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Hemp 103: 1940-2008 How ignorance and prejudicial politics continued to suppress cannabis


In Hemp 101, we discussed how cannabis came to North America and the importance growing hemp was to the early colonization of the United States.

In Hemp 102, we discussed how prejudice, bigotry, and one man’s quest for power caused cannabis to be made illegal and how the federal government suppressed all research into its medical uses.

In Hemp 103, we discuss how hemp farming made a comeback during World War II, but how prejudice, misinformation, and the failure of our politicians to follow the advice of expert panels led to most of the cannabis plant being classified a Schedule I drug.

The U.S. Government encouraged farmers to grow hemp during World War II.

In 1940, legal hemp production in the United States was practically nonexistent, but with the coming of World War II, America’s supply of jute and Manila hemp was cut off by Japanese control of the Philippines and the sea lanes from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Suddenly, growing hemp became the patriotic thing to do, and the United States Department of Agriculture began encouraging farmers in America to grow hemp in abundance to help with the war effort.

With the beginning of World War II and the need for rope and cordage, growing hemp suddenly became the patriotic thing to do.

The goal in 1943 was for 300,000 acres of America farmland to be planted with hemp.  In furtherance of that goal, in 1942, the Department of Agriculture, Office of Public Affairs made the movie “Hemp for Victory” and produced a thick comic book reiterating the information contained in the film with lots of pictures and easy to read and understand language.

The film "Hemp for Victory" was released by the United States Department of Agriculture Office of Public Affairs in 1942 and can be seen here.

As stated in the film, “For thousands of years this plant was grown . . . for centuries prior to about 1850, all the ships that sailed the western seas were rigged with hempen rope and sails. . . This film is designed to tell farmers how to handle this ancient crop now little known outside Kentucky and Wisconsin . . . .” The film “Hemp for Victory” was designed to encourage farmers to grow hemp for use by the government in the war effort, and the movie explained how to best grow it.

According to “Hemp for Victory,” hemp seeds should be planted close together. “The closer the rows the better” explained the movie, so the stalks are thin and tall and lack most their leaves -- just the opposite of how recreational marijuana is grown. It also encouraged not cutting out the male plants until the females were fertilized so there would be good seed production.

“Hemp for Victory” talks about the decline of hemp production in America without mentioning its growth being brought to an end by passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and without ever mentioning the words “cannabis” or “marijuana.”  The movie does say, “This is hemp seed.  Be careful how you use it.  For to grow hemp legally, you must have a federal registration and tax stamp.  This is provided for in your contract.  Ask your triple A [Agriculture Adjustment Administration] committee man or your county agent about it.  Don’t forget.”

An easy to read comic book instructed poor farmers how to best grow hemp to produce fiber needed for the war effort.

A copy of a license issued to a farmer during World War II authorizing the farmer to grow hemp for the war effort.

The “Hemp for Victory” movie shows a picture of the Plymouth Cordage Company advertising it made Rope & Binder Twine and was established in 1824.  The film says, “All such plants will presently be turning out products spun from American grown hemp; twine of various kinds for tying, winding armatures, and upholster’s work; rope for marine rigging and towing, for hay forks, derricks, and heavy-duty tackle; light duty fire hose; thread for shoes for millions of American soldiers, and parachute webbing for our paratroopers.  As for the United States Navy, every battleship requires 34,000 feet of rope and other craft accordingly, so here in the Boston Navy Yard where cables for frigates were made long ago, crews are now working night and day making cordage for the fleet . . . This is Manila hemp from the Navy’s rapidly dwindling reserves.  When that is gone, American hemp will go on duty again.  Hemp for mooring ships; hemp for tow lines; hemp for tackle and gear; hemp for countless navel uses both on ship and shore.  Just as in the days when Old Ironsides sailed the seas victorious with its hempen shrouds and hempen sails.”  Patriotic music abounds, and at the end of the movie, a line of battleships is seen cruising the sea.

A picture of the inside of the ropewalk at the Plymouth Cordage Plant where the hemp fiber was woven into rope of various diameters.

With the end of World War II, hemp production came to an end.  Marijuana began to be imported from Mexico and Jamaica and mostly fed the demand of Mexican immigrants and members of the black musical community.  Then smoking marijuana made its way into the world of rock and roll and the “flower power” generation, and marijuana began to be enjoyed by members of all races and social classes.

Marijuana gained popularity in the 1960's.

