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The Odd History Of Marijuana In The U.S.

The Odd History Of Marijuana In The U.S.
Cannabis, or hemp, has been grown in the U.S. since the days of George Washington. But it has been prohibited for personal or recreational use since 1913. We look at the remarkable history of marijuana in this country, including its early reputation for making users violent and insane, up to present-day efforts to legalize it.

Cannabis, or hemp, has been grown in the U.S. since the days of George Washington. But it has been prohibited for personal or recreational use since California passed the first prohibition against it in 1913.

We look at the remarkable history of marijuana in this country, including how it got here, its early reputation for making users violent and insane; and present-day efforts to legalize it.

GUESTS: Richard Bonnie, professor, University of Virginia School of Law and co-author of "The Marihuana Conviction."


Isaac Campos, fellow at the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center, University of Cinncinnatti.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. And you're listening to These Days on KBPS. Next month, California voters are being asked if marijuana should be legalized and if counties should be allowed to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana. Passage of Proposition 19 would make California the first state in the nation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. And if that happens, then part of the history of marijuana in the United States would have come full circle, because back in 1913, California passed the first state marijuana prohibition law, criminalizing the preparation of "loco weed," as it was called. As we stand on what may be the start of a new era for marijuana in America, it's a good time to look back on how we got here in the first place.

NEW SPEAKER(AUDIO CLIP): And the more research, the more deadly of these soul destroying drugs is the menace of marijuana. The dried leaves and berries are ground up and made into cigarettes by a simple hand machine. The deadly narcotic is thus quickly and easily prepared for its market.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is a clip it from the 1936 film, Reefer Madness, which is part of the history of marijuana in the United States that I'll be exploring with my guests. Richard Bonnie professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and coauthor of the Marijuana Conviction. And Professor Bonnie, welcome to These Days.

RICHARD BONNIE: Pleasure to be with you.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Isaac Campos, is assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and he's completing a book on the history of marijuana and the war on drugs in Mexico. Isaac Campos, welcome.

ISAAC CAMPOS: Thank you very much for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Professor Campos, first of all, what exactly is marijuana? Is it a narcotic, a hallucinogen? What do we call marijuana as a drug?

ISAAC CAMPOS: Well, marijuana has actually been historically been very difficult to classify because it produces so many distinct effects. So studies that have been done on the subjective effect of marijuana users, have suggested an extraordinary ability in these effects, users will report that they some users will report that they feel energetic after using marijuana, some will report that that they feel euphoric, others relaxed, paranoid, some confident, some anxiety, etc. Soap it's been very difficult to classify over the years, it's also this may have something to do with the complicated chemistry of cannabis, which is based on the psychoactivity is based on 66 active ingredients in cannabis called cannabinoids. Most psychoactive drugs rely on the psychoactivity of just one or two major alkaloids. Cocaine is the major alkaloid of coca, and morphine and codeine are major alkaloids of opium. But cannabinoids have really only been begun to be understood in the last few decades, which interact in complex ways, and there are several that are critical to the psychoactivity. So the classification has always been a trick, and it produces a real variety of symptoms.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And do we know for certain whether or not marijuana is an addictive drug?

ISAAC CAMPOS: Whether it's an addictive drug. Well, addiction is a very problematic designation, I think. And for the most part, what most people understand as an addiction, no, cannabis is not an addictive drug. It can create something called dependence, which is defined in various ways by by different authorities, but that's many things can cause dependence. For instance, the Internet can also cause dependence.


ISAAC CAMPOS: Right? So it's not addictive in the way that it would cause severe withdrawal symptoms the way heroin would or alcohol.

THE COURT: Now, Professor Campos, you've studied, as I said, the early history of the use of marijuana both here and in Mexico. When did people first start using pot as a drug?

ISAAC CAMPOS: Oh, geez. Well, that goes back many millennia. Here in north America, there in Mexico, we have the first signs of people using marijuana, smoking marijuana, the first references we have to that are in the 1850s. We have evidence actually from the end of the eighteenth century that it was being used by Indian groups in kind of ritual fashion in a manner that other substances like Peyote were being used, in a kind of religious/medical ceremonies.


ISAAC CAMPOS: But in the United States, it begins to be used in the 19th century during a there's a kind of a craze for hashish, which is another preparation of cannabis. That begins in the 1850s thanks to a number of especially important literary works like Alexander Dumas's the Count of Monte Cristo, or the book A Thousand and One Nights which most people read in those days. And created a kind of craze for trying out cannabis products, but it's really in the beginning of the 20th Century, that we start to see marijuana smoked in the United States and the word marijuana beginning to be used in the United States to refer to the drug in the way that we do today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because if I'm correct, the idea of growing hemp, the form of marijuana that can be used as a textile as a fabric, was something that had centuries that people had been doing for centuries in America; is that correct?

