‹‹ On Something

Why Was Weed Illegal Anyway?

Listen Now
Illustration of saxophone player, hippie and woman in the 40s
Illustration by Iris Gottlieb

Marijuana's history in the U.S. is complicated. Colorado Public Radio reporter Ann Marie Awad explains how cannabis became illegal -- and how we got from there to the kickstart of the modern legalization movement. If nothing else, listen just to hear the phrase "jazz cigarettes."

The episode includes stories about Harry Anslinger, an early anti-marijuana crusader; how Richard Nixon pushed to classify weed alongside harder drugs; how AIDS activists in California paved the way for medical marijuana. Interviewees include drug historians Emily Dufton and Adam Rathge.

Episode Transcript

Ann Marie Awad: From Colorado public radio and PRX, this is On Something.

Ann Marie Awad: One of the first things I did when I came to Colorado as I, you know, found my apartment, I got all the grownup stuff out of the way, I got my utilities turned on and everything, and then I went and found a dispensary.

I walk in. It smells a lot like weed, and do you know the ID me, they let me in the back, and then they're like, "All right, what do you want?" And I said, "I don't know. I just came in here cause I was curious." And so I bought an eight that day. I also learned what an eighth is. It's an eighth of an ounce, and they were really nice. They sent me out the door [inaudible 00:00:56] free rolling papers and a free lighter, and they said, "Welcome to Colorado."

That is night and day from pretty much every other marijuana experience I had ever had before coming to Colorado. I had had all these weird experiences with people handing me stuff that I didn't know what it was. I'd take a hit or I'd breakout in a cold sweat and stop moving or I'd stopped talking to people. I'd be at a party. I'd be having a fabulous time, but I'd be mute, and everybody's checking in with me.

Ann Marie Awad: By the way, I'm Ann Marie Awad. I'm from Colorado Public Radio.
Speaker 2: Oh, nice to meet you. Heck yeah.
Ann Marie Awad: But the beauty of dispensaries is I can walk in, I can get my eighth and not have to worry about it.
I was going to ask if you have some specials, so can you take me through what's happening here?
Speaker 2: Most definitely.
Ann Marie Awad: Okay.
Speaker 2: This is our wellness center, is what we like to call it. It's more of our CBD, topicals, tinctures, stuff like that.
Ann Marie Awad: All right, I'm going to be real. I didn't come in here for wellness.
Speaker 2: All right, so that's..
Ann Marie Awad: It's 2019, and here I am buying something that in a bunch of other states and to the federal government is illegal.
Speaker 2: $60 today. That's going to be $5.86 cents coming back at you.
Ann Marie Awad: Which is why I got to pay in cash. Here's one of the quirks about living in a legal weed state: Federal regulations stop you from putting that eighth on your credit card, because, all in all, the legal lay of the land is murky.
Ann Marie Awad: First of all, say I take this weed and I drive like two hours north to Wyoming. Whoops. Now I'm committing a crime. Now, if I take it home and I roll a joint while watching Grace and Frankie perfectly legal because I live in Colorado. You get the picture.

