Dear Old Hippie,
I’ve been smoking weed for awhile and always took for granted that it’s been illegal forever. Me and my buddies always assumed that it was because marijuana helps you think “outside the box”, since it certainly isn’t dangerous or unhealthy. But then I found out that it used to be legal. So what’s the real story? And do you remember smoking legally as a boy?
A: Well, first let me clear one thing up. Even I’m not that old, although when my father was a boy, it was illegal to sell alcoholic drinks, but marijuana was not only perfectly legal but sold at every corner drugstore.
Ironically, the prohibition of marijuana did indeed come right after the end of the prohibition of alcohol. If it was simply a question of not repeating a mistake — since alcohol prohibition had led directly to the rise of powerful organized crime gangs — it’s probable that people would have learned their lesson from prohibition. But there were much bigger forces working behind the scenes…and people with serious money to back them up.
There was not just one, but two industrial-strength moguls working against what was then known as the hemp plant. First, DuPont had patents on making plastics out of coal and oil, two materials which (at the time, anyway) were in seemingly infinite supply at low prices. They also had a new process for making paper out of wood pulp — one which has been responsible for polluting water wherever it’s been used for decades. Secondly, William Randolph Hearst, the infamous newspaper baron, was heavily invested in tree farms to insure his empire a good supply of newsprint and had hated Mexicans ever since Pancho Villa’s men seized one of his large plantations.
What does all this have to do with marijuana? Not much, actually. The non-psychoactive hemp plant was what these captains of industry were worried about. Hemp, with its extremely strong fibers and fast growth rate, was at the time possibly the most economically important plant on the globe, used for many industrial purposes (in fact, the U.S. Government made it legal again during WWII because they needed it for ship ropes). And hemp was what we’d call today a renewable resource, so it wouldn’t matter if you used a lot of it for newsprint this year, because you’d have a new crop next year.
But giant corporations aren’t much for saving the planet; they’d rather do anything to make themselves more powerful, no matter who else is hurt in the crossfire. And so, possibly by pure coincidence (commence eye-rolling here), it turned out that the man who appointed the nation’s first drug czar (Harry J. Anslinger) just happened to be Andrew Mellon, DuPont’s chief financial backer.
Anslinger later married Mellon’s niece, too.
Harry Anslinger was a real piece of work. Famous for racist quotes such as “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”, Anslinger left no lie or fear unturned in his maniacal zeal to protect Americans from marijuana (a little-used Mexican word that had been essentially publicized by Hearst’s papers). Between Hearst’s yellow journalism and Anslinger’s out-and-out lies, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was rammed through Congress so fast, the hemp industry and American Medical Association (who up till then found cannabis indica extract quite useful in medicine) barely knew what had hit them until it was too late.
And that was that, until Timothy Leary fought his marijuana conviction to the Supreme Court and won. Then Richard Nixon convened a high-level commission to determine whether or not marijuana should be illegal. They recommended it be legalized. Nixon went right back to racism and banned marijuana anyway, because he hated Jews and thought that everyone in favor of legalizing marijuana was Jewish.
And those are the racist roots of our marijuana laws. President Obama, I hope you’re proud to uphold these lies.
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