- 1) How and why was hemp made illegal?
- Tough question! In order to explain why hemp, the most useful plant known to mankind, became illegal, we have to understand the reasons why marijuana, the drug, became illegal. In fact, it helps to go way back to the beginning of the century and talk about two other drugs, opium (the grandfather of heroin) and cocaine. Opium, a very addictive drug (but relatively harmless by today’s standards) was once widely used by the Chinese. The reasons for this are a whole other story, but suffice to say that when Chinese started to immigrate to the United States, they brought opium with them. Chinese workers used opium to induce a trance-like state which helped make boring, repetitive tasks more interesting. It also numbs the mind to pain and exhaustion. By using opium, the Chinese were able to pull very long hours in the sweat shops of the Industrial Revolution. During this period of time, there was no such thing as fair wages, and the only way a worker could make a living was to produce as much as humanly possible. Since they were such good workers, the Chinese held a lot of jobs in the highly competitive industrial work-place. Even before the Great Depression, when millions of jobs disappeared overnight, the White Americans began to resent this, and Chinese became hated among the White working class. Even more than today, White Americans had a very big political advantage over the Chinese — they spoke English and had a few relatives in the government, so it was easy for them to come up with a plan to force Chinese immigrants to leave the country (or at least keep them from inviting all their relatives to come and live in America.) This plan depended on stirring up racist feelings, and one of the easiest things to focus these feelings on was the foreign and mysterious practice of using opium. We can see this pattern again with cocaine, except with cocaine it was Black Americans who were the target. Cocaine probably was not especially useful in the work-place, but the strategy against Chinese immigrants (picking on their drug of choice) had been so successful that it was used again. In the case of Blacks, though, the racist feelings ran deeper, and the main thrust of the propaganda campaign was to control the Black community and keep Blacks from becoming successful. Articles appeared in newspapers which blamed cocaine for violent crime by Blacks. Black Americans were painted as savage, uncontrollable beasts when under the influence of cocaine — it was said to make a single Black man as strong as four or five police officers. (sound familiar?) By capitalizing on racist sentiments, a powerful political lobby banned opium and then cocaine. Marijuana was next. It was well known that the Mexican soldiers who fought America during the war with Spain smoked marijuana. Poncho Villa, A Mexican general, was considered a nemesis for the behavior of his troops, who were known to be especially rowdy. They were also known to be heavy marijuana smokers, as the original lyrics to the song `la cucaracha’ show. (The song was originally about a Mexican soldier who refused to march until he was provided with some marijuana.) After the war had ended and Mexicans had begun to immigrate into the South Eastern United States, there were relatively few race problems. There were plenty of jobs in agriculture and industry and Mexicans were willing to work cheap. Once the depression hit and jobs became scarce, however, Mexicans suddenly became a public nuisance. It was said by politicians (who were trying to please the White working class) that Mexicans were responsible for a violent crime wave. Police statistics showed nothing of the sort — in fact Mexicans were involved in less crime than Whites. Marijuana, of course, got the blame for this phony outbreak of crime and health problems, and so many of these states made laws against using cannabis. (In the Northern states, marijuana was also associated with Black jazz musicians.) Here is where things start to get complicated. Put aside, for a moment, all the above, because there are a few other things involved in this twisted tale. At the beginning of the Great Depression, there was a very popular movement called Prohibition, which made alcohol illegal. This was motivated mainly by a Puritan religious ethic left over from the first European settlers. Today we have movies and television shows such as the “Untouchables” which tell us what it was like to live during this period. Since it is perhaps the world’s most popular drug, alcohol prohibition spawned a huge `black market’ where illegal alcohol was smuggled and traded at extremely high prices. Crime got out-of-hand as criminals fought with each other over who could sell alcohol where. Organized crime became an American institution, and hard liquor, which was easy to smuggle, took the place of beer and wine. In order to combat the