Social Effect of Marijuana Use: Essay

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Why did the US prohibit marijuana?

Marijuana prohibition in the US was the result of a political and social context created by the triumph of New Deal forces in the 1930s. Harry Anslinger’s role in the prohibition of marijuana has been seriously overstated by historians such as Michael Schaller and Howard Becker. Anslinger was a representation rather than an aberration of the political consensus at the time. There is little evidence of a national moral panic “serviced and fed by the Bureau of Narcotics”, or that such a panic convinced Congress to prohibit marijuana. Instead, an alliance of progressives, moralizers, and racists (often one and the same) had always wanted to prohibit marijuana and were able to do so in the 1930s because the political context of New Deal America finally enabled their triumph.

The 1930s were the most transformative period of US policy on marijuana. In 1930 only 16 states had laws restricting the use of marijuana, but by 1937 all states had passed such laws. In 1937 the Marihuana Tax Act was passed by Congress making the legal sale of marijuana impossible in practical terms. Subsequently, 40 states passed a harsh uniform law, drafted by the Bureau of Narcotics, that further criminalized the use of marijuana. Historical debate has focused on the adoption of the Marihuana Tax Act, and the period leading up to it, trying to explain why this transformation in attitude took place.

Historians have traditionally been divided over the role of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and its chief, Harry Anslinger. Schaller and Becker both argue that between 1935 and 1937 the FBN deliberately manufactured a national moral panic around marijuana use in order to further its own power and Anslinger’s moralist agenda. David Musto argues that while there was a moral panic it was restricted to the South West and caused by racism rather than the FBN. Galliher and Walker are heavily critical of both approaches, arguing that there is little evidence of any moral panic at all and that most citizens, including politicians, were disinterested in marijuana but willing to go along with prohibition as part of the no-nonsense, common sense, paternalistic political culture that dominated the period.

There is very limited evidence to back up Schaller and Becker’s claims of a national moral panic, and even less evidence that Anslinger was trying to construct one. The evidence that they use comes from quantifying the number of magazine/newspaper articles on marijuana and looking for the influence of the FBN. Becker looked at the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature and found no articles on marijuana between January 1925 – June 1935, four between July 1935 – June 1937, and 17 between July 1937 – June 1939. Yet further inspection reveals that just one of these articles came out prior to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in January 1937. Becker’s own data seems to indicate that if there was a moral panic then it came after the passage of the act, not before, and therefore it couldn’t have contributed to the advent of prohibition. Schaller seems to be relying on the same flawed data. Analysis by Galliher and Walker suggests an average of just one marijuana article a month per American newspaper in the twelve months leading up to the Acts passage. This information seriously undermines the claim that a moral panic led to stricter marijuana laws. The data also could only link three articles and one radio address to the FBN during the period, undermining claims that a concerted FBN propaganda campaign was ongoing. They also raise doubts about Musto’s claim of a moral panic in the South West by finding no higher rate of anti-marijuana articles in South Western newspapers than ones from the East Coast. Moral panic and underhand actions by the FBN are deeply flawed explanations for why marijuana was prohibited in the 1930s.

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Anslinger with his moralizing, racist, paternalism represents a section of the American political system that had always wanted to prohibit marijuana. For social reformers, the campaign to prohibit marijuana started at least in 1911 when they unsuccessfully battled to keep marijuana in early drafts of the Harrison Act. Their failure to include marijuana was the result of serious opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and a lack of a progressive Democratic majority. In 1925 prohibitionists once again attempted to restrict marijuana by adding hashish to the International Convention relating to Dangerous Drugs, so giving them the ability to create a federal law via the treaty clause, but failed because of opposition from British India. Paternalistic social reformers, often leaning into the same racist moralizing arguments that Anslinger did, repeatedly tried to prohibit marijuana but were unable to because they never had enough power in Congress to overrule pharmaceutical or pro-market opposition.

