A Hundred Years of Reefer Madness


NORML's Paul Armentano notes that marijuana prohibition in America turns 100 years old today. The federal government did not ban the plant until 1937, but Massachusetts Gov. Eugene Foss signed the first statewide prohibition into law on April 29, 1911. More than 30 states adopted similar laws in the years that followed, so marijuana was already illegal in most of the country by the time Congress got around to approving the Marihuana Tax Act. (As I noted in a 2009 Reason story, prohibition of Salvia divinorum seems to be following a similar pattern.) Today the state that got the cannabis ban wagon rolling has decriminalized possession of up to an ounce, and last week its highest court ruled that the smell of burning cannabis is not sufficient grounds for ordering a passenger out of a car, since smoking pot is merely a citable offense. The government's own survey data suggest that most Americans born after World War II have tried marijuana, positive pot references suffuse popular culture, and polls consistently find that more than two-fifths of the population favors legalization, with a couple indicating majority support. There clearly is majority support for the idea that people should not be arrested for smoking pot. Yet police continue to bust hundreds of thousands of Americans—858,408 in 2009—on marijuana charges every year, the vast majority for simple possession. Meanwhile, the former pot smoker who currently occupies the White House, who once claimed to support decriminalization, now finds the very notion laughable. Let's hope we don't have to wait another century to resolve these contradictions.