Corporate Greed, Corruption & Racism: Marijuana Became Illegal

by HelloMD

The marijuana legalization movement has blazed a forward path by slowly opening minds and challenging archaic laws and regulations. Much work is still needed to redeem this useful plant from the toxic mythology that grew up around it, however. A little bit of history can illuminate just how that mythology took root.

Jack Herer, an iconic figure in the marijuana legalization movement, wrote a fascinating history of the marijuana plant and its political and social history. It's an interesting story and, like many American stories, we find it tracking along the lines of corporate conspiracy, political corruption, social propaganda and a legacy of racism and criminalization. We've summarized some of the key plot points below. Be sure to check out the whole story on his website.

Farming and Industry

In 1938, two innovations stood poised to shake up markets, transform industry and bring a new economy to the fore. Industrial hemp decorticating devices designed by scientists at the US Department of Agriculture in 1916 were both fully operational and economically feasible. It seemed the plant was poised to revitalize the American farm and transform both agriculture and industry. The plan involved not just the green buds, but utilized the pulpy stalks to make paper, an exploding market back at the beginning of the mid-20th century. The economic and ecological benefits resulting from the cultivation and production of pulp paper might have saved countless forests from decimation, preserved ground water from contamination, and softened the impact of the great depression. What happened?

Barriers to Market

At the same moment, the Dupont family had patented an industrial process for making plastics from coal and paper from wood pulp. Eager to corner the paper market and to fend off competition for a whole host of synthetic products made of nylon, the company realized that hemp, once it was converted into an industry of scale, would be one of its largest competitors. One of Dupont's largest investors, Andrew Mellon, was serving in the Hoover administration as the Secretary of Treasury. Mellon tapped Harry J. Anslinger, his soon-to-be nephew, to run the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Interestingly, Anslinger had already served as prohibition commissioner in the era of alcohol prohibition.

Enter sensational newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who had invested heavily in timber and had a vested interest in keeping hemp off the market. A propaganda campaign ensued, and the toxic misrepresentations still haunt us today. Anslinger and Hearst begin to produce films, stories and other sensational reports that maligned marijuana users as deranged and violent. It targeted Mexicans, Chinese and black Americans as the bad guys. They tied marijuana use to everything the public feared most and branded its users as rapists and beasts out to destroy white culture. Sound familiar?

It didn't take long, between regressive taxes and vicious propaganda, for marijuana to become associated in the public mind with every kind of deviance and violence. Anslinger testified before Congress that marijuana was "the most violence-causing drug in the history of the world." The marijuana tax of 1937 regulated the plant and made its trade and possession illegal. The economic and ecological benefits that hemp had promised vanished almost overnight.

Since that time, marijuana has continued to be a potent weapon in the hands of policy makers and politicians who need a scapegoat. The original campaign against marijuana provided a template for forwarding social and economic agendas.

The 60's and the Rise of Stigma

In the 60s, marijuana use was associated with the rising anti-war movement. Although marijuana became more openly acceptable in some circles, publicly it was demonized, often in association with other dangerous compounds and synthetic drugs. As the streets became saturated with heavier drugs such as heroin and cocaine, marijuana was considered guilty by association and framed as a gateway drug. In the meantime, the war against drugs was often posited in nationalistic and geopolitical terms.

Today, these associations linger. People still believe that marijuana use is responsible for empowering Mexican drug cartels, instead of understanding how legalization and thoughtful regulation policies would make the import of marijuana from Mexico completely irrelevant. In fact, the growth of powerful cartels was a result of the criminalization of marijuana, and their decline can be linked to our changing policies.

An autopsy of our history of marijuana policies reveals a tortured logic that tries very much to shape itself as a moral authority but fails at every turn. Even a surface glance reveals some painful contradictions. As marijuana entrepreneurs experiment with marijuana extracts in high-tech labs, many others, often individuals of color, have forfeited their futures to the American justice system and are living out life sentences in prison. Opportunities to correct these injustices are manifest, but the federal government has declined again and again to pass comprehensive laws that would limit selective punishment and make marijuana an opportunity for all. Whether pursuing the plant from the business side or as a medicine that has been shown to mitigate suffering without the harsh side effects of synthetic drugs.


In a nutshell, the criminalization of marijuana came about because the financial potential of hemp was too threatening to captains of industry threatened by competition. In the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, who had just lost his position running the defunct alcohol prohibition agency, was appointed to oversee the enforcement of drug laws. He was appointed by a powerful relative a huge position in Dupont, which saw hemp as a danger to its profits. Meanwhile, William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane, had investments in timber to keep the presses rolling at his sensationalist newspaper. Despite the lack of scientific studies, the public perception of marijuana as a gateway drug remained in the public eye. This year, the Supreme Court upheld Colorado's thriving cannabis ecosystem against its punitive-minded neighbors, but the official federal policy hasn't changed. What the nation needs is for marijuana to be regulated sensibly and fairly, as a national resource, and not demonized or used as a tool for moral panics.

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