Marijuana hit the “hippie” scene in the 1960's, and its use became familiar to anyone who watched television, listened to music, went to a popular movie, read a best-seller, or picked up Time or Life magazine.  LSD, which is like marijuana on steroids, was legal until October 24, 1968.  The birth control pill, first marketed in 1960, initiating the era of free love.  The youth of the nation had an unpopular war in Vietnam to protest with U.S. troop levels peaking at 536,100 in 1968.  Every “relevant” movie made in the late 1960's, “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968), “Easy Rider” (1969), and “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), to name a few, had their marijuana party scene.  Rolling Stone magazine was founded in 1967, and by 1974, High Times magazine began being published.

A still from the movie "Easy Rider" showing Jack Nicholson, the ultimate cool guy, smoking a joint.

It has taken 50 years for public opinion to catch up with Hollywood’s message that it would be better to legalize marijuana than spend billions of dollars on police, jails, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, probation officers, prisons, and parole officers and, instead, spend some of the extra tax revenues earned from marijuana sales researching cannabis's industrial and medical benefits.

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President Nixon ignored the evidence and outlawed marijuana for prejudicial and political reasons.

The Dixie Democrats began losing control of the Southern faction of the Democratic party to liberals and minorities following President Lyndon Johnson lobbying for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Seeing a political opening, Nixon sought to bring Southern Democrats into the Republican party using a new strategy devised to garner the favor of racist, warmongering whites by referring to them as “the silent majority.”

When Nixon began running for President in 1968, there was a substantial amount of racial prejudice in San Antonio, Texas, caused by white dissatisfaction with the Hispanic community protesting the way Texas apportioned public school financing.  Nixon sought to tap into this prejudice by visiting San Antonio one month before announcing in New Hampshire his run for President.

Rioting in San Antonio between Hispanics and the white community continued into the 1970's.  Photo credit San Antonio Express-News.

Nixon’s “silent majority” strategy worked, and he was elected President in November 1968. Congress was barely controlled by the Democrats, and some of those Democrats were prejudiced against Mexicans and blacks and hated Vietnam War protesters. The time was ripe to further persecute users of marijuana, not only because marijuana was being used by Mexicans and blacks, but because marijuana was being used by the “hippie” Vietnam War protesters.

In 1969, Nixon put his Attorney General, John N. Mitchell, a former municipal bond lawyer, in charge of developing a comprehensive bill to deal with the “drug problem” on the federal level.  Then, for purely political reasons, and making the same arguments made by Anslinger and the Hearst newspapers, including their racial stereotypes, in 1970, Nixon lobbied for passage of the Controlled Substances Act and lobbied for marijuana be classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) a Schedule I drug. Classifications were determined for five schedules of drugs, and what schedule the drug would be placed in was determined by the DEA and the FDA.

Nixon's Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who touted himself as a law and order advocate, attempted to sabotage the 1968 Paris Peace Accords to keep the Vietnam War alive as a 1968 presidential campaign issue, brought frivolous conspiracy charges against critics of the Vietnam War, was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury, and spent 19 months in prison for his part in the Watergate conspiracy.

Classifying cannabis a Schedule I drugs had the effect of ending all research into cannabis’s medical properties by first requiring FDA approval which was only given to researchers looking for evidence cannabis was dangerous, had no medical usage, and should remain a Schedule I drug.  Applications which sought to explore the beneficial uses of cannabis were summarily denied.  Cannabis for research had to be provided by the University of Mississippi which since 1969 has been the only source authorized by the FDA to grow cannabis for research purposes.  At the request of the DEA, in 2014, the FDA began conducting an analysis to make a recommendation of whether marijuana should be downgraded and removed from Schedule I.  In August 2016, the FDA maintained its position that marijuana should be kept a Schedule I drug but announced an end to restrictions on researchers and drug companies gaining access to marijuana for testing and clinical trials.

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From the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937, to the FDA’s announcement in August 2016, a total of 79 years were wasted when, otherwise, the medical benefits of cannabis could have been explored for the betterment of mankind.  This unconscionable delay was caused by prejudice, ignorance, and sensationalist stories designed to sell newspapers and sway voters.  Politicians on both sides of the isle were, and to some extent still are, to blame because they feared and continue to fear that coming out in favor of marijuana in any way, even for purposes of medical research, would cost them votes because of so many years of false, effective anti-marijuana propaganda which needs be overcome.  The ban on performing clinical research on medical marijuana lasted 79 years from 1937 to 2016.

In 1994, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under President Richard Nixon, John Ehrlichman admitted to Harper’s Magazine reporter Dan Baum,

“You want to know what this was really all about?  The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies:  the antiwar left and black people.  You understand what I’m saying?  We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.  We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.  Did we know we were lying about the drugs?  Of course we did.”

