Part 2: How it became illegal
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
The problem with conspiracy theories is Occam’s razor, the principle that favors the simplest explanation that fits all the evidence. Conspiracy theories offer too few dots, and require too many assumptions to connect them.
But the evidence that explains how cannabis became illegal in the U.S. is ample, in plain view, and unequivocal. Rather than dots, it forms lines among a few public officials and powerful interests who had much to gain from petroleum-industry growth.
In their own minds, they weren’t just protecting their business interests. They were being virtuous.
In the end, they did do some good. They did incalculable harm as well.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, cannabis was a major U.S. cash crop, prized for its long fibers, which were manufactured into high-quality cloth, paper, rope, and sails. The word canvas comes from cannabis.
Widely prescribed by physicians to treat a variety of ailments, it occupied an honored position in the Western nations’ pharmacopeias. Cannabis seed oil was an essential ingredient in paints and varnishes.
Rudolf Diesel assumed that his engine would run on cannabis-seed and other botanical oils. Henry Ford produced a Model T that burned ethanol distilled from cannabis biomass. He later built a prototype car whose light, stronger-than-steel body was made from cannabis fiber.
Meanwhile, petroleum was a rapidly emerging industry. Price fixing, extorting railroads, and brutal labor practices enabled John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company to refine 90% of U.S. petroleum and make him the country’s richest man.
The late 19th Century had been a time of rich experimentation in all branches of medicine. Brilliant herbalist physicians like Samuel Thomson, Benedict Lust, and Alva Curtis formed medical schools and societies.
The modern pharmaceutical industry emerged over the same period, using compounds developed in dye making and other chemical processes. Rockefeller invested heavily in chemical-based drug production.
He read Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth and was inspired in 1909 to endow the Rockefeller Foundation. Charles Eliot at the Rockefeller Foundation and Simon Flexner at the Rockefeller Institute conceived a high-profile study that would affirm drug-based medical schools and discredit others.
The Carnegie Foundation sponsored the study and, on Flexner’s recommendation, hired his brother, Abraham Flexner, to conduct it. He had no background in science or medicine, but he owned a for-profit school.
Flexner’s work was rigorous. It concluded that there were too many doctors, too poorly trained. It advocated specific medical school entrance requirements, training periods, and curricula. It recommended greatly reducing the number of schools. And it was influential.
The Rockefeller foundation began making large grants to favored medical schools, while Abraham Flexner joined the Rockefeller Institute, working with others to lobby regulatory authorities and grant makers to force closure of disfavored schools.
Meanwhile, Andrew Mellon was becoming the third richest man in America. In addition to his family’s bank, he owned Gulf Oil, Alcoa, and he invested in DuPont, the corporate giant that was developing petroleum-based products like nylon to replace natural fibers.
He contributed heavily to pass the 18th Amendment. When it was adopted in 1919, it killed the ethanol industry, which was making inroads in the fuel market. The next year he financed DuPont’s takeover of General Motors.
Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s interests intersected at several points with those of Rockefeller and Mellon. An unabashed racist, he, Rockefeller, and Mellon backed the eugenics movement. His mills, which produced paper used in his magazines and 28 major newspapers, used DuPont chemicals.
Cannabis produces four times the paper fiber per acre as timber. It makes higher quality paper, but at a fraction of the energy costs and with fewer toxics. But Hearst owned massive timberlands, and wood pulp was adequate for newsprint.
Trading on insider information, his father, a U.S. Senator, had bought the 850,000-acre Babicora ranch in Mexico for 20-to-40 cents per acre, and with the help of dictator Porfirio Diaz, expanded it to a million acres. During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa’s men raided the ranch, hid out in its forests, and indulged in their favorite relaxant, cannabis. They called it marijuana, which means “Mary Jane” in Spanish. Hearst hated Mexicans, hated their Revolution, and hated cannabis.
In 1921, Andrew Mellon began an eleven-year term as U.S. Treasury Secretary. Within his Treasury Department, he created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931 and appointed Harry Anslinger, his niece’s husband, to head it up.
A little later in the decade, the Department of Agriculture developed technology that greatly improved the efficiency and lowered the costs of making hemp-based paper. And with alcohol again legal, Ford built a biofuel plant in Iron Mountain, Michigan.
Critics of cannabis history raise questions regarding the extent to which Mellon invested in DuPont and the extent to which the Hearst empire’s vertically integrated timber and mill operations satisfied its newsprint needs. But certain facts are undisputed.
Anslinger worked quietly with Treasury Department officials to develop legislation, disguised as a revenue bill, to outlaw cannabis. And he collaborated with Hearst in an extensive propaganda campaign to demonize “marihuana.”
As one of Hearst’s biographers wrote, he “routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events.” Among them were dozens of lurid articles about marijuana-fueled murders or sexual transgressions against White women and children committed by Black and Latino “marihuana addicts.”
Because Anslinger’s legislation was a revenue bill—the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937—it did not come to Congressional committees dealing with agriculture, health, or the judiciary. It came to the Ways and Means Committee, where it was pre-wired.
Supporting testimony consisted of Mr. Anslinger reading Hearst newspaper stories, a New Orleans District Attorney’s report that a lot of that city’s prisoners were “marihuana addicts,” and a pharmacologist expressing the opinion that continuous consumption of cannabis disintegrated one in 300 dogs’ personalities.
The American Medical Association’s Legislative Council, who had helped draft the Uniform Narcotic Drug act, testified against the bill. He pointed out the lack of any credible medical evidence and questioned why the law was developed in secret, excluding the medical community.
The full House of Representative considered the bill at the end of a long day. Most members knew nothing about it, so some asked to delay the vote. House leaders rolled over these objections and passed it without a roll call. Most Congressmen, like most Americans, didn’t now that cannabis, hemp, and “marihuana,” were the same thing.
That year’s DePont Corporation Annual Report crowed, “The revenue raising power of government may be converted into an instrument for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganization.”
The “reorganization” caused hardships for farms and businesses in the agricultural, paint, paper, textile, and other industries. The nation’s growing dependence on petroleum ultimately created intractable geopolitical and environmental problems. Cannabis was removed from the American pharmacopeia in 1942, and over the years, replaced by synthetic drugs with harmful side effects and causing untold suffering.
In many ways, the quality of medical education did improve with the implementation of the Flexner recommendations. But osteopathic, eclectic, naturopathic, and homeopathic institutions closed, and we have lost much of their clinical wisdom.
In 1904, there had been 160 American medical schools, graduating 28,000 MDs per year. By 1935, there were only 66, graduating a little over 12,000. The sharp admission pool reduction resulted in a profession with few practitioners who weren’t white and male. And healthcare became much more expensive.
The FBI reports that 853,838 Americans were arrested last year for cannabis-related offenses.