Marijuana tax act of 1937

The History of Cannabis in the United States


Early Jamestown Settlers growing Hemo

By this time, the first settlements at Jamestown were already growing high fiber hemp plants primarily for cordage and other uses.


King James I decreed (by royal proclamation) that hemp should be grown in the American colonies to support England. All English colonists were required to grow at least one acre of hemp on their property for export to England or pay a fine. The Virginia Company was relied upon to enact this decree. Later, colonists would grow hemp to support themselves. Similar requirements to grow hemp appeared and were enforced in such states as Massachusetts and Connecticut.


Hemp was approved as a legal form of currency in the U.S. It even became legal to use hemp to pay taxes with.


Historical documents show that even the Puritans were growing hemp, by this period.


The first two drafts of the U.S. Constitution were written on Dutch hemp paper.


Betsy Ross Flag Image

The first flag designed for the American Revolutionary War (which has traditionally been attributed to Betsy Ross) was made from hemp fiber.

Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, hemp was grown everywhere in the area of the U.S. for a variety of reasons. In the time of our founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, high fiber hemp was grown for cordage. High fiber cannabis is excellent for cordage but lower in THC, as opposed to high resin hemp. The most common uses for cordage included: to supply bale rope, nets, canvas sails for ships, paper (compared to wood pulp, hemp paper resists decomposition and doesn’t yellow or brown with age), thread, yarn and fabric for multiple uses including clothing, carrying-sacks and blankets. Eventually, in the 19th century, it was introduced into the field of medicine.


Products of Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy

Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (an Irish physician) used his work in chemistry and pharmacology to bring Cannabis Sativa to western medicine, as a pharmaceutical therapy. After he began treating his patients with cannabis, other physicians in the west followed suit. Consequently, by the 1850’s cannabis became intertwined within the early field of American pharmacology. During this period, cannabis became ubiquitous in pharmacies and even eventually made a common appearance in what was often called “snake oil.”


Harper"s Monthly Magazine 1853

 Cannabis was eventually considered popularly acceptable and became common in many areas, as a “fashionable narcotic.” By the 1880’s, hashish parlors were actively just as common and accessible as opium dens, all along the east coast. It’s estimated that there may have been approximately 500 such parlors in New York City alone, at that time. In Harper’s Magazine (1883), Harry Hubbell Kane discussed how the “better classes” frequented these New York parlors. Likewise, such parlors existed in cities like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

However, it was also during this period that concerns regarding mislabeling and poisoning were arising, alongside this ubiquity. In turn, this led to action by state governments and the beginning of laws governing pharmaceuticals in the United States.  By 1880, many states listed cannabis as a potential poison. Even California viewed cannabis as a potentially dangerous substance. In 1880, California introduced a bill that stated:  this is “an act to regulate the sale of opium and other narcotic poisons…preparations or mixtures made or prepared from opium, hemp or other narcotic drugs” are absolutely illegal without a doctor’s prescription. Furthermore, only licensed pharmacies could prepare or sell such concoctions or therapies.


It became known that cannabis cigarettes were commonly being smoked by Mexican soldiers, as opposed to tobacco, in moments of leisure. In time, eventually this practice reached the United States.


29 states had cannabis laws restricting or governing the use of cannabis, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906

Pure Food and Drug Act passed which required cannabis to be clearly labeled, including even medicines and therapies that have a patent. Protected ingredients considered “secret” became a thing of the past, when it came to pharmaceuticals.

Widespread reform legislation began to emerge across the country, as a result. States began passing their own laws in an attempt to restrict the spread of all “habit-forming drugs.”

Reform Legislation Passed:

  • Massachussettes (1911, The Towns-Boylan Act)
  • New York (1914)
  • Maine (1914)
  • California was the first state in the west to list cannabis as a poison through a series of legislative acts (1907, 1909, 1911, 1913 and 1915).
  • Other states to follow included:
    • Wyoming (1915)
    • Texas (1919)
    • Iowa (1923)
    • Nevada (1923)
    • Oregon (1923)
    • Washington (1923)
    • Arkansas (1923)
    • Nebraska (1927)
    • Louisiana (1927)
    • Colorado (1929).


Heavy Mexican immigration into the United States began after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It had become custom by this point for Mexicans to smoke cannabis cigarettes after working a long day of hard manual labor in the fields. Incidentally, it was a far less expensive alternative than other means of intoxication, such as liquor. However, hostility and tensions arose as Mexican workers displaced many American workers, especially during the Great Depression. This hostility towards cheap Mexican labor increased, as the country’s economic future began to decline. As a result, cannabis became inextricably linked during this period to people of color. Alternatively, if you were a proper respectable person, you drank your drug out of a glass. Over time, this connection of color became clearly viewed as a product of racism.