ISAAC CAMPOS: Yeah, that's exactly right. Hemp was one of the most important fibers in the world. It was critical to the empires of the early modern era. It was used as the most important fiber for all the needs of sea bourn empires. So sales and ropes and that kind of thing. So hemp was critical to the British and the Spanish. The reason they brought the cannabis to the Americas was in order to try to foment the cultivation of hemp for these fibers uses.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And John I'm sorry. Go ahead. I was just about to say, to wrap up this very early history of marijuana in north America, primarily, I reference the fact that the first state to prohibit marijuana use was California in 1913.


THE COURT: Why? Why did that start happening?

ISAAC CAMPOS: Well, the I mean, it wasn't accidental, but it was pretty predictable. The prohibition of cannabis in California seems to have very little to do with actually the use of cannabis by people in California. It seems to have been almost an extension of the kind of reforms that were going on in the pharmaceutical business at that time. And really the kind of reforms that were going on with respect to vice of all kinds during the early 20th century. So there were a lot of new I believe it was in 1907 that California passed its first pharmaceutical restriction of the opiates and cocaine. And in 1913, the pharmacy board decided to add cannabis to that list. This does not appear to any concern about widespread use in California or anything like that. It was just based solely on the reputation of cannabis and the desire of the pharmacy board members to, I guess zealously continue their fight against the so called narcotic menace which was getting a lot of press in those days.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Isaac Campos, who is assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and he's completing the book on the history of marijuana and the war on drugs in Mexico. I'd like to bring in Professor Richard Bonnie into the conversation. He's from the University of Virginia, School of Law, and coauthor of the Marijuana Conviction. And Professor Bonnie, would you like to add anything about why marijuana first started to be criminalized in the United States?

RICHARD BONNIE: Well, I'll be interested in it hearing Isaac's elaboration of this, but just to kind of make a transition point, the observation that he made about the California law was also true of a number of other early state laws in the same period, particularly on the east coast, where it was essentially a product of kind of a regulatory structure that was emerging with regard to the use of let's just call them generally speaking psychoactive pharmaceutical preparations. And but, I think at the same time there were another set of state laws and maybe even beginning a little bit later than 1915 but certainly into the 1920s where prohibitions of the use of marijuana began to occur on the border states, you know, of the as much, basically that were associated with immigration of Mexican Mexicans who, you know, for whom the smoking marijuana was a common sort of, you know, habit. And also people that were coming from the Caribbean. And so you had increased attention to marijuana in states like Texas and Louisiana during this period of time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Professor Campos, I remember reading some something about a law passed in El Paso Texas, specifically prohibiting the use of smoking marijuana. And it was directed towards Mexican laborers. Tell us tell us what surrounded the idea of that law.

ISAAC CAMPOS: Okay, well, I would I would add to this that I think that as important if not more so, I evaporate done research on this, issue the local history in the U.S., but as important to the actual arrival of Mexicans and probably more so in my opinion based on what I've learned about Mexico was actually just a movement of ideas from Mexico to the United States. So beginning in the 1890s you begin to get a lot of press reports coming out from the Mexican press that are picked up by the U.S. wire services and turning into articles that are aller the United States about the baleful effects of marijuana that are coming from Mexico. These included the production of madness, it was reported to turn users into wild maniacs who would run down the street with a knife and stab everybody in their way. And in fact that law in El Paso had been sparked by an incident on the 1st of January in 1913 across the border in Ciudad Juarez where a where this kind of incident was said to have happened. A Guy ran down the street with a knife and attacked a bunch of people, stabbed some horses, kill killed a couple policemen, and it was blamed on him having smoked marijuana. This was the classic stereotype of the marijuana user in Mexico. There was actually almost no counter discourse to this in Mexico. And this was the way Marijuana was portrayed.

Those ideas began to spread into the U.S. along with Mexican immigration, and I think I might I might say that the Mexican immigrants arriving created a certain amount of anxiety, which we could argue probably that the ideas had already arrived ahead of them, and this contributed to what Professor Bonnie was explaining.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to pose this question to both of you, if I may. Start with Professor Bonnie, we just heard a clip from Reefer Madness, a famous 1930s film where everybody in the film who tries marijuana either goes insane or kills someone. And I'm wondering, is there any is there was there any specific research being done on marijuana at that time it was being criminalized around the country?