Ann Marie Awad: This is On Something, stories of life after legalization. I'm Ann Marie Awad. On this podcast, we tell stories about people and weed. There is a big disconnect between states and the federal government when it comes to marijuana, and that's what we're here to talk about on this episode, the gaps created by that disconnect and the people who tend to fall right in. How did we get here, and where did our modern legalization movement even get started?
Ann Marie Awad: So let's talk about prohibition. Alcohol was illegal everywhere in the United States for about 20 years. And then we all changed our minds, right? Marijuana prohibition was never as clear cut. In the late 1800s in America, cannabis was available, legal and unregulated. This was in the midst of the patent medicine boom, when manufacturers would put almost anything in a bottle and claim that it cured everything. Cannabis was in a lot of medicine cabinets, usually in syrup or pill form. Usually you also had alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and other cures for the common toothache. It was a wild time.
Ann Marie Awad: But as the years went by, some people started to worry that cannabis was maybe too accessible because of cannabis poisoning. Like most medicines, cannabis has side effects.
Adam Rathge: And those run the gamut from hilarity to you're kind of looking at yourself out of body experience type of thing.
Speaker 5: Adam Rathge is a drug historian at the University of Dayton, and I spoke to him about the early legal history of marijuana in the US. Is it kind of quaint to read stories like this in your research, these horror stories of like people not understanding time or being outside their bodies?
Adam Rathge: Yeah, and the fun part of this is a lot of these become this sort of trope that we have now, right? That time slows down and that everything gets elongated. You're looking at your hands, right, and like your fingers are like rulers or something. You know, extreme thirst or extreme hunger. These kinds of "haha," Cheech and Chong tropes that really do show up in these 19th Century medical journals as case studies on administering cannabis for this specific medical problem.
Ann Marie Awad: In the early 20th Century, states started to pass consumer protection laws restricting how cannabis products could be packaged and sold and how they had to be labeled. This was sort of the point of the progressive movement, tackling problems caused by urbanization, immigration, political corruption, and, this one's key, industrialization. In 1906, the federal government started requiring manufacturers to truthfully print a medicine's ingredients on the label. It's no wonder that this started to put a dent in the popularity of patent medicines.
Ann Marie Awad: Then, back to the states. In 1911, Massachusetts took the bold step of prohibiting cannabis outright. It was the first state to do so, and many others followed. A patchwork prohibition was beginning to take shape. States also moved to get rid of opium, morphine, and heroin, and America's medicine cabinets became a lot less dangerous. Cannabis got lumped in with harder drugs, and it fell out of fashion as a medicine sort of around the same time that the medical field as a whole started becoming more professionalized. You know, not giving heroin to kids for toothaches and stuff. So, cannabis got booted from the medicine cabinets of middle class white people, but it started to show up in jazz clubs. You know where a black people hang out.
Cab Calloway: (singing).
Ann Marie Awad: This is Cab Calloway, with "Reefer Man," from the 1930s
Cab Calloway: (singing).
Ann Marie Awad: And no, these musicians did not all have toothaches. They're smoking these sort of cannabis cigarettes, almost jazz cigarettes. Reefer, jive, weed.
Speaker 5: These high school boys and girls are having a hop at the local soda fountain. Innocently, they dance, innocent of a new and deadly menace lurking behind closed doors. Marijuana, the burning weed when its roots in hell.
Ann Marie Awad: This is a trailer for Reefer Madness, the 1936 propaganda film about how marijuana makes the upstanding, morally pure white youth of America go mad.
Speaker 6: If you want a good smoke, try one of these.
Speaker 5: You will meet bill.
Ann Marie Awad: This film was a reaction to a lot of things happening all at once. Jazz had become the popular music of America, and some new immigrants from Mexico were bringing marijuana with them, and like the jazz musicians, they are also smoking this stuff.
Speaker 7: Our guest has been ranked as a pioneer in the worldwide movement to eliminate illegal dope traffic. He is Harry Anslinger. He devoted the major part of this career to the fight against what he calls the living death of every dope-taker. Mr. Anslinger, good evening and welcome to [crosstalk 00:08:42]...
Ann Marie Awad: Until 1933, Harry Anslinger led the Bureau of Prohibition, but Prohibition was on its way out.
H. Anslinger: It's a medical social police problem.
Ann Marie Awad: He was heading to a new job leading the brand new Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the FBN.
