Cannabis Comeback — Why Was It Ever Illegal?

A history most relevant…

I wrote this piece in April of 2020 for my senior thesis titled “Civilians on Patrol;” a bulk of critical design essays putting history into context amongst relevant discussions relating to American law enforcement. Yesterday, March 31st, 2021, Recreational cannabis was legalized in my home state of NY. I figured today was a good day to remind ourselves why cannabis had been outlawed these last eighty-four years, and the countless resources wasted, and lives ruined, to keep it that way.

In the year 1876, America was celebrating its 100th birthday with the International Centennial Exhibition. Nations from around the globe had brought their latest innovations in design center-stage, under a structure nicknamed “The Glass Castle”. Abdul Hamid II of Turkey had brought the gift of a massive pot party. The pleasures of smoking cannabis were so immense word quickly spread, and successful businessmen got started on cannabis ventures throughout the nation. The timing was nearly perfect as local leaders and law enforcement were growing tired of the cultures surrounding alcohol and were moving towards prohibition.

As prohibition started taking form, the popularity of smoking parlors grew rapidly. Never more so than in the Louisiana city of New Orleans. By 1920, the town was full of cannabis and a new musical movement had begun. The city was alive with jazz. The combination of off-the-cuff big band jams with cannabis was a near-perfect coupling for those seeking nightlife. For a short time, everything was splendid. The popularity of Jazz and smoking parlors expanded, as prohibition had become law, cannabis was the new drug of choice.

That was until one of our series-popular boogeymen arrived on the scene of the press with something to say about this new popular party drug. William R. Hearst coated newspapers with headlines detailing the dangers of cannabis. There’s debate over why Hearst was so vehemently against cannabis. Some suggest it’s because of Hearst’s racist and divisive nature, given that cannabis was often labeled as a “black” or Mexican drug. Others take particular notice of Hearst’s press business being in direct competition with the hemp industry, and used the very press he hoped to strengthen by manipulating customers and molding the recreational end as a scapegoat to sabotage the hemp industry.

Whatever his designed intention, it was working. The Great Depression had just begun, and the southeast was becoming less appreciative of migrant labor considering there was less money to pay them, and everyone was turning poor. No matter Hearst’s intentions, educated white men of the area immediately saw cannabis as an opportunity to drive the racial divide between the white and Hispanic communities. The efforts were quickly paralleled in the south where opposition took the opportunity to manufacture a widespread crime wave, to which they would disproportionately prosecute a great number of young black men. Hearst had designed a brand new name for the drug, which at the time was called cannabis, weed, hemp, hasheesh, and a number of other nicknames. The rebrand lives strong today: Marijuana. You’ll notice by this time that I’ve refrained from calling it that word, though the racially insensitive origin is lost on most of us today and so isn’t always delivered with sinister intention. The word was designed to sound more exotic, foreign, and un-American.

Hearst had begun portraying cannabis as the “Marijuana Menace,” describing it as a crime-wave monster with tentacles stretched across every state in America. Sensationalized headlines delivered the “horrific” murders and adultery. His yarn spinning was working, the vast majority of Hearst’s customers were white Christians, and grew terrified of this phantom drug. Tales of children murdering their mothers spanned page six, households became “Anti-Marijuana.”

Educated white men wanted something concrete by way of federal law, cultural manipulation wasn’t yet enough. Cannabis had the infrastructural edge, it was already widely available, and unless there was a way to force people to change, removal wouldn’t come fast enough. Enter one, Harry J. Anslinger, the first appointed commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and the prime subject of our focus in the criminalization of cannabis. Anslinger, is our designer. To historians and onlookers of cannabis history, Anslinger is today infamous for falsification of public information, cultural manipulation, prosecution of anything non-white, and being the true catalyst of our war on drugs. Believe it or not, Anslinger was initially against the criminalization of cannabis, not on principle but on practicality. As mentioned earlier, cannabis was readily available and grown in massive fields. For many it was a livelihood, being a weed it was easy to grow. Anslinger’s bureau was brand new, consisting of only 300 employees and just over a 1 million dollar budget. There simply was no path forward for a ban.

