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Marijuana: The Tide Turns


In time, the tide of American opinion turned against marijuana. Some historians credit business tycoon William Randolph Hearst (1863 - 1951) with launching this crusade. Hearst, who owned many major newspapers, also owned many thousands of acres of trees that he planned to turn into paper. As late as the 1880s, almost all American paper was made from hemp, and a great deal of hemp was still grown in the United States. (The U.S. Declaration of Independence was published on hemp paper.) Hearst capitalized on anti-Mexican prejudice and, through his newspapers, linked marijuana use to Mexican immigrants, crime, violent behavior, and poor job performance. It was the Hearst newspaper chain that changed the spelling of marijuana from its older form, marihuana. During this time, use of the word cannabis faded as well.

According to Hugh Downs, in a commentary for ABC News in 1990: "Nobody was afraid of hemp - it had been cultivated and processed into usable goods, and consumed as medicine, and burned in oil lamps, for hundreds of years. But after a campaign to discredit hemp in the Hearst newspapers, Americans became afraid of something called marijuana." Downs also noted that the crusade against hemp "misled the public into thinking that marijuana and hemp were different plants."

Hearst's campaign was one of many waged against marijuana in the 1930s. Another important figure who changed American attitudes toward the drug was Harry Anslinger (1892 - 1975), head of the Commission of Narcotics during the Great Depression (1929 - 1941). Bolstered by scientific studies published in credible journals, Anslinger was able to convince state governments that marijuana use caused an increase in crime and violence, that it was addictive, and that its attraction to young people could lead to a lifetime of trouble. Hollywood seemed to support this view, issuing a series of hour-long dramas about marijuana, of which Reefer Madness (1936) is the best known. In Reefer Madness and other similar films, young, innocent people become violent, dishonest - or at least rather hysterical - victims of the "devil weed."

Following a series of congressional hearings, the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The act did not outlaw marijuana outright, but "created a tax structure around the cultivation, distribution, sale, and purchase of cannabis products, which made it virtually impossible to have anything to do with the drug without breaking some part of the tax law," wrote Cynthia Kuhn and her coauthors in Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. In other words, the 1937 law made it impossible to reap a legal profit from growing cannabis.

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