Emily Dufton: It's said that, you know, Anslinger didn't actually care that much about pot at all.
Ann Marie Awad: This is Emily Dufton. She's a drug historian as well and the author of Grassroots: The Rise, Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.
Ann Marie Awad: But in the wake of Prohibition being overturned in 1933, he needed to essentially reinvent himself to remain important. He didn't want to be obsolete now that alcohol was legal again, so he was like, "Well, what can I focus on that is still a threat? Ah, what about the devil's lettuce?"
Ann Marie Awad: Anslinger went after cannabis consumption with a vengeance. He linked it very closely with black people and Mexicans.
H. Anslinger: The Treasury Department intends pursue a relentless warfare against the despicable dope-peddling vulture who prays on the weakness of his fellow man.
Ann Marie Awad: Even Anslinger's repeated use of the word "marijuana" instead of cannabis was deliberate. Marijuana is Spanish. It's foreign-sounding. Anslinger and the FBN also promoted the notion that marijuana made people violent.
H. Anslinger: [inaudible 00:10:11]... I've seen the great tragedy of narcotic addiction, with cases where one marijuana cigarette resulted in murder.
Ann Marie Awad: Here's Adam Rathge again.
Adam Rathge: The idea that marijuana causes violence and madness is deeply rooted in Mexico, but it's also, in all likelihood, linked to the types of people who were the most likely to use marijuana in Mexico in the 19th and early 20th Century, which were prisoners and soldiers. Something your listeners may be familiar with is the song "La Cucaracha." It's a Mexican revolution song. There's a line in there about smoking marijuana, right? And...
Ann Marie Awad: There is?
Adam Rathge: Yeah, "And they won't March anymore."
Singer: (singing).
Adam Rathge: So that is sort of, "Okay, here's a really prominent example that people are familiar with of Mexican soldiers being associated with marijuana use." And of course, soldiers, barracks, and prisons are violent places. And so that connection to violence and madness definitely comes from Mexico, but it's Harry Anslinger and the FBN that make it famous, so to speak, or infamous, depending on your view, because it's the prominent narrative that they use to talk about marijuana in the '30s.
Ann Marie Awad: In a 1934 radio speech, Anslinger claimed a young boy butchered his whole family under the influence of marijuana. He also claimed that the federal government was quote, "Helpless in this situation," saying that the feds do not have the policing power that the states have, but the feds do have the power to tax. Do you have any sense of why in 1937 it was a tax that we chose to use?
Emily Dufton: Oh, because the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was in the Department of the Treasury at the time.
Ann Marie Awad: Ah Ha. To build support for a crackdown, Anslinger wanted people to be really afraid of marijuana, and what better way to scare people than to give them plenty of boogeymen?
Emily Dufton: I think there's two things. One is the black user, of course, and the brown user, which he says that it will give them uncontrolled power and they're going to become incredibly destructive and back to animalistic instincts.
Ann Marie Awad: Whoa.
Emily Dufton: So that's like one image, right? Which was really crazy.
Ann Marie Awad: So race was a factor.
Emily Dufton: Race is a factor because it's easy. It's just so easy to pin it on, like, "Well," right? And then the other, one might argue, contradictory image that he paints is that of, again, usually a black or brown user who's like incredibly suave and really dangerous because they're also hyper-sexual and are going to sleep with all the nice young white girls. So that's... it's the sort of the monster. It's like the doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that that's really what Anslinger focuses on, like the person's either gonna become a monster, but it's the question of which monster are they going to become?
Ann Marie Awad: Right. It's almost like we're painting pictures of who the user is, who we think it is, but we're not actually like asking anybody who uses marijuana.
Emily Dufton: Oh, this is totally imaginary. Like all of this stuff he's just making up, right? These are daydreams. They're total daydreams. But the problem is that when daydreams become federal policy, that sometimes doesn't always end so well.
Ann Marie Awad: The result was a new federal tax on weed, which made it possible for Anslinger and the feds to arrest people for possessing pot if they did not have a marijuana tax stamp.
Emily Dufton: This is all treasury for like a long time, but that's the power they could wield. And if you registered for the tax, if you pay the tax, you've proven that you're a pot grower, so...
Ann Marie Awad: But who who was registering or paying for the tax?
Emily Dufton: Very few people did. They just stopped. They just kind of stopped growing pot. They're like, "Ah, this is... this seems... this has a scent of surveillance to it," you know? And they kind of backed away.
