The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 2)

Harry J. Anslinger

At the time of the International Opium Convention of 1925 the United States (US) was busy ineffectually implementing a prohibition regime for alcohol (1920-1933). A moral panic fed by sensationalist newspaper reports about violence incited by ‘marijuana’ use among Mexican immigrants was building. Requests were made to include Cannabis in the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, a US federal law that regulated and taxed production, importation and distribution of opiates and coca products. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), established 1930, headed by Commissioner of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger (until 1962) at first argued Cannabis should be handled by the states. Heroin was considered a much more dangerous substance and Anslinger was cautious about committing the FBN to control a substance that grew across many southern US states. However, pressure to do something mounted; from local police in affected states, to governors and then the Secretary of the Treasury, Anslinger’s boss. Prior to efforts of the FBN to publicise the evils of ‘marijuana’ in the mid-1930’s, the ‘drug’ was virtually ignored on a national level. The Bureau’s attempts to design a federal law were initially based on treaty-making powers of federal government as the authority that could introduce an anti-Cannabis statute. That might explain the increased activity of the US at the Advisory Committee. Anslinger’s predecessors had used those tactics in 1912 and 1925 “to enforce domestic legislation in time to underline the seriousness of US intentions at international meetings and thereby increase their capacity to influence international decisions; at the same time, they used international obligations as an argument for domestic legislation”.

In 1926 Cannabis importation and use was prohibited by the Australian Commonwealth Government with federal legislation implementing the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs.

Although not a member of the League of Nations, the US maintained extra-official presence as an observer in deliberations and voiced dissatisfaction with the lenient approach of European colonial powers with significant financial interests in production of opium, coca and manufacturing derivatives, morphine, heroin and cocaine. One of the reasons the US had withdrawn from the 1924-1925 Geneva Conference was producing countries’ refusal to commit to measures restricting production of raw opium and coca leaves to medical and scientific needs. Washington saw this as a major gap in the international system of control. Limitation of available supplies could not be achieved without control at the source: restricting cultivation. The US tried to introduce stricter measures, including for Cannabis, at the Conference for Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs in Geneva, 1936. The Conference was convened to address the increasing problem of illicit ‘drug’ trafficking, an unintended consequence of increased effectiveness of the control regime imposed on licit international ‘drug’ markets. The US proposal included compulsory severe penalties for promoting or engaging in cultivation, production, manufacture or distribution for non-medical and non-scientific purposes. Other delegations rejected that path and reminiscent of the 1925 Geneva Conference, the US delegation walked out, dissatisfied. The US strategy was to influence its domestic policy, establishing a constitutional basis, via treaty, for federal regulation of cultivation and production of opium and Cannabis. According to historian William B. McAllister, “perhaps individual use as well”.

However, the delegation considered the 1936 Convention for Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs “a retrograde step”. Shortly after, Anslinger and the Treasury Department went ahead with preparations for passage of a federal bill to control Cannabis, replete with an effective scare campaign on Capitol Hill and in the media. Following a well-practiced approach, in April 1937, he assured a House of Representatives committee that under the influence of Cannabis, “some people will fly into a delirious rage and may commit violent crimes”. In response to a follow-up question, he said the ‘drug’ was “dangerous to the mind and body and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions”. Anslinger testified most ‘marijuana’ smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians and entertainers. Their satanic music driven by ‘marijuana’ and smoking by white women makes them want sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and others. It causes insanity, criminality and death; most violence-causing ‘drug’ in the history of mankind! Such views were widely replicated on radio, in public forums, magazine articles and in the film ‘Reefer Madness’. Accompanying the racist and xenophobic undertone, the demonisation bordered on the ridiculous. Such was the atmosphere in August 1937 when federal government approved the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively banning Cannabis. The law imposed an occupational tax upon importers, sellers, dealers and anyone handling the ‘drug’. The provisions of the Act were not designed to raise revenue, or even regulate use. The purpose was to provide the legal mechanisms to enforce prohibition of all use of Cannabis.


Australian ‘Drug Control’ Timeline 1928-1959

1928 – Australian state of Victoria enacts Poisons Act, the first state to prohibit use of Cannabis; other Australian states followed suit slowly over next three decades.

