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Part I    Us against Them

George Washington made his living growing marijuana. Hemp was his primary crop at Mt. Vernon. Thomas Jefferson grew pot at Monticello. The Founders grew hemp for fiber, of course, not for human consumption. But it never occurred to anyone at the time to ban anything that a person might eat, drink or smoke.

The first instances of drug prohibition occurred in the 1880’s. In San Francisco and Virginia City, the town fathers banned opium smoking. You could still eat it, drink it or sprinkle it on your cereal if you wanted to. You could buy opium at any general store. You just couldn’t smoke it.

A ban of only one of the many ways to take opium seems odd unless you understand the primal US-against-THEM fear at the heart of drug prohibition. Opium smokers in San Francisco in 1880 were all Chinese. Xenophobic paranoia ran wild among the respectable, that is, white, townsfolk. White women were reputedly lured into opium dens and forced to perform unspeakable acts with Chinese men. Rumors of unspeakable acts were enough to damn opium smoking as an intolerable, pernicious evil.

In the period between the Civil War and the turn of the century prohibitionists kept themselves busy mostly with alcohol. Drug addiction was poorly understood. Morphine was a popular treatment for alcoholism.

The patent medicine industry was thriving. The morphine content in patent medicines often ran to 50%. A slash of Dr. Willie’s Pile and Bunion Elixir would make you feel like a new man. Unfortunately, the first thing the new man wanted was more Elixir.

Cocaine drinks like Coca Cola and Pepsi became popular. Soda fountains appeared in every pharmacy. Sigmund Freud enthusiastically recommended cocaine to treat depression. He developed an alarming habit himself. Ironically, he brought his cocaine craving under control only to die of tobacco induced cancer. He smoked cigars even after having large portions of his face removed. 

By 1900 the poorly understood action of morphine and a wild and woolly patent medicine industry had produced a lot of addicts; many more than there are today. Estimates range from 1 to 4% of the adult population. Addicts fell into two main groups, medical patients who got hooked while undergoing pain treatment and the unlucky, gullible souls addicted to patent medicines. Addiction demographics were strikingly different from today’s. In 1900 the most statistically likely addict was a middle-aged white woman living on a farm.

Besides demographics, addiction then and now differed in two other important ways. First, in 1900 nearly all addiction was accidental. Second and more importantly for the social consequences of addiction, most addicts functioned normally in society. Morphine was cheap and easy to buy.

Addicted appendectomy patients weren’t knocking over soda fountains for drug money. Auntie Ada didn’t have to sell her body to keep a $200/day snake oil monkey on her back. A morphine habit cost no more than most other bad habits. Addiction was a problem mainly for the addicts. The problems to the larger society of theft, prostitution, disease, and violence would not appear until addiction became a crime.

The first and last drug law to have a positive affect on addiction in the United States was not a criminal statute but a regulatory one, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. It created the Food and Drug Administration and required prescriptions for many drugs. The FDA tested and labeled food and drugs for human consumption. After testing, most patent medicines were not approved. The industry died a quiet death. With addictive patent cures gone and morphine consumers medically supervised, addiction fell dramatically.

The first federal criminal drug law was the Harrison Tax Act of 1914. It was passed in a powerfully prohibitionist political climate. Between 1900 and 1914 every state had enacted some control over the sale of opiates and cocaine. By 1917 nearly 80% of the states were dry. Alcohol prohibition was widely debated, drug prohibition hardly debated at all, but the two movements used a common rhetoric against crime, pauperism and insanity. Both movements started at the state level. Both found favor with the courts. Opinions supporting drug and alcohol prohibition became interchangeable.

Most state drug laws did not outlaw possession but dealt with distribution only. As a middle class affliction, the public considered addiction an unfortunate condition requiring treatment.  Sympathetic doctors and druggists routinely prescribed what addicts needed to continue to function. It was not US-against-THEM yet, but still US-helping-US.

The Harrison Act stamped narcotics users as disreputable in a way that had previously been reserved for out-groups like the Chinese and Mexicans. When the Supremes ruled that prevention of withdrawal was not a legitimate medical use of drugs, the image of the degenerate dope fiend fulfilled itself. Morphine clinics closed in major cities. Soon law-induced crimes by desperate addicts convinced the public of the inherently decadent nature of opium addiction. Using opiates obviously changed normal people into criminals and perverts. The Harrison Act had created the US-against-THEM atmosphere that would nurture drug prohibition through this century.

Between 1915 and 1937 anti-marijuana laws passed in nearly every state. They passed for three different reasons, but in every case there was a dangerous THEM against whom WE had to protect ourselves.

In the western states THEY were the Mexicans. Nobody knew anything about marijuana but everybody knew who used it. This quote from the floor debate in the Texas Senate says it all: “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff (marijuana) is what makes them crazy.”

In the eastern states nobody knew anything about marijuana either, but they had heard that it made the Mexicans crazy. There weren’t any Mexicans to speak of in the Northeast. In the Northeast THEY were the depraved dope fiends created by the Harrison Act and the desperate drunks created by the Volstead Act who would surely turn to pot as a substitute for their preferred but now illegal vices. Marijuana in the Northeastern states was banned as a precaution against this substitution.

Those two reasons accounted for the marijuana ban in 26 of 27 states. State laws were all regulatory, not criminal in nature. The 27th state was Utah. There was never any great Mexican immigration to Utah. In Utah, THEY were the wandering sinners who had left and then returned to the fold.

The Supreme Court in 1876 forbade the Mormon practice of polygamy. Since the Mormons favored polygamy, for a longtime the local authorities didn’t enforce the Court’s decree. By and by, the Mormon Church came to agree with the Supremes and banned polygamy themselves. This was in 1910.

Disgruntled Mormon polygamists picked up and moved to Mexico. They intended to convert the heathen and make a new life. Conversions were few. Life was hard. The Mormons didn’t prosper in Mexico and most returned to Utah before 1915.

The heathen, however, had had more luck with the Mormons than the Mormons with the heathen. Many of the faithful had grown fond of marijuana. The Church condemned pot smoking as it condemned the use of all euphoriants. Things being what they were in Utah at the time, the legislature criminalized what the Church declared sinful. THEY in this case were the sinners returned from Mexico. Thus we got the first criminal law against the use of marijuana in our history.

Next time – The Marijuana Tax Act, how pot became the “killer weed” by turning the dog guy into a bat, jazz backlash and the beginning of the War.