Ann Marie Awad: But not everybody. Here in Denver, Moses Baca, a young Mexican man, became the first person arrested under the first federal pot prohibition. This was on the night of October 3rd, 1937, two days after the law went into effect. Baca's trial became a sensation. The district attorney accused him of attempting to murder his wife under the influence of marijuana. Baca was convicted, not for beating his wife but for possessing marijuana without having paid a tax on it. He spent 18 months in federal prison. Anslinger himself even stopped in to watch Baca's sentencing. Anslinger was pleased. He told the papers that this, this is the strategy to go after marijuana growers and users. Federal prosecutors across the country with this new tool in their toolbox mounted an aggressive enforcement campaign against marijuana.
Ann Marie Awad: Anslinger's campaign of fear was successful. Weed was not entirely eradicated, but it was pushed deep into the underground for at least two decades. And then the cultural winds began to shift, and what's that smell? We'll find out right after this break.
Ann Marie Awad: Marijuana was everywhere in the culture of the '60s. It was even on the radio. This is just one example, a song by The Birds called "Eight Miles High."
The Birds: (singing).
Ann Marie Awad: Here's Emily Dufton again.
Emily Dufton: It starts to get adopted in the mid 1960s and late 1960s with the rise of the counterculture as like, "This is our substance that differentiates us from the older war hawk, fear-mongering generation of our parents, whom we are trying to split from completely. They'd drink Manhattans, we smoke pot. This is bringing us back to the earth. This is bringing us back to community. This is our rebellion against the man in the gray flannel suit." So it becomes like this cultural totem, and it unites these really diverse factions of what constituted the American left at the time. So it's super popular.
Ann Marie Awad: And it's popular among baby boomers, who, as we all know, would take over the world eventually.
Adam Rathge: There's a famous quote. I believe it's Alfred Lindesmith, who is a famous academic sociologist. He says, "No one really seemed to care about marijuana when..." I'm kind of butchering the paraphrase here, but, "... the ghetto dweller..." and he has some other population that he's lumps in there, "... were being hauled away, but now that doctors, lawyers, and their children are being arrested, marijuana is sort of cause celebre of the champions of this group." It's really about that demographic.
Emily Dufton: The face of it is the college-educated kid who you don't want to saddle with like unnecessary criminal baggage. That's really who it is.
Ann Marie Awad: Right.
Emily Dufton: You know, it's just the idea of, "This person is actually an otherwise law-abiding citizen." So the face is less colored, I would say. The color becomes more clear as as the timeline goes on.
Ann Marie Awad: Yeah, 'cause I was going to say that seems seems very white, in a way. Do you know what I mean? Like we're talking about like how could you look at this, this student who otherwise has everything going for them? Why would you derail that future? Right?
Emily Dufton: Why would you derail that? So that's this really sympathetic face.
Ann Marie Awad: I feel like that's a white student we're talking about. Would you say that's fair?
Emily Dufton: It's certainly how it was depicted in the media, for sure.
Ann Marie Awad: This new image was a shift for many Americans. A 10-page spread in TIME magazine in 1969 showed these pictures of middle-aged professional-looking people enjoying weed at garden parties, and the piece openly questions America's laws against marijuana. Weed was threatening to bleed over from the counterculture and into the mainstream.
Speaker 5: John Surrenders his dignity and lays his future on the chopping block, not whether it's good or bad or right or wrong, but if he ...
Ann Marie Awad: And government propaganda raced to keep up.
Speaker 5: Now he's too involved to think. He's having kicks.
Ann Marie Awad: Marijuana was an early flashpoint in the culture wars, and politicians seized on it. Shortly after he was elected in 1968, President Nixon and his Attorney General John Mitchell drafted these five schedules classifying, elicit and non-elicit drugs and how to regulate them. They placed marijuana all the way at the tippy-top, Schedule One, along with heroin and LSD, most dangerous of them all, despite the fact that Canada and the UK at this time are saying, "Maybe we're making too big of a deal over marijuana."
Emily Dufton: And a lot of the representatives, the congressional people, Congresspeople, perhaps, they're a little uncomfortable about this, right? Because either it doesn't seem like that big of a deal, they sort of agree with the international audience, or, you know, "I get the counterculture, but why is it coming down so hard on this?"
