News » What Motivated Marijuana’s Outlawing in the U.S.

February 13, 2011 by

The history of marijuana in the United States is convoluted and generally misrepresented. Many Americans assume that cannabis was made illegal after a lot of crime, death, and other problems were associated with it. Others believe that the background to marijuana’s prohibition is based on racism and lies. Both assumptions are correct, actually.

Marijuana was made illegal after those interested in seeing it become so created lies about its criminal and mental effects, usually by tying racist ideas into the bundle. The real reasons for marijuana’s prohibition were simpler:

  1. Money
  2. Governmental Power
  3. Corporate Protectionism

The lies, racism, and fear mongering that went with it were used as tools to cover up the real reasons and to justify the prohibition. Most Americans, at the time marijuana was made illegal, would have seen the government’s actions as being well beyond their constitutional purview – just as they generally did during alcohol’s prohibition just a few years earlier.

The Basic History of Cannabis
The earliest known use of cannabis dates back to before 7,000 BC, though no one really knows when it became a plant for recreational use, it was a medicine and source of industry (clothing, oils, etc.) for thousands of years – most of human history.

The first outlawing of marijuana in the United States happened in 1910 when California and Utah outlawed it. California did so after the short war with Pancho Villa brought Mexicans smoking “hashish” (marijuana) into their territory as bandits. Utah’s prohibition is a little more controversial, but is believed to have stemmed from the same war when returning veterans brought it back with them and officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) objected.

Shortly after 1910 and by 1927, nearly all Western states (including Wyoming, Texas, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Nebraska, Montana) had also outlawed marijuana as a recreational plant. The federal government began marijuana prohibition in 1937. Hemp itself was not outlawed until 1970 when the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was instituted.

Now, let’s consider the real reasons behind outlawing marijuana, looking past the racist rhetoric and questionable “facts” that were used to justify the position of prohibition.

Reason #1: Money
Cannabis, in the 1930s, entered three markets as a source product: medicines, paper, and textiles. After the industrial revolution, these were three of the biggest markets in the West and they involved some of the biggest corporate names in the world.

The pharmaceutical industry was only just getting established at that time, with scientific research and the patenting of medicines just becoming the standard. With patent medicine came profits thanks to the ability to hold a monopoly on a treatment or cure. The older, nature-based products and cures were given stigmas as “witch doctor medicine” and the formulas of quacks. Although extracts from cocaine, heroine, and other drugs were often used in patent medicines, cannabis had fallen away as an ingredient of choice for modern medicine by that time.

Marijuana has a recreational drug was, by and large, limited to use by subcultures in America. Some immigrants from Mexico used it regularly, as did jazz musicians and others in the black community. A few immigrants from eastern cultures also used marijuana. The use of marijuana was not diverse as it is today. Hemp, however, was grown commercially on a large scale and had been since before the Revolutionary War. Because hemp and marijuana (both cannabis plants) are very similar in appearance, they were (and still are) often confused with one another.

Hemp was just beginning to see fast growth as a cheap, plentiful resource as the base product for paper. One of the biggest uses for paper in the ’30s was for newspapers, which were the primary source of news and information at the time. Newspaper magnates like William Randolph Hearst, who owned a huge chain of newspapers, were going through paper by the tens of tons. Hearst was heavily invested in the timber industry, which would have seen slower growth were hemp the primary source of paper. Hearst was also in the business of selling news, which sold well if sensationalism was included – a relatively new and effective tactic for newspaper men of the time.

Using inflammatory and even purely untrue language and rhetoric, Hearst could sell a lot of newspapers. When the subject of marijuana’s prohibition came up, Hearst had a clear path towards getting two birds with one stone: he could knock out timber’s primary competitor in the paper market and he could sell more newspapers. All he had to do was create an editorial policy of bashing cannabis, throwing in seedy race-based remarks, and repeat often. This he did.

The third major use for cannabis was in textiles, though by the 1930s this was limited mainly to rough burlap, rope, and the like. Cotton had supplanted hemp as a source for many fabrics decades before and wool was growing quickly in its use after the Western states had been opened up with the railroads fifty years earlier. Until 1935, when DuPont introduced nylon, hemp was the nation’s primary source for rope. In fact, during World War I, hemp was the source for most of the non-metallic gear of the U.S. Army. During World War II, nylon began to be used, but was not a contender in replacing it. Yet.

Reason #2: Governmental Power
A new division of government was created in 1930 called the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This was created for several reasons, the primary being as a consolidation of the former Federal Narcotics Control Board and the Narcotic Division. The primary concern of the FBN was to act as an agency of the Treasury Department collecting excises and taxes on substances deemed to be narcotics – including heroin, opium, and others.

The first commissioner of the FBN was an ambitious man named Harry J. Anslinger, who had made his career in alcohol’s prohibition. As with most government bureaucrats with ambition, Anslinger knew that the road to success in bureaucracy is paved with perceived need (a problem), the public relations used to promote the problem (reaction) and the bureaucrat’s department providing a remedy (solution). Being the first commissioner of a brand new agency gave Anslinger a great opportunity to use the Hegelian Dialectic to his advantage.

Cocaine and opiates were relatively small-time drugs during the 1930s and would never form a real base for the ambitious plans Anslinger held for his new FBN. Marijuana was an easy target, since it was only used recreationally by fringe groups and because most people at the time knew the difference between marijuana and its cousin hemp.

