Up in Smoke II: The Banning of Cannabis – 30’s Style

“Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles? . . . THREE-FOURTHS OF THE CRIMES of violence in this country today are committed by DOPE SLAVES – that is a matter of cold record.”

                                                                Annie Laurie, columnist – Hearst Newspapers

William Randolph Hearst was the best known newspaper publisher of his day and the originator of yellow journalism. His “sensationalized stories of dubious veracity”, as Wikipedia puts it, shocked and inflamed his readers and whipped up popular support for his favorite causes, the criminalization of cannabis being one. Making the weed illegal was a goal that spoke not only to Hearst’s political and racial biases – it would also make him wealthier, and he wasted no time putting his considerable journalistic weight behind it.

In the early 20th century agriculture and industry in America had a show-down. Rudolph Diesel’s brainchild, an engine patented in 1898, ran on peanut oil. When he took the engine to the 1900 Paris World’s Fair a scarcity of peanut oil made him turn to hemp oil to power it. Both the fuel and the engine were a success and Diesel’s name was made. At the time hemp was one of the largest agricultural crops in the world. Strong, soft and durable, its fibers stood up to salt water better than cotton when made into rope and sails. In addition to fuel, pressed oil from hemp seeds was used in paints and varnishes and hemp could be used to make better paper than wood for less money and without the polluting chemicals used for processing wood pulp. By 1938 the magazine Popular Mechanics called hemp the “Billion Dollar Crop”. G.W. Schlichten’s “decordicating machine” (hemp’s equivalent of the cotton gin) allowed cellulose to be processed from the “hurds”, or material left over once the fibers were removed. The cellulose was then used to manufacture literally thousands of products, from cellophane to explosives.

Motivated by a desire to find uses for agricultural surpluses, Henry Ford experimented with different crops to make a resin that could be used in the manufacture of automobiles. His “special interest”, according to hempplastic.com, was converting soy meal into plastics. When the first resin car was unveiled, the only steel used was for its tubular frame. Ford eventually abandoned soy for a resin recipe of cellulose fibers of wheat, hemp and sisal. Then he added binders and molded it all under hydraulic pressure to create body panels, steering wheels, gearshift knobs, dashboards, trim – even windows. This was Ford’s vision of an automobile “grown from the soil”. It weighed a ton less than a comparable steel car and impact tests showed it to be ten times stronger, as well. By 1941 Popular Mechanics featured Ford in the hemp fields on his large estate and his “plastic car” was introduced with great fanfare. There is no doubt that manufacturing and powering cars with plant sources would have been a great boon for the agricultural industry. “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,” Ford said. “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.” But by late 1941, Henry Ford, the master of publicity, no longer advertised his car. Petroleum-based products were about to steal the show.

In the 1920’s the DuPont Company, originally an explosives manufacturer, began to branch out. After World War I ended the company found greater profit in the manufacture of artificial fibers and began making cellophane. Next DuPont acquired General Motors and joined with Standard Oil (now Exxon) to produce the lead additive in gasoline known as ethyl. In 1935 the company made its most important discovery – Nylon, with many synthetic products, such as Lucite and Teflon, to follow. Andrew Mellon, banker and business magnate, was DuPont’s largest investor. In 1921 Mellon resigned as president of the Mellon National Bank to become the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, a post he held under three presidents until 1932. He appointed Harry J. Anslinger (who would later marry his niece) to head the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Anslinger was an ambitious sort and he knew the Bureau was a great career opportunity. The problem was that the depression was threatening to defund his organization. He needed to find a new threat to justify the Bureau and his role within it – opiates and cocaine weren’t enough, so he latched on to cannabis and began his work to make it illegal.

Anslinger’s style was well-suited to Hearst’s. Anslinger got busy stirring up racial fears to turn cannabis into a national threat. He ordered his field agents to compile the most horrendous and depraved crimes in the nation into “The Gore File” which he then promoted and read from frequently: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.” Likewise, Hearst hated minorities and he used his newspapers to stir up racial tensions at every opportunity. Hearst papers portrayed Mexicans as lazy, degenerate, violent, job-stealing marijuana smokers. Hearst’s father, U.S. Senator George Hearst, had acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Mexico for 20 cents apiece following the surrender of Geronimo. The loss of 800,000 acres of that prime timberland to Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution may have had something to do with the younger Hearst’s point of view.

While DuPont developed and patented fuel additives, synthetics and plastics, other companies were developing products from renewable plant sources. The hemp decorticator promised to help hemp dominate the paper market, eliminating the need for wood pulp paper. The Hearst news business and wood pulp paper were a marriage made in heaven. Hearst still owned vast amounts of timber and hemp was a threat to its value. For every product made from petroleum sources, Henry Ford and other companies promised better and cheaper alternatives made from cannabis hemp. Something had to be done. Meeting in secret, Hearst and the DuPont’s decided that hemp was too much of a threat to their billion dollar dynasties. Cannabis had to go. The tycoons, assisted by an eager Anslinger, took the little known Spanish slang term “marihuana” and pushed it into the public’s awareness. For two years, from 1935-1937, DuPont lobbied Herman Oliphant, chief counsel of the Treasury Department, for the prohibition of cannabis. Petroleum-based synthetics, DuPont assured him, could take the place of hemp in the marketplace.

It’s surely no coincidence that the Marihuana Tax Act made the possession or transfer of cannabis illegal throughout the U.S. in 1937. Cannabis used for medical and industrial uses had an expensive excise tax applied to it, making it more expensive for manufacturing than petroleum sources. In fact, other bills introduced to Congress proposing a national energy program based on the country’s vast agricultural resources were killed by the petroleum industry. Gasoline was clearly inferior to Cannabis hemp fuel. It had a lower octane rating, was more toxic, dangerous and polluting. No matter. Sensationalist smear campaigns paid for by petro-dollars slashed the hemp industry down to the ground and gasoline emerged as the twentieth century’s dominant fuel.

If you were born in the 50’s or before, you may have been shown the 1936 film “Reefer Madness” in school. We all love to look back at the stern, straight-faced 1930’s anti-marijuana propaganda and laugh at the level of ignorance that was once taken as Gospel. Yet there is virtually no history of concern about the evils of marijuana use in America until the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, which prohibited the use of alcohol. Hysteria over cannabis use was easy to cultivate because of the divisions and corruption caused by prohibition. Hearst and the DuPont’s, in conjunction with corrupt or misguided officials like Anslinger, popularized dozens of movies, books, pamphlets and newspaper articles condemning cannabis. By 1930 many states had not only criminalized it but had labeled it as a narcotic. The FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report estimated that some 723,627 people were arrested for cannabis violations in 2001 – nearly half the drug arrests in the country. Of those, 88.6% were charged with possession only, including those whose cannabis was grown for medical use. Since 1992, approximately six million Americans have been arrested on cannabis charges, illustrating the fact that the lunacy of the Reefer Madness days is not gone, but haunts us still. Little wonder, then, that the research and development of cannabis for medicinal use is just a distant dream.

Next week: searching for the truth about cannabis as medicine



One thought on “Up in Smoke II: The Banning of Cannabis – 30’s Style

  1. Pingback: Smear Campaign against Oppression of Hemp « Breezy Kiefair

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