Ann Marie Awad: So Congress said that if you want to put weed at the very, very tippy top right up there and Schedule One with all the other scary, dangerous drugs, we need to see some evidence that it's as dangerous as you say it is, President Nixon. So Nixon convened the Shafer Commission, which inconveniently found that marijuana was not a national threat. Nixon was undeterred.
Richard Nixon: However, I have such strong views that I will express them. Even if the Commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not follow that recommendation.
Emily Dufton: It really would have embarrassed Nixon. I mean it did embarrass Nixon. People read it and, you know, here's this man who's saying that those crazy reefer smokers are destroying society. And let's face it: I mean in the 1960s and early 1970s, there were moments when society was in full-out like social revolution.
Richard Nixon: America's public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive. I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of an offensive.
Ann Marie Awad: So, in a nutshell, this is the origin story of the federal Prohibition of marijuana that is still in effect today. In 1970, Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law. It was the opening shot of what a lot of us now know to be the War on Drugs, and in the coming decades it led to the mass incarceration of people of color.
Ann Marie Awad: All right, flash forward a few decades. Another dramatic cultural shift was underway, and it laid the groundwork for the legalization movement that we have today. It started with an activist in San Francisco known as Brownie Mary.
Emily Dufton: Brownie Mary Rathbun is kind of like the feistiest little old lady you've ever met in your entire life. She's just great. She got the nickname Brownie Mary, and her real name really was Mary Jane, which is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful moment of historical Kismet. But, so she starts to bake brownies. She's a regular cannabis user.
Ann Marie Awad: Mary was a waitress with bad knees, and she used cannabis to deal with the chronic pain. In the mid 1980s, she lived in San Francisco's Castro district, which is an epicenter of gay culture.
Emily Dufton: And she becomes friends with Dennis Peron, who is antiwar activist and a gay rights activist also in San Fran, and they kind of join up. She starts to bake brownies for his living room-based on marijuana supermarket, which he called the Big Top. And they get busted.
Brownie Mary: Melting my chocolate and mixing my brownies, and the dog started barking, and all of a sudden I saw five cops' cars or six, I think, and I literally freaked.
Emily Dufton: So she has to do community service for her punishment, and she does it with the Shanti House, which is an organization that cares for, you know, people with terminal illnesses, and it's the mid 1980s where HIV/AIDS is really starting to decimate the population of the Castro district.
Ann Marie Awad: HIV/Aids hit San Francisco and its gay population especially hard. By the time Brownie Mary started her community service, the disease had already killed more than 2000 people in the US. This is Brownie Mary comforting a patient at San Francisco's General Hospital.
Speaker 14: [crosstalk 00:23:01] to the hospital, and I was so scared I was going to die.
Brownie Mary: I know, [inaudible 00:23:06].
Speaker 14: And I was so...
Brownie Mary: Yeah, but look it. It's It six years later, and you still here, sweetheart.
Ann Marie Awad: Mary also volunteered there as a caregiver for AIDS patients, spending entire days getting them around, filling their prescriptions, and delivering hundreds of cookies, although these ones didn't have pot in them. So today we're able to manage the disease far more effectively, but it's really important to remember how helpless doctors were in treating it in the '80s and early '90s at the height of the epidemic.
Emily Dufton: Well, so like the treatment was kind of whatever the doctor could figure out. It was all so new. And mostly HIV, when it’s symptoming.. just symptoms of a lot of other illnesses, so they're just trying to treat like all the illnesses, but nothing's really working because what's actually under attack is the immune system. There was really nothing doctors could figure out to do.
Ann Marie Awad: Right.
Emily Dufton: These people were suffering horribly and and just dying by the handful. It was really tragic.
Ann Marie Awad: Brownie Mary provided cannabis to comfort AIDS patients. The drug helped with a lot of the severe side effects of early AIDS medications. And then Brownie Mary got political. She joined forces with Dennis Peron and other AIDS activists to get medical marijuana on the California ballot for the 1996 election.
Emily Dufton: They passed the Compassionate Use Act, Prop 215, in California after, you know, a really intense build and campaign, which is, you know, remarkable and very awesome. They got their signatures, and they get the ballot on the initiative, and it passes. And by 1997, a New York Times article says that one in three Americans knows someone who has used medical marijuana, and the face of medical marijuana is the incredibly compassionate... It's like the AIDS victim who, you know, just just trying to get through another day, or it's someone dealing with the chemotherapy of cancer or glaucoma or diseases that are bad. People are suffering, you know. You want to help them. You don't want to lock them up.