The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was signed into law Dec. 17, 1914

The Harrison Narcotics Act: required narcotics manufacturers, sellers and distributors to register with the Bureau of Internal Revenue, under the U.S. Treasury Department. It was the first comprehensive U.S. law to regulate entire classes of drugs by limiting their non-medical use and prohibiting importation, such as opiates and cocaine. It imposed criminal penalties and required a strict accounting of prescriptions. Thus, began the process of criminalizing drugs.


Ullstein bild | Getty Images Prohibition on alcohol

Prohibition of alcohol quickly followed, as it was also considered a “habit-forming” drug. Hence, the concept of what was considered poisonous spread even into the realm of liquor. Eventually, America officially became a nation that was “dry,” as non-drinkers directed the nation’s tastes. Being a T-totaler (teetotaler) became a distinct identity in the United States, before and during Prohibition.


The Federal Import and Export Act (also known as the Jones-Miller Act): passed in order to craft and, therefore, publish regulations, which strictly controlled or prohibited the importation and exportation of specific drugs/narcotics, in the United States. It was the first step in monitoring international commerce in opiates and coca. Opium dens and hashish parlors were often supplied by international commerce. Consequently, this also severely affected the cannabis trade.


Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN): created and headed by Henry J. Anslinger and part of the government’s agenda, to end all recreational narcotics in the United States. Up to and throughout the 1930’s, anti-hemp propaganda led to a moral panic in America. The public was led to believe that hemp and marijuana were the very same plant and its existence in the United States would lower moral values, corrupt society and lead America down the path of complete ruin. According to Anslinger, cannabis caused people to participate in violence, experience some degree of psychosis and engage in hypersexuality. Such wild claims were later largely discredited, through the efforts of modern research.

In the 1930’s, emerging industries on the rise wanted to replace hemp with their own products. 4 primary industries that did not want economic competition with any form of hemp/marijuana, included: 

  • The Cotton Industry
  • The Liquor Industry – marijuana was still legal during Prohibition of alcohol
  • The Timber Industry
  • The Synthetic Plastics Industry – It’s been argued that William Randolph Hearst used “yellow journalism” during this period to convince the public that indulging in cannabis would lead to violent crimes. Many academic scholars have argued that this was designed to destroy the cannabis industry by Hearst, Andrew Mellon and the DuPont family. Nylon created by the DuPont family was cheaper than hemp pulp, making the new nylon a far more desirable product. This was because producing fiber from hemp was a very labor-intensive process, making it a distinct disadvantage.


Geneva Trafficking Conventions: designed to attack and suppress illegal traffic in dangerous drugs/narcotics, including “cultivation, production, manufacture and distribution” of “opium, coca, cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific purposes.” The United States eventually refused to sign the final version of the draft because it was considered too weak of a document to support, in order to adequately address the issues they were most concerned with.

The Reefer Madness film opened with the claim that the “real public enemy number one” is marijuana…”we must work untiringly so that our children are obliged to learn the truth, because it is only through knowledge that we can protect them…” Reefer Madness is a story about impressionable young teenagers driven to miscegenation, abortion, unwed motherhood, murder, venereal disease and many other tawdry subjects by the simple introduction of cannabis into their lives. The year after its release, the federal government passed the first tax on cannabis. By 1936, “pot” hysteria was largely stemming from prejudice over Mexican immigrants in the southwest. Newspapers at the time repeatedly commented on America’s “degenerate Spanish-speaking residents.” Public officials were claiming that “Mexicans” were responsible for selling marijuana “mostly to white school students.”


Marijuana tax act of 1937

The Marijuana Tax Act: in effect, this act made the transportation or possession of cannabis illegal in the United States. It was designed to regulate hemp in the United States through the use of an excise tax on all hemp sales. This also included sales of cannabis in medicinal therapies. The American Medical Association (AMA) opposed the new cannabis tax because even doctors who prescribed cannabis-based tinctures and therapies were taxed through the new act.


Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (Part II), updated to the Federal Pure Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act: this law exerted new control over cosmetic and medical devices, even those prescribed by a physician. It also required clear labeling of ingredients, along with specific, clear directions for safe usage. Furthermore, the manufacturer of that product had to prove that the product was safe to distribute to the public. The enforcing agency became what we know as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This act is still in effect today.


Henry Ford built his famous hemp car.

