recall any “ignoring” of cocaine although the crackdown on mother ship smuggling into Florida had the consequence of shifting foreign marijuana production to Mexico while increasing cocaine production in Colombia and its neighbors leading to a drop in price and the crack epidemic.Is this what you are referring to?

  29. Well good heavens show off, I was telling you what was in mah book. I’m not going to do all of Baum’s arguing for him and I admit that I really couldn’t anyways because this is the first reading I have ever done on the history of drug prohibition. I do find Baum’s account regarding Nixon’s and Reagan’s role in the WoD to be credible though.

    Whatev on Nixon as “conservative Republican” because I am not concerned with criticizing one party over the other on drug policy. In my comment I made reference to Reagan as a “social conservative” and to “conservatives with authoritarian leanings” generally. Anyhow, would you describe Reagan as a conservative Republican? Didn’t the size of government grow tremendously during his presidency? I doubt many people would take issue with him being called a conservative Republican though.

    It was you who seemed to take issue with my original statement about Nixon and Reagan. The main point of my response was to address what you implied – that the 1970 legislation all about the Democratic party and had little to do with Nixon. That is what you were suggesting wasn’t it? Because it was passed by a Democratic majority, Nixon’s intense policy focus on drugs was not a relevant factor in the escalation of the WoD?

  30. The most surprising aspect of this report is when the gentlemen stated that only 85% of high-school seniors said marijuana was easy to get. You almost have to be living in a cave to not have fairly easy access to marijuana.

    Marijuana is almost as easy to get as information on the Nixon Presidency, which is why I was a surprised to read that someone actually considered Nixon to be a conservative.

  31. which is why I was a surprised to read that someone actually considered Nixon to be a conservative.

    Bingo!! If you look at the 1960 election it is hard to tell which of the candidates was a “liberal” or a “conservative”. Kennedy was denouncing the Eisenhower administration (what JFK was running against) as appeasers and soft on communism (remember, Bobby was McCarthy’s right hand man).

    It was not until the ’64 election that anyone in this country talked about a “conservative”. Goldwater was an outsider. Everyone else believed LBJ was normal. Goldwater was an extremist and an outsider.

  32. Democrats – Republicans, Liberals – Conservatives. These labels are smoke and mirrors.

    There is little relevance between the era of 1937 and today. We used to have slavery too. Things change. The most important question is why is marijuana STILL illegal?

    For various reasons, some, because of the covert style of our current “leaders,” we may never know. But it seems the reasons we do know are enough.

    The growing police state has found marijuana prohibition to be a great tool in facilitating it’s growth. One hundred million Americans have smoked marijuana. That translates into a lot of control by a police state over “lawbreakers.”

    A huge gathering of industries has sprung up around the destruction caused by marijuana prohibition. California prison guards constitute a significant power in the state. They are thriving on the huge influx of prisoners who, by all reports, are much better to get along with and so easier to deal with. Drug testing and “treatment” industries are also holding their thumbs on the scales. Their dependence on marijuana prohibition needs no explanation, other than to note that marijuana is by far the most widely consumed “illegal” drug.

    Of course, the whole pogram of a nation-wide witch hunt is presided over by the hugely elevated district attornies who have become mega-maniacal.

    The big corporations like to be able to screen out “those people.” Plain and short.

    The emerging influence of the religious right has been astounding, considering the traditional American skepticism. They, of course, have decided consuming marijuana is a big sin, so “end of discussion!”

    The alcohol and pharmaceutical industries obviously stand much to lose with marijuana prohibition’s end. Much healthier than alcohol and more effective than many “approved” medicines.

    The trillions of dollars made by black-marketeers have not been buried in a whole in their back-yards. They have ‘washed’ and invested it in business. Many think it underpins our fraudulent economy and it would crash without this “illegal” boost. Check out Catherine Austin Fitts’ “Narco Dollars For Beginners.”


    Those are the reasons we know about. Pretty ugly explanation for why we hang permanent weights and obstacles on almost 800,000 Americans every year.

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