1934 – South Australia prohibits use of Cannabis.

1935 – New South Wales prohibits use of Cannabis.

1937 – Queensland prohibits use of Cannabis.

1940 – Australian Commonwealth Government extended import restrictions onIndian hemp, including preparations containing hemp.

1950 – Western Australia prohibits use of Cannabis.

1959 – Tasmania prohibits use of Cannabis.

This was the case even though debate for the passage of the bill in the House of Representatives lasted only half an hour and contained no medical or scientific data. Reflecting the laxity and indifference of discussion, Texas Congressman Sam Rayburn responded to a question about the bill’s provisions: “It is something to do with something that is called ‘marijuana’. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind”. Before introduction of the law only four states enacted prohibitions against non-medical use, California (1915), Texas (1919), Louisiana (1924) and New York (1927), but in 1937, forty-six of the nation’s forty-eight states had banned the substance. The US subsequently reinforced its drive to strengthen international control and lead the international anti-Cannabis movement. It presented extensive documentation to a sub-committee of the League of Nation’s Advisory Committee, claiming a link between crime, dementia and Cannabis, whilst promoting the gateway theory that Cannabis use led to heroin addiction. Anslinger declared in 1938 before the Advisory Committee: “[…] the ‘drug’ [marihuana] maintains its ancient, worldwide tradition of murder, assault, rape, physical and mental deterioration. The office’s archives prove that its use is associated with dementia and crime. Thus, from the point of view of policing, it is a more dangerous ‘drug’ than heroin or cocaine”. In contrast, one of the most important documents produced by the sub-committee insists there is no link between violence and Cannabis in Africa. The sub-committee’s work, completed in December 1939, demonstrated sensitivity to cultural differences in Cannabis use, even though the Indian situation and lessons from the Hemp Commission were again ignored.

The subcommittee concluded more studies were necessary on the precise content of Cannabis, the causes of addiction and its connection with dementia and crime and the growing phenomenon of substitution of Cannabis with heroin in North Africa, Egypt and Turkey. In an earlier report an increase in heroin use in Tunisia was attributed to Cannabis control and raised concern, “[…] at present, total suppression (at least in countries where Cannabis use is a very ancient custom) would result in an increase in addiction to manufactured drugs, which are far more dangerous […]”. The work of the League of Nations ended with the Second World War. After 1945, with the full weight of the US brought into play, parameters for international Cannabis control changed significantly. Meanwhile, attracting little if any attention, other control models persisted. In India, Tunisia and French Morocco, systems of controlled sales had been adopted. With the creation of the United Nations (UN), the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) replaced the Advisory Committee of the League of Nations. During its first meeting in 1946 future discrepancies in the Cannabis debate were already beginning to show. The Mexican representative claimed too many restrictions on Cannabis could lead to it being substituted by alcohol, which would have worse consequences. The Indian delegate declared Indians used ganja and bhang in moderation. The US representative, Anslinger, insisted on proving the connection between Cannabis use and crime and launched an attack against a report issued in 1944 by New York’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, the goal of which was to provide a thorough, impartial and scientific analysis of ‘marijuana’ smoking among the city’s Latin and black population.

In Morocco, according to a 1917 decree, ‘kif’ had to be sold to a multinational company in Tangier, largely controlled by French capital, with a monopoly to trade Cannabis and tobacco. In 1912, the country was divided into two, one under French administration, the other under Spanish rule, the latter comprising the Cannabis cultivation zone. The aim of regulating cultivation, transport, sale and consumption of kif was to protect interests of the monopoly against clandestine producers and sellers. Farmers depended on the company for permission to grow and were obliged to hand in their harvest in Tangiers and Casablanca where it was processed for commercial sale in tobacco shops. Use was largely unproblematic. Many smoked a few pipes in the evening, sipping coffee or tea. “The number of these ‘careful’ smokers is fairly high in the towns among artisans and small shopkeepers”, a UN study in 1951 reported. In Tunisia, during the French protectorate until 1956, a similar system of “controlled toleration” existed, restricting contraband and maintaining consumption within limits. The sale of chopped Cannabis ready for smoking (takrouri) was organised by a state monopoly. The Direction des monopoles issued cultivation permits, fixed areas of authorised plantations yearly and bought entire crops from producers. The Tunis Tobacco Factory prepared takrouri and distributed it in packets of five grams, sold in all the tobacco shops of the Tunis Regency.