crime wave, a large police force was formed. The number of police grew rapidly until the end of Prohibition when the government decided that the best way to deal with the situation was to just give up and allow people to use alcohol legally. Under Prohibition the American government had essentially (and unwittingly) provided the military back-up for the take-over of the alcohol business by armed thugs. Even today, the Mob still controls liquor sales in many areas. After Prohibition the United States was left with nothing to show but a decade of political turmoil — and a lot of unemployed police officers. During Prohibition, being a police officer was a very nice thing — you got a relatively decent salary, respect, partial immunity to the law, and the opportunity to take bribes (if you were that sort of person.) Many of these officers were not about to let this life-style slip away. Incidentally, it was about this time when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was reformed, and a man named Harry J. Anslinger was appointed as its head. (Anslinger was appointed by his uncle-in-law, Andrew Mellon, who was the Secretary of the United States Treasury.) Anslinger campaigned tirelessly for funding in order to hire a large force of narcotics officers. After retiring, Anslinger once mused that the FBNDD was a place where young men were given a license to steal and rape. The FBNDD is the organization which preceded what we now call the DEA, and was responsible for enforcing the new Federal drug laws against heroin, opium, and cocaine. One of Anslinger’s biggest concerns as head of the FBNDD was getting uniform drug laws passed in all States and the Federal legislature. (Anslinger also had a personal dislike of jazz music and the Black musicians who made it. He hated them so much that he spent years tracking each of them and dreamed of arresting them all in one huge, cross-country sweep.) Anslinger frequented parent’s and teacher’s meetings giving scary speeches about the dangers of marijuana, and this period of time became known as Reefer Madness. (The name comes from the title of a silly movie produced by a public health group.)
- 2) OK, so what the heck does all this other stuff have to do with hemp?
- To make a long story short, during the first decades of this century, opium was made illegal to kick out the Chinese immigrants who had flooded the work-force. Cocaine was made illegal to repress and control the Black community. And, marijuana was made illegal in order to control Mexicans in the Southeast (and Blacks.) All these laws were based mainly on emotional racism, without much else to back them up — you can easily tell this by reading the hearings held in state legislatures. Also at this time, the end of Prohibition left us with a large force of unemployed police officers, who looked for work enforcing the new drug laws. Consequently, these same police officers needed to convince the country that their jobs were important. They did so by scaring parents about the dangers of drugs. All this set the stage for a law passed in the Federal legislature which put a prohibitive tax on marijuana. This is what killed the hemp industry in 1937, since it made business in hemp impossible. Before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, the state of Kentucky was the center of a relatively large American hemp industry which produced cloth and tow (rope for use in shipping.) The industry would have been larger, but hemp had one major disadvantage: processing it required a lot of work. Men had to `brake’ hemp stalks in order to separate the fiber from the woody core. This was done on a small machine called a hand-brake, and it was a job fit for Hercules. It was not until the 1930’s that machines to do this became widely available. Today we use paper made by a process called `chemical pulping’. Before this, trees were processed by `mechanical pulping’ instead, which was much more expensive. At about the same time as machines to brake hemp appeared, the idea of using hemp hurds for making paper and plastic was proposed. Hemp hurds were normally considered to be a worthless waste product that was thrown away after it was stripped of fiber. New research showed that these hurds could be used instead of wood in mechanical pulping, and that this would drastically reduce the cost of making paper. Popular Mechanics Magazine predicted that hemp would rise to become the number one crop in America. In fact, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was so unexpected that Popular Mechanics had already gone to press with a cover story about hemp, published in 1938 just two months after the Tax Act took effect.
- 3) Now wait, just hold on. You expect me to believe that they wouldn’t have thought to pass a better law, one that banned marijuana and allowed commercial hemp, instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water?