Regardless, Hearst would have to meet with him as a representative for white businessmen in the southwest, Florida, and New England. In early meetings, Hearst went so far as to confide in Anslinger that he had personally written each and every “Marijuana” rooted editorial published by his press. Pressure was mounting from the rich upper class, but other than Hearst’s predetermined cultural deviance metaphor, he couldn’t think up much more. He spearheaded publically funded “information” films to alert the public to “The Marijuana Menace.” These films in their design, are stylistically wonderful, and hilarious, in their flagrant bombardment of reality, steadfastly stated as facts of most importance. Tales of a party turned to a maddening piano solo (he played till he died), spontaneous suicides, and love lust murders. Honestly, if you have not seen clips, I’d give it a chance, it’s entertaining, to say the least.

California cities had begun mounting bans on cannabis and drugs of similar racial attachment. Opium dens were banned while the consumption was still legal, so too with cannabis. Mounting pressure had built up and quite suddenly Anslinger had evolved from passive to vocal leader in the movement against cannabis. However, he still struggled to envision a law.

In 1934, congress passed the National Firearms Act in the wake of the usage of submachine guns in domestic settings. The law banned the sale, or exchange, without purchasing a taxed stamp from the federal treasury. Not an explicit ban, justifiable to a free nation as proper oversight and enforcement. However, there was a catch. The treasury had absolutely no intention of ever selling these stamps. A suit against the legislation, United States v. Miller quickly made it to the Supreme Court. The court decided that it wasn’t a constitutional violation to withhold the sale of the mandated stamps. In a somewhat tricky way, the federal government had essentially banned the sale and exchange of submachine guns. Anslinger was inspired.

Come 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was drafted and debated in congress. By this point, public opinion amongst educated whites had shifted so dramatically, there was hardly any argument against the legislation. Soon thereafter Roosevelt signed the bill into law, this was the first federal ban against cannabis. Some mark this as the beginning of the war on drugs.

In 1944, Anslinger commissioned a committee investigation into the usage of Marijuana in the city of New York, specifically in Manhattan. The committee was entirely funded by Anslinger’s bureau, and all cannabis used in the study was also provided by the bureau. After an extensive study, a report on the findings was disseminated that conflicted with most all of Anslinger’s claims and hypotheses. The following were the committee’s listed conclusions:

1. Marihuana is used extensively in the Borough of Manhattan but the problem is not as acute as it is reported to be in other sections of the United States.

2. The introduction of marihuana into this area is recent as compared to other localities.

3. The cost of marihuana is low and therefore within the purchasing power of most persons.

4. The distribution and use of marihuana is centered in Harlem.

5. The majority of marihuana smokers are Negroes and Latin-Americans.

6. The consensus among marihuana smokers is that the use of the drug creates a definite feeling of adequacy.

7. The practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.

8. The sale and distribution of marihuana is not under the control of any single organized group.

9. The use of marihuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marihuana smoking.

10. Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.

11. Marihuana smoking is not widespread among school children.

12. Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marihuana.

13. The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.

I’ve taken care in not leaving out any of the findings, this is straight from the report. Needless to say, Anslinger was furious and felt betrayed. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you can gather, it didn’t go far by way of changing minds. Consider too what the nation may have been more focused on in the year 1944.

The drug was a cultural staple in many communities, and so, was weaponized and turned into a scapegoat to segregate and prosecute minorities. Unfortunately, over eighty years later, these designed effects live strong thanks to the politicization of the force that made it all possible.

In June of 2013, the ACLU developed a modern report of its own, loaded with numerical evidence for the remaining crisis state of cannabis enforcement and criminalization. In 2010, states spent over 3.6 billion on enforcement combined. That’s not all narcotics, that’s just cannabis. 88% of arrests were for possession, arrests had been on a steady incline since 2001, and cannabis made up the majority of drug arrests in the war on drugs. I’m sure you saw this last statistic coming. People of color, the majority being black, were 3.73x more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.



Designer, critical writer, image-maker, seltzer enthusiast. All things design history and critique. Lone author behind; “Greater Fool.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
John Bradford

Designer, critical writer, image-maker, seltzer enthusiast. All things design history and critique. Lone author behind; “Greater Fool.”