Henry Ford built his famous hemp car. It ran on ethanol, made from agricultural waste, including hemp…basically, hemp fuel. The bioplastic Model T was constructed from pulp processed from hemp, spruce, wheat and flax. Consequently, the car was supposedly far stronger than steel and significantly lighter in weight than even fiberglass. Although in 1807, Alexander Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change and in 1938, Guy Callendar demonstrated that greenhouse gasses were increasing the Earth’s temperature via increased CO2 emissions…the car failed to succeed. Building the car during this anti-cannabis era doomed it to oblivion, despite the awareness of these predictions. In 1925, Ford was quoted in the New York Times: 

  • “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust – almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”


During WWII, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was temporarily lifted, so that the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army could ask American farmers to grow high fiber hemp, necessary for the war effort. 400,000 acres of hemp were grown between 1942 and 1945. Some of the common items produced included light fire hoses, parachute webbing, twine/yarn, cable, burlap, canvas, bootlaces, as well as ropes and nets for the U.S. Navy. One battleship alone required 34,000 feet of rope. In 1957, the last commercial hemp fields were planted in Wisconsin. Afterwards, hemp returned to its former de-facto status.


New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia established the LaGuardia Commission, to research the effects of cannabis. The New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report declaring outright that, contrary to earlier research and current popular belief, the use of cannabis does not induce violence, insanity, sex crimes, nor lead to addiction or other drug use. Hence, the LaGuardia Committee Report contradicted all earlier reports of addiction, madness and overt sexuality.


Hale Boggs

The Bogg’s Act: set mandatory offenses for drug related offenses, including what was called at the time “marijuana.” Minimum sentence for a first offense was 2-10 years, with a fine of up to $20,000. The act was sponsored by Hale Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat. On January 4, 1952, over 500 people were arrested under the provisions outlined in the act.


The Narcotics Control Act: strengthened the enforcement of existing laws regarding illegal drug trafficking. It prescribed heavier penalties for possessing or selling opiate drugs, cocaine and marijuana, including capital punishment. In 1970, Congress repealed these mandatory penalties for cannabis offenses.


Several government departments merged to create the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), under the Department of Justice. This new bureau was charged with the responsibility of preventing any illicit traffic in narcotic, stimulant and depressant drugs. Furthermore, it had the power to oversee and control the legitimate manufacture of such drugs for medicinal purposes.


Leary vs. United States: Timothy Leary, a professor and activist, was arrested for marijuana possession. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 to be unconstitutional, as it violated his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. Leary claimed it violated his constitutional right to due process, by compelling him to expose himself to self-incrimination. This repealed the Marijuana Tax Act. This led to the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and reduced simple possession of all drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.


Cannabis becomes classified as a Schedule I drug. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that if a “defendant is shown to have or to have had possession of the narcotic drug, such possession shall be deemed sufficient evidence to authorize conviction unless the defendant explains the possession to the satisfaction of the jury.” In response to the Court’s decision, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The CSA was enacted by the 91st U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, in 1970. The statute was an effort to combine all previous federal drug laws and allow for federal law enforcement of controlled substances, serving as the legal foundation in the federal fight against drug abuse.


The Shafer Commission: led by former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafter, which argued for the decriminalization of marijuana possession. The White House ignored the report but it represents the presence of a small undercurrent that was alive and well in ‘72, motioning against cannabis prohibition.


Under the Nixon administration, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) merged to create the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It was tasked with combating illicit drug trafficking and distribution within the United States. Furthermore, it has the power to coordinate and pursue drug investigations, both domestically and internationally.


 Under the Reagan administration, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act established mandatory sentencing guidelines. The new law raised federal penalties for marijuana possession and sales, basing the penalties on the amount of the drug involved. For example, possession of 100 cannabis plants received the same penalty as 100 grams of heroin.


The Anti-Drug Abuse Act reinstated mandatory prison sentences. Afterwards, the Three Strikes Law, thereby creating a mandatory 25-year sentence and allowed capital punishment for “drug kingpins.” The bill enacted new mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana. This led to serious racial and class imbalances in America’s prison system. People of color experienced harsher sentences than their affluent, caucasian counterparts, over use of the same drug.


The Solomon Lautenberg Amendment: a federal law that urges states to suspend the driver’s license of anyone committing a drug offense. The penalty for states who failed to comply with the new law included a sizable decrease in their federal highway funding. “Smoke (or possess) a joint, lose your license” laws emerged throughout the country. However, an opt-out provision was available and utilized by states to avoid non-compliance. As of 2021, only 3 states have not taken advantage of the opt-out provision: Alabama, Arkansas and Florida.

