THE MARIHUANA TAX ACT OF 1937 is passed, rendering marijuana and all its by-products illegal. Woo Hoo! Tea party!

This was one of the first acknowledgements by the US government of the new and notorious drug known as “marihuana.” The name itself, marihuana, was derived from Mexican Spanish, although the linguistic origins have been widely debated. From the Aztec language Nahuatl to the Chinese word ma ren hua, meaning “hemp seed flower,” marijuana truly has many roots, but the word was popularized by Harry Anslinger as part of his campaign to instill fear of the drug. Before this, it was commonly referred to as “hemp” or “cannabis sativa,” and was considered “a fashionable narcotic,” often found in over-the-counter pharmaceutical products like cough syrups.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was originally passed to levy taxes on hemp products and on the commercial sales of cannabis products. Farmers could acquire tax stamps for the cultivation of fiber hemp, physicians would be charged a tax for prescribing cannabis, and pharmacists would be required to pay a tax for selling cannabis. The Ameican Medical Association was strongly opposed to the act, arguing against the measure in court and proposing instead that cannabis be added to the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

The law was enacted a year after the production of the notorious anti-cannabis film, Reefer Madness, originally titled Tell Your Children, but also known as The Burning QuestionDoped Youth, and Love MadnessReefer Madness was financed by a church group before being widely released as an exploitation film to warn the public about the dangers of cannabis use.

It was just one in a long line of education-exploitation films of the era, including Marihuana (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937), and Devil’s Harvest(1942).

Over the years, many have speculated that the reason for the campaign against cannabis boiled down to demonizing the hemp industry because it was a low-cost substitute for paper pulp. The paper industry, and more specifically, the newspaper industry, led the charge against cannabis with Anslinger. William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon, and the DuPont family all had major investments in the timber and newspaper industries, and a rise of hemp would have seemingly undercut their profits. Curiously, years later, manufacturing paper with hemp as the raw material proved that hemp lacks the qualities needed to become a major competitor of the traditional paper industry, as it does not contain a high enough concentration of cellulose to be an effective substitute. 

Perhaps they doth protest too much?

The very first printed book in Europe was printed on hemp paper in 1455. By the late 1880s the majority of paper was made of hemp, including pages for the Bible and the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. By the new millennium each American consumed 735 lbs. of paper per year, destroying a billion trees per year. It takes 50 to 500 years for a tree to grow sufficiently to be used to make paper, whereas hemp can be cultivated within a hundred days. Hemp paper lasts longer and is also smarter to recycle; it can be recycled three more times that paper made of wood pulp.

The first person to be arrested under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was precisely the person Anslinger and his cohorts sought to target with their cannabis crusade: a young, Mexican-American named Moses Baca, who had a quarter-ounce of cannabis tucked into his drawer in his third-floor rooming house in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Judge John Foster Symes sentenced Baca and made his disgust for cannabis well-known: “I consider marijuana the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine. Under its influence, men become beasts. Marijuana destroys life itself. I have no sympathy with those who sell this weed.”