The advent of the Great Depression and in particular the New Deal transformed the political landscape to give groups sympathetic to or aligned with paternalistic social reformers immense power in Congress. A powerful example of this is FDR himself who upon election sent his aide Louis Howe to tell Anslinger “Should he ever forward to the White House a recommendation for clemency for a drug pusher, he should attach his resignation to it”. Progressive ideology was influenced by a moralizing paternalism that sought to fix perceived social problems through top-down social engineering. Progressive support for the prohibition of alcohol is well documented. The fundamental argument that it was the state's responsibility to protect the moral fiber of American society remained the same whether the immoral substance was alcohol or marijuana. The alliance between moralists and progressives continued into the 1930s despite the failure of alcohol prohibition. FDR’s opposition to alcohol prohibition was the result of pragmatism and he maintained a strong opposition to narcotics along the same moralizing lines as Anslinger. Groups that had campaigned to prohibit alcohol would come to campaign for the prohibition of marijuana. For example, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union led a petition against marijuana that implored the government to “raise the standard of the law to Christian morals”. In the context of New Deal America, when the government was already doing so much to fix America's problems through top-down interventionist solutions, the suggestions of prohibitionists were in line with the political culture at the time.

Just as allies of the prohibitionists were strengthened by the shift in political culture, the traditional opponents of prohibition were weakened. Opposition to marijuana prohibition led by the medical lobby. They opposed strict regulation because they believed there was little evidence that marijuana was habit-forming or dangerous enough to justify the prohibition of an ingredient important to many non-intoxicating or veterinary medicines. Until the 1930s this opposition had been fairly successful at preventing harsh federal and state prohibition. This previous success contrasts strongly with the weakness of opposition in 1937. During the legislative process for the Marihuana Tax Act just one American Medical Association spokesperson, Dr. William Woodward, was sent to oppose it. He was the only witness during the process to criticise the proposed legislation and he faced an incredibly hostile reception by Congressmen. This weakness was a result of the broader political context. New Deal politics undermined the ability of the medical lobby to oppose marijuana regulation. This is because the collapse of the Republican Party during the 1930s weakened their traditional free-market allies, while bigger conflicts with the New Dealers over their plans to socialize healthcare created tension with Democrats and became the focus of lobbying efforts. The medical lobby did not want to use what little political capital remained to fight the government over marijuana regulation.

Schaller and Becker argued that the repeated use of newspaper articles as core evidence during the legislative process demonstrates that a moral panic pressured Congress into passing the law. The articles did generally discuss marijuana in a racist and moralizing tone. But an average of one article per month per newspaper is not a moral panic. In actual fact the use of racist, moralizing newspaper articles in Congress shows that, in the absence of any widespread scientific research into marijuana, politicians were happy to lean into their prejudices. They accepted the arguments of moralizers without question because they were broadly in line with their own convictions and the accepted political culture of the time.

The political culture of New Deal America gave groups that had always wanted to prohibit marijuana more power to do so, while simultaneously weakening those groups that historically opposed prohibition. It was this change in political culture that allowed the Marijuana Tax Act to pass with the unanimous support of Congress in 1937 and also explains why Woodward’s testimony faced such criticism. There is little evidence of a moral panic and even less of one created by Anslinger. Politicians were already broadly sympathetic to the need for regulation of marijuana and when it became apparent that prohibition could be passed constitutionally, they were only too happy to do so. Historians should focus less on the person of Anslinger and more on the New Deal political culture that enabled him.


    1. Becker, Howard S. 1997. Outsiders (London: Free Press)
    2. Dickson, Donald T. 1968. 'Bureaucracy and Morality: An Organizational Perspective on a Moral Crusade', Social Problems, 16: 143-156
    3. Galliher, John F., and Allynn Walker. 1977. 'The Puzzle of the Social Origins of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937', Social Problems, 24: 367-376
    4. Musto, David F. 1999. The American disease (New York: Oxford University Press)
    5. Schaller, M. 1970. 'The Federal Prohibition of Marihuana', Journal of Social History, 4: 61-74
    6. Timberlake, James Harfield. 1965. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920 (Cambridge: HUP)
    7. Walker, William O. 1989. Drug control in the Americas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press)
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