This is excerpted from Chapter 4 of the new book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? by Paul Armentano, Steve Fox, and Mason Tvert (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009).
By 1937, Congress — which had resisted efforts to clamp down on the drug some two decades earlier — was poised to act, and act quickly, to enact blanket federal prohibition. Ironically, by this time virtually every state had already ratified laws against cannabis possession. Nonetheless, local authorities argued that the marijuana threat was so great that federal intervention was also necessary.
On April 14, 1937, Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced House Bill 6385, which sought to stamp out the recreational use of marijuana by imposing a prohibitive tax on the drug. The measure was the brainchild of the U.S. Treasury Department, and mandated a $100 per ounce tax on the transfer of cannabis to members of the general public. Ironically, a separate anti-marijuana measure introduced that same year sought to directly outlaw possession and use of the drug. However this proposal was assumed at that time to have been beyond the constitutional authority of Congress.
Members of Congress held only two hearings to debate the merits of Rep. Doughton’s bill. The federal government’s chief witness, Harry Anslinger, told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that "traffic in marijuana is increasing to such an extent that it has come to be the cause for the greatest national concern. … This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured." Other witnesses included a pair of veterinarians who testified that dogs were particularly susceptible to marijuana’s effects. "Over a period of six months or a year (of exposure to marijuana), … the animal must be discarded because it is no longer serviceable," one doctor testified. This would be the extent of "scientific" testimony presented to the Committee.
The American Medical Association (AMA) represented the most vocal opposition against the bill. Speaking before Congress, the AMA’s Legislative Counsel Dr. William C. Woodward challenged the legitimacy of the alleged "Demon Weed."
"We are told that the use of marijuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit. An informal inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.
You have been told that school children are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children. Inquiry of the Children’s Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and no nothing particularly of it.
… Moreover, there is the Treasury Department itself, the Public Health Service. … Informal inquiry by me indicates that they have no record of any marijuana or cannabis addicts."
Woodward further argued that the proposed legislation would severely hamper physicians’ ability to utilize marijuana’s therapeutic potential. While acknowledging that the drug’s popularity as a prescription medicine had declined, Woodward nonetheless warned that the Marihuana Tax Act "loses sight of the fact that future investigations may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis."
Woodward’s criticisms of the bill’s intent — as well as his questions regarding whether such legislation was objectively justifiable — drew a stern rebuke from the Chairman of the Committee. "If you want to advise us on legislation, you ought to come here with some constructive proposals, rather than criticism, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the federal government is trying to do," the AMA’s counsel was told. "Is not the fact that you were not consulted your real objection to this bill?"
Despite the AMA’s protests, the House Ways and Means Committee approved House Bill 6385. House members even went so far as to elevate the Anslinger’s propaganda to Congressional findings of fact, stating:
"Under the influence of this drug the will is destroyed and all power directing and controlling thought is lost. … [M]any violent crimes have been and are being committed by persons under the influence of this drug. … [S]chool children … have been driven to crime and insanity through the use of this drug. Its continued use results many times in impotency and insanity."
Anslinger made similar horrific pronouncements before members of the Senate, which spent even less time debating than the measure than had the House. By June, less than three months after the bill’s introduction, the House of Representatives voted affirmatively to pass the proposal, which was described by one congressman as having "something to do with something that is called marijuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind."
Weeks later, after the Senate had approved their version of the bill, the House was asked to vote once again on the measure. Prior to the House’s final vote, one representative asked whether the American Medical Association had endorsed the proposal, to which a member of the Ways and Means Committee replied, “Their Dr. Wharton (sic) gave this measure his full support.” Following this brief exchange of inaccurate information, Congress gave its final approval of the Marihuana Tax Act without a recorded vote.
President Franklin Roosevelt promptly signed the legislation into law. The Marihuana Tax Act officially took effect on October 1, 1937 — thus setting in motion the federal government’s foray into the criminal enforcement of marijuana laws that continues unabated today.
Paul Armentano [send him mail] is the deputy director of NORML and the NORML Foundation. He is also the co-author of the new book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People To Drink? (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009). NORML’s 38th national conference takes place from September 24—26 in San Francisco.