The Story of Marijuana Prohibition, Part 1: Reefer Madness

By March 23, 2016Thomas Law Firm


We wrote recently about the failures of alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, but we did not touch on the anti-marijuana movement. So, as part one of a series, we thought we’d dive into the origins of marijuana prohibition, starting with the two men largely responsible for the wave of “Reefer Madness” that shook Americans to their core almost 100 years ago.

Harry Anslinger – Moral Crusader

Harry Anslinger was one of the head architects of marijuana (sometimes spelled marihuana) prohibition in the 1930s. He styled himself a moral crusader out to save America from the hellish scourge of marijuana. Truthfully, his opinions toward marijuana were rooted in prejudice against “degenerate” minorities. Even the name marijuana, which took over thanks to Anslinger’s efforts (prior to the movement for prohibition, the drug was known simply as cannabis), was meant to evoke feelings of foreignness or “otherness” for the drug.

Anslinger’s work came together in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which federally criminalized marijuana across the United States. But while Anslinger was arguably the most significant figure in marijuana prohibition, there is another man who was instrumental in the drug’s media portrayal. That man was William Randolph Hearst, famous for his propagandized journalism.

William Randolph Hearst – Media Man with Another Horse in the Race

Hearst owned several newspapers during the time of prohibition. He had a heavy interest in keeping marijuana production low due to his interests in the timber industry. The blood relative of the cannabis plant, known as hemp, had serious potential to disrupt his timber-fed paper needs and he wanted to stop that from happening, so he began blaming Mexicans for marijuana and publishing false accounts of the effects of marijuana. These included insanity, a total lack of inhibitions, brain rot, reefer madness and even a propensity for violence. These lies made him rich.

Both Hearst and Anslinger were supported in their efforts by Dupont chemical company and several pharmaceutical companies. Dupont, too, wanted to prevent hemp from becoming a competition to Dupont’s invention, nylon, while pharmaceutical companies wanted to sell their pain relief products without competition from marijuana growers.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our prohibition series, which will explore the details of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Though Colorado is ahead of the pack as far as ending marijuana prohibition, you should still speak to a lawyer if you are charged with marijuana-related offenses such as DUI.

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