RICHARD BONNIE: I think the answer to that is pretty clearly not. And I think as Isaac said, you know, you basically heard these exaggerated accounts and it's interesting, you know, to hear about the origins of the of these exaggerated views of effects of marijuana on making people insane and having criminogenic properties and so on. And I think we could it is clearly the case when you then begin to look at the literature that was being approximate bed in the United States that it was basically built on these kinds of characterizations. And that was the common understanding. I think there were you know, this were always some dissenting voices particularly among, you know, physicians that knew something about the earlier history of the use of the drug, and particular he its one time medical uses, nay may have had better understanding but by and large it was basically Reefer Madness throughout this period. And you ended up with state laws that were passes in more than half of the states even before the federal government got intoed in it in the 1930s, and leading to the marijuana tax act in 1937.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Professor Campos, any scientific voices raised in objection about this characterization of marijuana.

ISAAC CAMPOS: Yeah, well, I would actually I would add that really we don't have any real quality controlled studies of cannabis until really the late 1960s, the first double blind test on cannabis use ares wasn't undertaken until the late 1960s. So it was a long time before we had real scientific research. However, in the 1930s were interesting in that this was the first moment where you begin to see a real pushback against these ideas. There were a number of studies that weren't particularly scientific either but that suggested that, hey, these stereotypes are probably exaggerated at the very least, however, these voices were drowned out by the propaganda combine of the federal bureau of narcotics during that period, that specifically sought to drown out those voices and make sure that nobody really thought very hard about this before the drug was prohibited on the federal level.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Professor Bonnie, back in 1937, before there was an outright prohibition federally of marijuana, there was a very interesting marijuana tax act that basically made it impossible for anybody to use marijuana. Tell us about that.

RICHARD BONNIE: Well, I think you really do have to think of the marijuana tax act as a prohibition, the only reason that it took the form of I tax act is because of concerns at that time as to whether the federal government had the authority to suppress it completely through a prohibition using its power to regulate commerce, interstate commerce, and so the earlier antinarcotics legislation for 1914 that covered the opiate drugs and cocaine had used the tax structure, that also was due to the fact that there were some legitimate uses of course for medical use and even in 1937 there were some residual uses for medicine, but that's one of the reasons that some of these objections were raised but by that time the medical use had really receded quite substantially.

So really the tax act, even though it took the form of the tax act, it was basically just used a constitutionally permissible structure, basically that was a prohibition, and that supplemented the prohibitions that were under the state laws at the time too.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Because they weren't issuing any stance.

RICHARD BONNIE: Exactly. And it was a prohibitive tax essential he.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Now I also wanted to make the point that penalties for marijuana use or possession continued to increase through the 1950s and then Professor Bonnie, you cited change in the patterns of usage, and the explosion of the hippie generation in the 1960s.

BONNIE: This excalation, let me just say a word about that, because I think what you'll see even in these last income of decades now, that you've got this pendulum that has been swinging in public policy in one direction and another so the prohibitionist period that Isaac and I have been talking about true the, you know, the 20 other century, reached a kind of a an apex in the 1950s. There was an escalation of both federal and state penalties for also called narcotic offenses. And so one of the things that that says is that marijuana was classified essentially as a narcotic. At that point sort of bringing together the Harris and narcotic act and the marijuana tax act into a single kind of narcotic offense structure. And the penalties were all aspects of, you know, relating to the use of these drugs, including simple possession became escalated both at the national level and at the state level, many of these penalties were mandatory.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And it also became associated with another claim which was that marijuana was a stepping stone.

RICHARD BONNIE: You know, to the use of these other drugs and I think by way as our conversation has shown, everybody is aware of the exaggerations over this period of time, there was very little science, there were basically these myths about madness and criminogenics and the stepping stone effect. And it's amazing when you look back how little was known about the effects of the drug. And then you had this really sudden change of use partnerships in the 1960s where marijuana became basically a behavior within the mainstream youth culture for the first time, marijuana policy really became eye subject, a broad publish interest and discourse when there were questions raised about, you know, about these earlier myths. And another thing about this period that I think needs to be recognized it wasn't only about marijuana and marijuana itself of course got tied up with the cultural politics of the day that related to, you know, other cultural divides such as around the Vietnam war. But it certainly exposed the questions about the effects of the drug, up, to the kind of scrutiny that it had never really had before but also we need to note that there were reforms being sought for drug policy during that period for other reasons. So drug policy was really under a great deal of, you know, of reconsideration. There had been a number of presidential commissions in the 1960s that said that we had really gone too far with this punitive, you know, essentially criminal approach and that we really needed to balance that with a more treatment oriented approach, a more publish health approach that focused on the treatment for addiction 6789 and there were, you know, approaches to the treatment for addiction that were also emerging during this period, so Congress passed a statute in 1970 that was called the comprehensive drug abuse prevention and control act that had a lot of components, one was to bring this archaic regulatory scheme, you know, into the modern era, there were obviously new drugs that were being developed for therapeutic purposes that were usable, and they needed to be regulated, so a coherent scheme where marijuana as everybody knows was put under schedule one because at that time it had no recognized medical uses and also the penalties were reduced in this bill, and particularly simple possession even under federal law became, you know, a misdemeanor. And so that reflects eight that was going on during the period.


