This Wednesday is the eightieth anniversary of the first major action the federal government took against cannabis in the United States, and eight decades later, that same federal government has still failed to reduce Americans’ consumption of the plant. In fact, it’s on the rise.
Long before the era of prohibition, druggists used cannabis as a medicine. According to Origins, a joint publication by the Ohio State University and Miami University history departments:
“Cannabis, like opiates and cocaine, was freely available at drug stores in liquid form and as a refined product, hashish. Cannabis was also a common ingredient in turn-of-the-century patent medicines, over-the-counter concoctions brewed to proprietary formulas.”
Then, like today, it helped people relax:
“The hashish candy advertised in an 1862 issue of Vanity Fair as a treatment for nervousness and melancholy, for example, was also ‘a pleasurable and harmless stimulant.’ ‘Under its influence all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy,’ the advertisement explained.”
Though in 1906 the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act required patent medicine companies to list cannabis as an ingredient in products where it was present – and between 1914 and 1925 26 states passed laws prohibiting it — it wasn’t until 1937 federal authorities took substantial action.
On August 2, 1937, Congress passed the “Marihuana Tax Act,” which was largely the result of anti-narcotic crusader Henry Anslinger’s mission to ban the plant. As Time has explained, creating a “tax” on the substance effectively outlawed it:
“As with the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, Congress deemed an act taxing and regulating drugs, rather than prohibiting them, less susceptible to legal challenge. As a result, the 1937 legislation was ostensibly a revenue measure. Just as the Harrison Act used taxation and regulation to, in effect, prohibit morphine, heroin and other drugs, the Marijuana Tax Act essentially outlawed the possession or sale of marijuana.”