Ann Marie Awad: Would you say that this is like a big deal for marijuana?
Emily Dufton: This is the watershed. 1996. I mean, think about when Prop 215 is called, which is the Compassionate Use Act. By approving of this law, you were being compassionate, right? That changes everything. It totally changes everything. You know, 10 years prior, pot was the national scourge, right? Parent movement at the peak of its influence, Reagan Administration launching Just Say No public addresses from the White House. Pot was going to destroy the country. 10 years later, it's compassionate to let people use it. That shift is remarkable.
Ann Marie Awad: And then, well, you know what happens next.
Speaker 15: ... [inaudible 00:25:51] Colorado voters approved the historic ballot initiative to make marijuana legal in the state.
Speaker 16: Now Pennsylvania is among over 30 states that have legalized medical marijuana.
Speaker 17: Nevada legalized adult marijuana use almost two years ago.
Speaker 18: ... [inaudible] says he wants to work with lawmakers to make recreational marijuana legal in Illinois.
Speaker 21: New York State legislators are considering legalizing recreational marijuana.
Speaker 18: Recreational marijuana in Louisiana lives to fight another day.
Ann Marie Awad: Adam Rathge, our Dayton university drug historian say it's important to remember, though, that public opinion about weed historically has moved in cycles. Is it just a matter of time, in your opinion, until the feds follow the states' lead now legalize?
Adam Rathge: I would never be caught dead making this prediction. So, I have no idea, but there are tons of cautionary tales here. Rampant commercialization is one of them, and who's money is involved and where the money comes from and who's generating the money. And the other thing is from a long historical view and arc, there's a long accepted paradigm among drug historians that these things are cyclical and that our nation's relationship with drugs is cyclical. They're roughly a generation long. They are 25, 30 years long. Basically we go from relaxation to prohibition to relaxation to prohibition, relaxation, prohibition, and usually it's something happens during the relaxation phase to reignite the fear or some angle that reignites peoples' desire to regulate these things again.
Ann Marie Awad: Obviously it's not over right? We are still writing this history today. That's what makes it so interesting to me. All along the way, we've seen people fall into the gaps that these laws create, and those people, those are the folks that I want to talk to.
Ann Marie Awad: So hopefully we answered your questions about how we got here, but now your head is probably swimming with a bunch of other questions. Back here in the present moment. Marijuana is a part of a lot of peoples' lives, whether it's legal or not. In fact, that's always been true. The fact is, we could make a podcast that's all about is legalization good, is legalization bad, but that is an oversimplification. There are far more fascinating, complex conversations that are being had, around marijuana, drugs, the whole concept of legalization altogether.
Ann Marie Awad: Here's just some of the conversations that you're going to hear in the next few weeks of On Something.
Speaker 22: I had sold weed to survive, and now these rich white guys that hadn't lived the same life that I did were able to come in and really capitalize off the marijuana.
Speaker 23: I started getting calls from people. They wanted to start churches where they could smoke marijuana.
Speaker 24: I went to some office in Beverly Hills. He took my blood pressure with a child's toy. He said, "What's your problem?" I told him I was a little depressed and anxious, and he gave me a medical marijuana card, and the party was on.
Ann Marie Awad: All of this and more on the first season of On Something. On Something is a labor of love reported and written by me, Ann Marie Awad, produced and mixed by Brad Turner and Rebekah Romberg. Our editor is Curtis Fox. Our digital wizard is Cam [Wynn 00:29:21]. Music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers, aka my bosses, are Kevin Dale and Rachel Estabrook. Thanks to the folks at the Pacifica Radio Archive for our Brownie Mary audio and to the folks at the Penn State University Libraries for our Harry Anslinger audio.
Ann Marie Awad: And please subscribe to the show. Write a review. If you like what you heard today, tell a friend, get your friend on something. Get your mom on something. Everybody, you know, get them on something.
Ann Marie Awad: This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at CPR.org. Support for this program comes from gummy vitamins. No, they're not intended for adults, but I am not enough of an adult to take regular vitamins. Oh, every day I go to the podcast factory, and I toil and I toil and I toil.