RICHARD BONNIE: And another thing that that act did was to create the national commission on marijuana and drug abuse to actually look for the first well, it wasn't the first time, there had been previous state, you know, level commissions about it, but really to give, you know, a national look at the actual effects of marijuana in light of all the questions that had been raised about it. So the commission on marijuana and drug abuse was appoint basically established in 1970, and it issued its report about marijuana in 1972.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And it was followed by the what we've come to know in a series of administrations as the war on drugs, and those penalties went way up on possession and sale of marijuana. I want to ask you both, if I may, Professor Bonnie, and Professor Campos, Professor Bonnie, you mentioned the fact that a lot has been said about marijuana being a sort of a stepping stone. And you know, there have been lots of people who have worked long and hard against drug addiction who maintain that marijuana is a gateway drug and should remain illegal for that reason. I wonder from your studies on the up and down of the legality of marijuana, Professor Bonnie, what do you think about that?

RICHARD BONNIE: Well, I I detect maybe you have a little bit of a time issue here.


RICHARD BONNIE: But I think part of the historical study about this is really important and I think relates to the question that you're asking, I think that this translates into concerns about the initiation of drug use by young people and particularly by teenagers and once you bring alcohol and tobacco kind of on the table, you see that each one of these, you know, drugs that kids experiment with, you know, opens the possibility and increases the likelihood just because they've, you know, taken risks with these drugs and for intoxicating purposes or for social purposes or whatever it is, increases the likelihood that it's going to occur with others and it becomes a social phenomenon more than a pharmacological one, and I think on the history what is important to note is that after the commission on marijuana and drug abuse recommended decriminalization of possession of marijuana and other consumption related behavior in 1972, there was a great deal of support for that recommendation across can the political spectrum, and many states adopted the recommendation, you had endorsements from the AMA, from the ABA, from the National Education Association, the American Public Health Association. You know, from people on the right and the left in the political arena.

And so during the 1970s, the pendulum was really swinging in the direction of what I would just call a more sensible and reasonable, you know, approach, that takes into account the costs of prohibition. And a more realistic understanding of the drug. But this came to a halt at the end of the 1970s and I think the reason when you go back and look at this period, you know, was because for whatever the reasons were, there was increasing experimentation with marijuana by teenagers and the able of first on set or the first age of experimentation began to drop and part of the reason that we knew this is that we had surveys.


RICHARD BONNIE: You know, for the first time, the commission actually did the first ones in 1971, 1972, and so we had some longitudinal data cross sectional data for each year that showed that this was a concern, and I do think that it was something that we needed to take seriously as a matter of policy because we wanted to discourage use of all of these substances by kid.


RICHARD BONNIE: But I think what happened is that the 0 tolerance idea beginning with a in the late '70s then particularly with the Regan administration began to push away from the reform ideas that we were talking about, then when you had the explosion, you know, the cocaine, the crack epidemic beginning in the late 1980s, then you had the first bush administration war on drugs and everything got pushed, you know, to the right, and we had 18800000 marijuana arrests we had tremendous levels of incarceration of all sorts of drug offenders, the costs of the drug war became very very high then finally only, you know, beginning a decade ago.


RICHARD BONNIE: Did we begin to kind of pull the pendulum back in the direction that the commission had described in the early 1970s.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, I am just plain out of time but I just want to thank you both so much, this history is fascinating. I wish we had more time to explore it, but I think you've given us a real good feel for it, both of you. Professor Isaac Campos, thank you.

ISAAC CAMPOS: Thank you very much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Professor Richard Bonnie, thank you.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you'd like to comment, you can go on line, Coming up a walk of hope for domestic violence victims in San Diego, that's as These Days continues here on KPBS.