Anslinger’s campaign against marijuana began in earnest about four years after his assumption of office. He found willing allies in William Randolph Hearst and from several prominent committee members in the House and Senate. The new FBN commissioner spent over two years preparing his legislation for Congress, finally presenting it in 1937. He craftily called it the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

The title was key, since most people either hadn’t heard the term “marijuana” or associated it with the unsavory use (thanks to Hearst’s “reporting”) of cannabis by Mexicans. The term “cannabis” was buried in the bill so as not to attract attention, allowing Anslinger and his cohorts the ability to move the bill through relatively quietly. Most people in industry, medicine, and government would have no reason to pay attention to or oppose a bill with “marijuana” in the title.

In fact, the only real opposition to the bill was from the American Medical Association’s legislative counsel, Dr. William C. Woodward, who lambasted the bill during hearings and was ultimately attacked, verbally abused, and ignored. When the bill actually entered Congress for a vote, one house member even asked, on record, “Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?” Most had no idea what they were voting on and didn’t bother to find out beyond that simple question. They were lied to and told that the AMA supported the bill and so it was passed.

Anslinger now had his bill and the ability to expand his department. He held office until 1962 before moving on to the United Nations Narcotics Commission.

The original legislation held until being replaced in 1970. Up to that time, “marihuana” was defined narrowly and did not include hemp, an important industrial product at the time.

Reason #3: Corporate Protectionism
Both Hearst (and the timber industry) and DuPont had reason to be leery of hemp and see it removed from the landscape. This was especially true for the timber industry, since hemp would be a serious contender as the primary source for the paper industry. In textiles, hemp had largely been replaced by other products due to market forces.

In the 1930s and 40s, huge leaps in agricultural machinery were taking place. Most commodities, such as wheat, cotton, etc., had seen machinery appear that could help speed up the harvest and increase available acreage for farming. Hemp, however, had no such luck as machines to harvest it turned up again and again as failures. This put it at a disadvantage for more readily-harvested crops like cotton. Nylon was still new and expensive and would take years to become competitive on the market. Timber, however, was still expensive to harvest and took a long time to grow, so hemp was very competitive as a base for paper.

The few pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, that had experimented with marijuana found it difficult to reliably extract THC with consistent yield and potency. Complicating things further, attempts to combine THC with other chemicals to produce patentable medicines were unsuccessful. Because of this, modern medicine had largely given up on marijuana as a source.

Hearst, and later DuPont, however, did have strong motives for seeing hemp removed from the picture. The eventual outlawing of hemp would benefit both greatly. On the immediate end, however, Hearst had great motivation for seeing marijuana both publicly vilified and outlawed.

Whether Hearst considered his vast timber holdings and paper-dependent business or not, one thing is clear: he was instrumental in the publicity that lead to the outlawing of marijuana. He sold tens of thousands of newspapers during his campaign against cannabis. To this day, Hearst remains the icon of the derogatory term “yellow journalism,” in which stories are written to be misleading and often outright fabricated, usually for political ends. Hearts’ editorial style was extremely political and his newspapers were highly sensationalist. His personal War on Marijuana may have continued had his corporation not faced bankruptcy and court-mandated reorganization in 1937, which removed Hearst from control of the company and sold off many of its holdings.

So Why is Marijuana Illegal?
The AMA at the time did not believe marijuana was any kind of medical threat, since its recreational use was largely on the fringe and included very few Americans, and since the legislation making it illegal did not include hemp. So it’s obvious that marijuana was made illegal almost entirely for political reasons.

The greatest benefactor after its prohibition was Harry J. Anslinger, whose FBN grew in scope and power thanks to the new tax powers over marijuana (and some hemp) it was given. Peripherally, Hearst also profited, though by the time the law had past, Hearst’s financial interest had as well.

With the outlawing of marijuana and the enforcement of taxation on the plant came many unintended consequences. These created the huge financial burdens and bureaucracies we have today, on which hundreds of thousands of jobs and many billions of dollars depend – all thanks to the prohibition of marijuana.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at how this gigantic arm of government and its attending industry has grown and how much of our nation’s resources it now consumes. We’ll also see a theoretical America should marijuana prohibition suddenly end in the U.S. It’s not all roses.

The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States by Charles Whitebread, Professor of Law, USC Law School

Why is Marijuana Illegal? by Pete Guither, Drug (note: this treatise contains some inaccuracies, particularly in the mis-quotation of Congressional record).

Nixon Tapes Show Roots of Marijuana Prohibition: Misinformation, Culture Wars and Prejudice a CSDP Research Report

Hemp and Marijuana: Myths & Realities by David P. West, PhD for the North American Industrial Hemp Council

Wikipedia for background on Harry J. Anslinger, William Randolph Hearst, and the Hegelian dialectic.

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12 Responses

  1. What motivates everything in the US? Money, power, corporate interests

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  2. The same motives are still at work today. **15 billion** spent on the drug war in 2010, all of it went somewhere.

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  3. Andrew Zebrun via Facebook on

    Yes, and the upper class was trying to control the lower class. The upper class has always, and always will do whatever it wants. Money talks, and anybody money doesn’t like can go to jail…
    a few seconds ago · Like

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  4. and Canada outlawed it because the US outlawed it..

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  5. Chris Fowler via Facebook on

    mis-information perpetuated by greed and power…..sounds familiar

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