As time passed, awareness began to spread that under the 10th Amendment, the federal government has no authority to regulate medicines. The 10th Amendment only grants the federal government the powers that are strictly outlined within the U.S. Constitution. The power to regulate medicines is a right reserved to individual states. Considering this, a tax was historically and traditionally considered as the only viable way to regulate cannabis. Eventually, cannabis began to emerge from the shadows of its own prohibition as states across the nation began to initiate the re-acceptance of cannabis, at the grassroots level. Thus began a “populist” movement to bring cannabis back to society as an acceptable, therapeutic and safe plant for personal use.


Compassionate Use Act: Initially, medical cannabis legislation was immediately vetoed and blocked by California governor Pete Wilson. Eventually, after repeated frustrated efforts to bring medical cannabis to the public, cannabis advocates took the “Medical Marijuana” issue directly to the voters. After collecting 775,000 signatures for qualification of a statewide ballot initiative in 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215. It was the first state to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis. Afterwards, California was followed:

  • 1998: Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada and the District of Columbia;
  • 1999: Maine;
  • 2000: Colorado and Hawaii.


House Joint Resolution 117: California voters approved Proposition 215, which legalized “Medical Marijuana.” The House Joint Resolution was passed in response, to demonstrate their opposition to the efforts by states like California. It declared their support for the system already in place, which was based upon the idea of supporting “the existing Federal legal process for determining the safety and efficacy of drugs” and directly opposing “efforts to circumvent this process by legalizing marijuana…for medicinal use without valid scientific evidence and FDA approval.”


United States vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative

United States vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative: In response to Proposition 215, this cooperative was established to “provide seriously ill patients with a safe and reliable source of medical cannabis, information and patient support.” The federal government sued the cooperative. On May 14, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the cooperative. The Court’s argument stated that federal anti-drug laws do not allow exceptions to be made for medical cannabis and that according to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, cannabis has “no currently accepted medical use.”


The World Health Organization (WHO) advised that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) be reclassified under Schedule IV, during the duration of the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD). They stated that their own investigation found that there were legitimate medical uses for THC and they also found that the incidence of abuse and potential for addiction were actually quite low.


Gonzales vs. Raich: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even state-approved medical cannabis programs still violated federal marijuana laws. The Court ruled that the U.S. Controlled Substances Act grants the federal government jurisdiction to prosecute marijuana offenses. In order to fight against state-approved cannabis legislation and commerce, the DEA made it a point to routinely target and arrest medical cannabis patients and prosecute all sales involved. In addition, they also routinely chose to seize the business assets of growers and medical dispensaries. This was finally curtailed in 2014 with the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment.


The Cole Memorandum: Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a directive to federal prosecutors. It stated that individuals and businesses who complied with established state cannabis laws were not to be targeted. However, the memo failed to prevent federal enforcement of medical cannabis.


The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment (also known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment): U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey introduced the legislation in 2001. This prohibited the Justice Department from spending public funds to interfere with the attempted implementation of state medical cannabis laws. The federal-state dichotomy regarding cannabis and its interpretation began to shift slightly in favor of medical marijuana.


Voters approved Proposition 64 (57% pro). California was the 5th state in the nation to recreationally legalize marijuana. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, most citizens of the state see the results as a positive thing.


Cole Memorandum rescinded: Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to support the 5 year old memo, citing violation of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. He stated that the memo “undermined the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission.” This ended the Obama-era directive, which generally discouraged federal enforcement against state-legal cannabis enterprises.


Farm Bill: authorized the production of hemp and removed hemp & hemp seeds from the DEA’s schedule of Controlled Substances. CBD from hemp was also effectively legalized. The Farm Bill significantly widened the availability of federally legal CBD products, derived from hemp.


Epidiolex is the first FDA-approved drug to be produced using cannabis, used in the treatment of specific types of seizures.


The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act: one that “shall not be a violation of the Controlled Substances Act for a State-licensed physician to discuss the currently known potential harms and benefits of marijuana…as a treatment with the patient.” It simplifies the Schedule I research process, thereby allowing for marijuana research. It streamlines the development of FDA-approved medications, while protecting physicians who recommend cannabis to their patients from professional liability at the federal level. It protects the open channel of information passing between patient and doctor, as they discuss cannabis as a treatment option.


President Joe Biden declared publicly:

  • #1: All prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana are pardoned;
  • #2: Urged all state authorities to follow his example, in terms of state offenses;
  • #3: Asked “the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” He later stated that his position was based on the fact that the Schedule I classification of cannabis “makes no sense.”


 Following a review by the Federal Department of Agriculture, both the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services issued a recommendation to the DEA that cannabis be removed as a Schedule I substance and be placed in Schedule III.


Another report conducted by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) supported the FDA’s and the DHHS’s findings, advising also that marijuana be reclassified as a Schedule III drug.

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