As the marijuana legalization movement in the United States continues to pick up steam, an important though often overlooked question is: Why, exactly, is cannabis illegal?
The answer to that question actually involves a number of twists and turns, a handful of rich and powerful historical figures, and some disturbing political maneuvers aimed at inciting fears and manufacturing danger.
While there have been a number of studies into the historical development of cannabis prohibition in the U.S., a significant portion of the story has been researched and documented in Jack Herer’s pot activist classic, The Emperor Wears No Clothes.
Here’s how the story goes:
While working as Secretary of the Treasury under President Herbert Hoover in 1930, Andrew Mellon promoted his niece’s husband, Harry J. Anslinger, to become head of the recently formed Bureau of Narcotics.
But Mellon didn’t just give Anslinger the job; it came with certain strings attached.
At the time, Mellon was the nation’s richest man, and he held huge investments in The DuPont Company, which had just invented nylon. The DuPont family was afraid that the new product would face too much competition from more traditional fiber, cloth, and rope made from hemp.
So, to ensure that the DuPont family’s latest invention had access to an unlimited market, and to protect his own sizable investment in The DuPont Company, Mellon put Anslinger in charge of the Bureau of Narcotics with the agreement that Anslinger would use his new position of authority to get hemp off the market.
To accomplish this, Anslinger turned to yet another powerful figure who supposedly also wanted to get hemp off the market: infamous journalist William Randolph Hearst.
The theory put forth by Herer and others maintains that Hearst had invested heavily in the timber industry to support his growing newspaper empire and wanted to make sure that his timber was used to produce paper.
Hemp fiber was, yet again, too big a potential competitor to tree-based paper and so to protect his investment, Hearst joined the group of rich and powerful men intent on exterminating hemp from the American landscape.
With Hearst in the mix, all the pieces fell into place.
Anslinger whipped up all sorts of horror stories about cannabis-addled murderers and marijuana-crazed rapists, used Hearst’s control over the media to disseminate them, and sparked an entire culture war against anything deriving from the cannabis plant.
In short time, Anslinger’s campaign won popular opinion and various marijuana prohibition laws began popping up. In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act effectively made it illegal to possess or transfer cannabis in the U.S.
In 1952 and 1956, the federal government doubled down and created a new series of mandatory sentencing laws to deal with people caught with cannabis.
And in 1970, The Controlled Substances Act was created, effectively solidifying cannabis’s status as an illegal substance.
Taken together, the DuPont-Mellon-Anslinger-Hearst story—often referred to simply as“the hemp conspiracy”—initiated the decades-long effort to vilify cannabis in order to protect various industrial interests from hemp competition.
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