Why Congress Outlawed the Hemp Plant


On a hot Friday afternoon on August 2, 1937, at 5:45 PM, Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, introduced a bill called The Marijuana Tax Act. The bill ordered American farmers to obtain a license from the Treasury Department to grow hemp and made it a Federal crime for Americans to possess, give away or sell it without paying a 1% tax.

      The cannabis/hemp plant came in two versions. The first version was industrial hemp, a plant with a long history of commercial use, and a very low THC content. The second version was marijuana, the same plant with a much higher THC content. THC is the psychoactive chemical found in the blossoms and upper leaves and used throughout history as an intoxicant and a remedy for treating a number of health problems.

Drug Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, head of the FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) first introduced the bill into committee hearings for review. The hearings, which should have gone on for days, lasted two hours.

Anslinger told the committee, "Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users, insanity, criminality, and death." Anslinger chose the Mexican word "marihuana," because the committee did not know that marihuana was the same plant grown in this country for more than three centuries and prescribed by doctors in a form called cannabis extract.

The first testimony came from a pharmacologist who had injected himself and 300 dogs with what he called the "active ingredient" in marihuana. Two of the 300 dogs died when he injected this crude substance into their brains. The testimony raised eyebrows because the true active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, had not yet undergo extraction and would not do so until years later, in Holland.

After the pharmacologist completed his expert testimony, Dr. William C. Woodward, a lawyer and chief counsel for the American Medical Association testified that  "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug."

This statement prompted one of the committee members to remark, "Doctor, if you can't say something good about what we are trying to do, why don't you go home?"

Another member added, "Doctor, if you haven't got something better to say than that, we are sick of hearing you."

These words reveal a pre-existing hostility between the AMA and Roosevelt's New Deal Democrats who dominated the committee. From 1932 through 1937, the AMA had opposed every piece of legislation proposed by the New Dealers, a conflict that left little friendship between the two groups.

The bill to ban the cannabis plant from American soil passed easily in the committee and moved on to the House of Representatives (Congress). It landed on the Speakers Platform before a limited number of Congressional Representatives that listened in the stifling heat to Sam Rayburn read the proposal and call for a debate. The debate that followed consisted of a single man, a Republican from New York State, who stood and asked what the bill was about.

Speaker Rayburn replied, "I don't know. It has something to do with something called marihuana. I think it's a narcotic of some kind."

The same man asked if the AMA supported the bill.

In response to the question, a member of the committee that had criticized Dr.Woodward and sent the bill to Congress leaped to his feet and shouted, "Their Doctor Wentworth came down here. They supported this bill 100 percent!"

This spurious statement ended further questions, and the vote began. There was no recorded vote on the bill; instead, legislators walked past this point or that point on the floor to indicate a yes or no vote.

Based on Anslinger's deliberate lies and the false statement from the hostile committee member, Congress passed the bill with no debate. The bill was on the floor for a remarkable 92 seconds before it became Federal Law. This new prohibition happened just four years after Congress repealed alcohol prohibition.

The new law required a $1.00 tax be paid by anyone possessing or growing cannabis and came under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department. Failure to pay the tax could result in a fine of up to $2000 and five years' imprisonment. When farmers who wished to continue growing hemp approached the Treasury Dept for a license they quickly discovered the Treasury Department would not issue a license. The new tax law had effectively outlawed hemp

The FBN under Commissioner Anslinger and later its predecessor, the DEA, received the authority from Congress to arrest over ninety million Americans over the next seventy years because they grew or possessed the cannabis plant without a license. Twenty million went to prison.

In 1972, a paranoid Richard Nixon dismissed his own panel of experts, the Shafer Commission, (which recommended immediate decriminalization of marijuana) and declared war on pot smokers. He convinced Congress to authorize the building of the largest prison system in the world.

 Today the hemp plant remains at the top of the DEA’s list of dangerous addictive drugs, next to heroin.

For more information or to help change the law, visit www.leap.com (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).


Source: "History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States"

              Schaffer Library www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/white1.htm


James Wiley

48 Woodland Ave

San Anselmo, CA 94960


Updated May 2011