Cannabis History in America: Early 20th Century (1900 - 1970)
For prominent politicians, cannabis prohibition presented as a multifaceted red herring. For Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962, it was perfect. Anslinger had devoted much of his previous efforts to alcohol prohibition and witnessed its epic failure. He needed a new focus as the debacle came to a close. In fact, he engaged many of the same types of groups that composed the temperance movement. Marijuana prohibition created a superb environment for distillers, brewers, and vintners to embolden the new law by offering newly legal and socially accepted competition. Additionally, negative American sentiment after the Spanish-American War regarding Hispanic culture(s) was growing exponentially at this time. Pairing a malign substance with this particular brand of xenophobia would prove to vilify not only an entire group of people but also Anslinger’s scapegoat: cannabis. The cumulative power of fear-mongering was the icing on the cake for the Republican party, which sought to enthrall the early 20th-century American voter.
It is now widely acknowledged that America's embrace of marijuana prohibition ignored voices that demonstrated the benefits of cannabis throughout history. At least three separate reports highlighted reasons for anti-prohibition support during Anslinger’s pre-prohibition efforts. All three reports were disregarded by politicians in the name of party progress and fear-based dogma. Had they been given decent analysis and properly heeded, cannabis prohibition as we know it could have been completely avoided. Anslinger named the plant dangerous and rooted its “evils” to a deep connection with what he framed (and American society accepted) as outsider culture in the early half of the century (Mexicans, Malays, Indians, Persians, etc.).
Not long after Anslinger’s first successes, Fiorello LaGuardia - then-mayor of New York City - released the first of these reports touting cannabis as medicine, with little negative effects. The LaGuardia Report directly countered the Bureau of Narcotics' rhetoric. It stated that “marijuana was not addictive, [...] use was not motivating major crimes, and that use among children was not common. [...]The publicity concerning [...] marijuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.”1 Anslinger immediately hushed the report by publicly discrediting it and lobbying both the AMA (American Medical Association) and the APA (American Psychological Association) to support his own agenda.
Almost two decades later, John F. Kennedy signed an executive order directly involving cannabis research, which came up with similar findings to the LaGuardia Report. Devastatingly, as a result of the report arriving at the White House only days before his assassination, it never received proper notoriety.
Finally, Nixon’s own commission and subsequent (mis-)handling of the Shafer Report was the nail in the cannabis coffin. This report directly challenged earlier and current policy choices, questioning cannabis’ connection to increased crime levels and analyzing the cost-benefit ratio of criminalization. Nixon had originally commissioned the report for ammunition to support his War on Drugs. Instead of listening to evidence-based medicine, clear data, and industry experts, he chose, like many of his predecessors, to publicly dismiss and even shame the report. This provided the movement all the fuel needed to support his party’s fear-based rhetoric.
These were all precursors to the success of marijuana prohibition in America following the failed experiment with alcohol temperance. Alongside the blatant disregard for industry expertise are two important factors. Firstly, alcohol consumption has always been intertwined with most cultures, leaving its prohibition with little support internationally. Conversely, until 2020, the WHO (World Health Organization) listed cannabis under their 4th category (similar to America’s "Schedule 1" designation under the CSA, or Controlled Substances Act), providing necessary and powerful global backup to the plant’s inherent ‘danger’. Secondly, alcohol requires specific fermentation and distillation process(es) to be safely consumed and enjoyed. Both the access to capital and time necessary to purchase and maintain equipment means large barriers to entry for any individual or group embarking on their own industry franchise. Cannabis, however, can be ingested through countless methods, and with little to no processing required. To enforce maximum taxation for alcohol (in some cases double or triple), governments need only to track distilleries, breweries, and similar operations which are difficult to keep hidden. This renders taxation extremely viable for alcohol and almost impossible for cannabis - which grows anywhere including at home - especially given the lack of seed-to-sale tracking technology in the early 20th century. It is for these reasons that alcohol prohibition ended up repealed in the US, while that of marijuana has endured.
Hudak J. Marijuana: A Short History. Brookings Institution Press. 2020. Chapter 2: Early Regulation and a New (Drug) Deal.
Pisanti S, Bifulco M. Modern History of Medical Cannabis: From Widespread Use to Prohibitionism and Back. Trends Pharmcol Sci.2017;38(3):195-98.