Nixon's Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, admitted criminalizing marijuana was all about disrupting the hippie community.  Photo credit Associated Press.

Against this backdrop, Nixon and the 91st Congress classified marijuana a Schedule I drug in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act which was made part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (DAPCA).

President Richard M. Nixon celebrates the passage of the Controlled Substances Act.  White House photo.

By demonizing marijuana and having it classified a Schedule I drug, Nixon found the perfect tool to discriminate against blacks and Hispanics and punish Vietnam War protestors who openly smoked marijuana at their rallies.  Nixon then ignored the recommendation of the blue ribbon panel he appointed to study the issue of marijuana which recommended simple users of marijuana not be criminally prosecuted.

Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 812 (b) (1), Schedule I drugs, which includes heroin, methaqualone (Quaaludes), morphine, mescaline, peyote, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), need to meet three criteria.  First, the drug must have a high potential for abuse which with marijuana has not proven to be the case.  Second, the drug must have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.  Marijuana has been shown to have medical use in America since the 1850's, and medical marijuana is now legal in 30 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico while CBD is proving to be extraordinary in treating a variety of medical conditions.  Finally, there must be a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.  Marijuana has proven to be an extraordinarily safe drug.  The only reason cannabis based medical remedies are not widely available is because the government has been suppressing research into cannabis based medical remedies since the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

DAPCA established a National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.  In 1972, Nixon appointed the members of the Commission, otherwise known as the Shafer Commission after its chairman Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer.  The Shafer Commission reported to Nixon that the United States government’s prohibition of cannabis was constitutionally suspect, that they felt it likely would be found unconstitutional, and that the executive and legislative branches owed their first duty to the Constitution by not enforcing a law the Commission felt was likely to be found unconstitutional.  Shafer personally felt possession of small amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized.

The Shafer Commission appointed by President Nixon recommended possession of small amounts of marijuana be decriminalized.  Nixon chose to ignore the Commission's recommendation.

Shafer wrote, “[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use.  It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate.  The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”

According to a February 14, 1972 article appearing in The Guardian, “[A] presidential commission has unanimously decided to recommend that all criminal penalties for the private use and possession of marijuana should be abolished. . . . The commission’s conclusions were based on studies which showed that marijuana is not addictive, that it cannot be shown to be physically or physiologically harmful, and that its use does not appear to lead to hard drug addiction.”

Nixon ignored the Shafer Commission’s recommendations and, instead, said, “I want to emphasize my continued opposition to legalizing the possession, sale, or use of marijuana.  There is no question about whether marijuana is dangerous, the only question is how dangerous.”  Nixon’s Congress then rewarded him with mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

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Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, but his War on Drugs continued.  In 1975 during Gerald Ford’s presidency, the State Department's International Narcotics Control Unit began funding Mexico’s effort to eradicate its marijuana fields transferring to Mexico over the next three years almost $15 million to accomplish the task.  That money was used to purchase the herbicide paraquat which was sprayed on the Mexican marijuana fields by crop dusters.  The United States State Department spraying Mexican marijuana fields with paraquat was not discovered by Congress until three years later during Jimmy Carter’s administration and after the health of thousands of Americans was put at risk or so everyone thought.

A crop duster sprays Mexican marijuana fields with paraquat.

As it turned out, the “Paraquat Panic” was overdone.  In 1977, High Times first broke the story in a 10-inch sidebar saying the State Department financed the spraying of the Mexican marijuana fields in a mission named “Operation Condor.”  A problem arose when Mexican farmers who had grown marijuana in fields sprayed with paraquat, acted quickly before the plant died, harvested the field, compressed the marijuana into bricks, and shipped them into the United States.

The Village Voice, the same magazine that published the Pentagon Papers, reported on the Paraquat Panic.

When the news of the paraquat spraying broke, Searle Labs in Chicago offered to test people’s marijuana for free, but apparently fudged their data in finding paraquat in one sample after another.  A report sent to the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office claimed 39 out of 40 samples tested positive for paraquat, an impossibility since the only marijuana fields sprayed were in a small area of the Mexican State of Sinaloa, and that pot accounted for less than two percent of the Mexican marijuana being imported into the United States.  At one point, Searle Labs reported 30% of all ‘exotic pots’ was toxic with paraquat, but no one in their right mind would call any pot originating from Mexico, other than Alcopoco Gold perhaps, as “exotic,” and the percentage cited was not consistent with the small amount of Mexican marijuana actually sprayed.  At one point, Keith Stroup, the lawyer who founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (“NORMAL”), declared the United States was brimming with poison marijuana, the smallest amount of which would cause an agonizing death, and Stroup called for a boycott of all Mexican marijuana. However, when the DEA tested several bales of marijuana “partially contaminated” with paraquat, it concluded a person would need eat 32 pounds of contaminated pot brownies for the dosage of paraquat ingested to prove fatal.