- There’s more. `Chemical pulping’ paper was invented at about this time by Dupont Chemicals, as part of a multi-million dollar deal with a timber holding company and newspaper chain owned by William Randolph Hearst. This deal would provide the Hearst with a source of very cheap paper, and he would go on to be known as the tycoon of `yellow journalism’ (so named because the new paper would turn yellow very quickly as it got older.) Hearst knew that he could drive other papers out of competition with this new advantage. Hemp paper threatened to ruin this whole plan. It had to be stopped, and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the way they did it. As a drug law, the Tax Act really was not a very big step — it did not really accomplish much at all and many historians have caught themselves wondering why the bill was even written. Big business interests took advantage of the political climate of racism and anti-drug rhetoric to close the free market to hemp products, and _that_, my friend, is how hemp became illegal. (Whew!) For the 1930’s, this business venture was one very large transaction; it included other timber companies and a few railroads. Dupont’s entire deal was backed by a banker named Andrew Mellon. Don’t look up! That’s the same Andrew Mellon who appointed his nephew-in-law Harry Anslinger to head up the FBNDD in 1931. The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in a very unorthodox way, and nobody who would have objected was informed about the bill. The American Medical Association found out about the bill only two days before the hearings, and sent a representative to object to the banning of cannabis medicines. A hemp bird seed salesman also showed up and complained. However, the bill was passed, partially due to the testimony of Harry J. Anslinger. Not that Americans would have protested against this bill, even if they had known it existed most Americans did not know that cannabis hemp and marijuana is the same thing. The separate word `marijuana’ was one of the reasons for this. Nobody would associate the evil weed from Mexico with the stuff they tied their shoes with. Also, this was the time when synthetic fabrics were the latest fad — nobody was interested in natural fibers any more. To top this all off the word `hemp’ was often wrongly used to refer to other natural fabrics, specifically jute. The ignorance of hemp continues today, but it is even more scary. During the 1970’s (Reefer Madness II) all mention of the word `hemp’ was removed from high school text books here in the United States. So much for free speech! When Jack Herer, the world’s most beloved hemp activist, asked a curator at the Smithsonian Museum why this word had been removed from all their exhibits, the answer he got was astounding: “Children do not need to know about hemp anymore. It confuses them.” Jack Herer went on to uncover a film made by the United States government, a film which the government did not want to admit existed. The film “Hemp For Victory” details how the United States government bypassed the Tax Act during World War II, when they needed hemp for the War Effort, and ran a large hemp-growing project in Kentucky and California. (Bravo, Jack!)
- 4) Is there a lesson to be learned from all this?
- Several. The first is that hate does not pay. It is ironic that the racism of the American people would end up hurting them this way — a sort of divine justice if you will. Because Americans were blinded by fear, hatred, and intolerance of other races, they allowed a prosperous future to slip between their fingers. Another thing this whole history tells us is that Americans need to take Democracy more seriously. If they had devoted more of their time to informing themselves about the world around them, they would have known what the real issues were. Instead they read the tabloids — look where that has gotten us. Finally, now that we have put marijuana prohibition into historical context, we can see clearly that it had nothing to do with public safety, or national security, or what have you. By all rights, marijuana should not have been made illegal in the first place. If today prohibition still has no rational basis to stand on, then let us repeal it. One point which bears emphasizing is this: the laws which are passed in this country may not mean what they say on paper. Historically the United States has a long record of passing laws with ulterior motives. Even when there is no ulterior motive, though, passing laws which are not specific enough leads to abuse. Most of our tough drug laws are like this — enacted to fight drug kingpins, but enforced against casual drug users and small-time drug dealers. In fact, most of these laws never even get used against a real drug kingpin, and the first people prosecuted under the statutes are not what the legislators had in mind. If this upsets you, you should pay more attention to what goes on in your legislature.
- The following persons have contributed to this document at some point in it’s evolution:
- Laura Kriho (original list of questions)
- Marc Anderson (fact finding),
- Paul L. Allen (LaTeX formatting),
- plus some others who haven’t said they want their name put in.
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