Based on five years of interdisciplinary research, the study refuted the scare stories the FBN was circulating in the media and claims by officials about dangers of Cannabis. Among its conclusions was the “practice of smoking ‘marijuana’ does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word” and the ‘drug’ was “not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes”. Moreover, “publicity concerning the catastrophic ef­fects of ‘marijuana’ is unfounded […] There is no direct relationship between the commission of crimes of violence and marihuana … Marihuana itself has no specific stimulant effect in regard to sexual desires” and “use of marihuana does not lead to morphine or cocaine or heroin addiction”. In light of such findings, it called for an intelligent approach. In the absence of an international normative consensus about ‘drug’ use and the willing capacity to coerce nations to adhere to stringent control policies the League of Nations had been unable to secure global prohibition of certain ‘drugs’ for non-medical purposes. The voluntary nature of adherence to the conventions ensured the pre-UN framework had a more regulatory character, concerned predominantly with “restrictive commodity agreements”. This was about to change. After the Second World War the US was the dominant world power and could persuade other states to adopt stricter policies. This power shift led to dismissing impartial evidence on benefits, risk and harms of Cannabis and its potential medical usefulness and eased the way for providing biased evidence supporting the US decision to prohibit the substance. A CND secretariat paper continuing the work of the subcommittee from the 1930’s omitted all references to the La Guardia report because the US did not submit it. 

In 1948 the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) approved a US-drafted and CND-sponsored resolution requesting the UN’s Secretary General draft a new convention replacing all the existing treaties from the 1912 Hague Convention onward. Owing much to Anslinger’s endeavours, work on a single or unified treaty began. It would have three core objectives: limiting production of raw materials; codifying existing conventions into one; and simplifying the existing ‘drug’ control apparatus. Between 1950 and 1958, the nascent document went through three drafts. A first draft was presented in February 1950 by the CND Secretariat. The proposals for Cannabis were drastic. The draft text incorporated two approaches, both holding recreational Cannabis use needed to be rigorously discouraged. The first alternative worked on conjecture Cannabis had no legitimate medical use that could not be met by other “less dangerous substances”. With the exception of small amounts for scientific purposes, production of Cannabis would be prohibited completely. The second option recognised Cannabis had legitimate medical purposes. It should be produced and traded exclusively by a state monopoly only for medical and scientific ends. To ensure no Cannabis leaked into “illicit traf­fic” a range of measures, state-run cultivation and uprooting of wild plants, was proposed. In countries with significant traditional recreational use, “a reservation” could allow production on the strict condition the reservation would “cease to be effective unless renewed by annual notification […] accompanied by a description of the progress in the preceding year towards the abolition of such non-medical use and by explanation of the continued reasons for the temporary retention of such use”. 

No agreement was reached and decisive action was stalled. More information was needed as “a rigid limitation of the use of ‘drugs’ under control to exclusively medical and scientific needs does not sufficiently take into consideration long established customs and traditions which persist in particular in territories of the Middle and Far East and which is impossible to abolish by a simple decree of prohibition”. The draft boldly claimed all non-medical consumption of Cannabis was harmful and recommended countries in which traditional recreational use was common should be obliged to ban such practices, denying social use of Cannabis in many southern countries was commonly accepted by many as a phenomenon comparable to social use of alcohol in the US and Europe. Years later, Hans Halbach, head of the WHO Section on Addiction Producing Drugs, 1954-1970, pointed out the cultural bias: “If in those days the opium-producing countries had been as concerned about alcohol as Western countries were concerned about opium, we might have had an international convention on alcohol”. By deferring Cannabis for further study the issue risked ending up in the same indecisive state as in the pre-war period under the League of Nations, when it was studied year in year out, without a noticeable impact on the decision-making process. Much valuable information was gathered, but its often contradictory nature did not help to reach a suitable policy conclusion. The dominant position of the US and the emergence in the post-war years of what historian McAllister has called an “inner circle” of drug control advocates at the UN who were determined to set a “radical” agenda were central to breaking the impasse.