The Searle Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Chicago.  Credit University of Chicago website.

Mexico’s Deputy Attorney General defended the healthiness of his country’s exported marijuana crop telling reporters, “The traffickers aren’t stupid.  They can tell the difference between yellow marijuana and the dark green, unsprayed kind.  We’ve found loads of sprayed marijuana dumped by roadsides because the sellers couldn’t find buyers for it.”

As the mania grew, scared marijuana smokers began buying paraquat test kits from local head shops.  As it turned out, paraquat only proven dangerous to those charged with spraying it who might inhale it in its pure form or have the paraquat itself come into contact with their skin.  According to the EPA, since 2000 (after the spraying of the Mexican marijuana fields had long ended), unintentional ingestion of the paraquat caused 17 deaths.  In one case, three children died after paraquat was accidentally misidentified and placed into a drink.

The biggest and most noticeable effect of the Paraquat Panic was the American consumers’ movement away from purchasing cheap Mexican brick marijuana and replacing it with more expensive, stronger marijuana imported from Columbia.  Having established smuggling routes from Columbia to import “paraquat free” marijuana, America was then inundated with Columbia cocaine leading to the cocaine epidemic of the late 1970's and early 1980's – another unintended consequence of the misdirected War on Drugs.

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During President Jimmy Carter’s administration in the latter half of the 1970's, individual states began reducing their penalties for simple possession of marijuana, and 11 states decriminalized possession of marijuana and began treating simple possession of marijuana as a civil offense, but the paraquat continued to be sprayed.  Before the end of Carter’s administration, America’s financial commitment to marijuana eradication rose to $16 million, and Carter admitted, “I favor this program very strongly.”   Then President Ronald Reagan escalated the War on Drugs and proved to be a godsend to the private prison industry.

Reagan signed into law the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Controlled Substances Penalties Amendments Acts of 1984 which significantly increased federal penalties for possession of marijuana.  Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said, “casual drug users should be taken out and shot.”

President Ronald Reagan, a former movie star who use to advertise cigarettes and who said unemployment insurance was a "pre-paid vacation for freeloaders," lobbied for drug offenders to receive longer prison sentences.

Under Reagan, incarceration rates for drug offenses began to increase substantially, and at the height of the anti-marijuana mania in 1989 during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, 64 percent of the American public thought marijuana should be illegal. The War on Drugs became a war on all sexually-active Americans in the 1980's as anti-drug zealots favored drug policies blocking syringe access programs leading to the rapid spread of the HIV/AIDS virus causing thousands of needless deaths.  Reagan spoke of renewing the spraying of paraquat on the Mexican marijuana fields, but the idea was dropped.

President George H.W. Bush appointed William Bennett his Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, otherwise known as America’s first “drug czar.”  Bennett when so far as to say on Larry King Live a viewer's suggestion drug dealers should be beheaded was "morally plausible."  Bennett later proved himself addicted to gambling losing $7 million in Las Vegas.  He had a video poker machine brought up to his room at Caesar’s Palace so he could sit at it alone and slap its buttons for hours.

President George H.W. Bush's "Drug Czar" proved to be hopelessly addicted to video poker losing $7 million playing "the machine" at Caesar's Palace.

It was not until President Bill Clinton was within a month of leaving office that he finally admitted to a Rolling Stone reporter, "we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment" and "[marijuana] should be decriminalized."

President William Clinton was ready to leave office by the time he admitted marijuana should be decriminalized.

Just as the anti-marijuana crowd was losing its support, President George W. Bush appointed John P. Walters Drug Czar and allocated additional federal dollars to focus on marijuana enforcement while promoting student drug testing. There was an escalation in taking a military approach to domestic drug law enforcement including 40,000 SWAT raids every year mostly targeting nonviolent drug offenders. Only state-level reforms slowed the growth of the drug war.

John P. Walters meets with President George W. Bush.

By 2010, over $1 trillion had been spent on the War on Drugs, and that year 500,000 people were incarcerated on drug charges, and to what end? By 2015, the United States had entered an opioid epidemic.  Opioid overdose deaths exceeded 59,000 in 2016 and were the leading cause of death of Americans under 50 years of age.  The number of marijuana overdose deaths in 2016 remained constant at 0.

Go to Hemp 104.


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