One of the crucial issues was whether Cannabis had any justifiable medical use. The body mandated to determine medicinal utility was the WHO Expert Committee on Drugs Liable to Produce Addiction. In 1952 the Committee declared “Cannabis preparations are practically obsolete. So far as we can see, there is no justification for the medical use of Cannabis preparations”. That verdict was not substantiated by any evidence and was clearly influenced by ideological positions of certain individuals holding powerful positions. The secretary of the Expert Committee was Pablo Osvaldo Wolff, head of the Addiction Producing Drugs Section of the WHO (1949-1954). Wolff, described as an American protégé, was part of that “inner circle” of control advocates and was made the WHO’s resident Cannabis expert due to vigorous US sponsorship. Anslinger wrote the preface to the 1949 English edition of Wolff ’s booklet ‘Marijuana in Latin America: The Threat It Constitutes’, as a polemic against the La Guardia report that argued, in contrast to Anslinger and Wolff ’s opinion, the use of Cannabis did not lead to mental and moral degeneration. Wolff ’s work supported the pre-war claims and arguments of the US government, such as the estimate there were 200 million Cannabis addicts in the world. The booklet has been qualified as “primarily a diatribe against marihuana […] practically devoid of hard data” that provided little to no scientific evidence regarding the alleged association between Cannabis and crime. Not a credible study, it is a pamphlet admonishing Cannabis’ purported menacing effect.

“With every reason, marihuana […] has been closely associated since the most remote time with insanity, crime, violence, and brutality”, Wolff concludes. The bombastic language discredits any scientific reliability and impartiality. For example, Cannabis: “changes thousands of persons into nothing more than human scum” and “this vice … should be suppressed at any cost”. Cannabis is labelled as a “weed of the brutal crime and of the burning hell” an “exterminating demon which is now attacking our country”. Users are referred to as addicts whose “motive belongs to a strain which is pure viciousness”. Wolff distorted available evidence by cherry-picking from reports to support his position, claiming, “an American commission which studied ‘marijuana’ addiction in the Panama garrisons found among the addicts individuals who were under charges of violence and insubordination”. That commission was the Panama Canal Zone, which had reached the diametrically opposite conclusion based on evidence, acts of violence and insubordination had little to no relation to Cannabis, but were, in fact, caused by alcohol. Wolff ’s claim there was “no medical indication whatsoever that will justify its use in the present day” was taken onboard by the WHO expert committee about Cannabis in 1952, of which he was the secretary. The deliberations from 1950 to 1955 would determine the status of Cannabis in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Wolff practically unilaterally determined the WHO position during these crucial years. 

At the 1953 CND meeting a study programme was approved to evaluate existing control regimes in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the WHO. The importance of the WHO undertaking a study on the physical and mental effects was stressed. When the CND met in 1955, delegates were presented a report, ‘The Physical and Mental Effects of Cannabis’, written by Wolff. Little more than an update of his earlier booklet and no less biased, it concludes, “Cannabis constitutes a dangerous ‘drug’ from every point of view, whether physical, mental, social or criminological” and “not only is marihuana smoking per se a danger but that its use eventually leads the smoker to turn to intravenous heroin injections”. Wolff has little indulgence for those “inclined to minimise the importance of smoking marihuana”. The literature cited is highly selective and work of the League’s Subcommittee in the 1930’s barely acknowledged. There are also serious doubts about the official status of the document: it did not represent the WHO’s institutional point of view and was not endorsed by the relevant expert committee nor mentioned in reports. Wolff ’s successor, Hans Halbach, referred to the report “as a working paper for the WHO Secretariat […] made available for distribution by the WHO Secretariat”. However, at the CND meeting, many delegates perceived the document as representing the WHO position.

Continued from The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 1), Extracted and Adapted from The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition


One thought on “The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 3) | Hemp Edification

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s