To view historic events or the deeds of historic personalities through modern eyes presents a distorted picture. To learn lessons from the past requires the ability to see things in the context of the times in which they occurred. With the passing of time perceptions change. The evolving views on the benefits of moderate marijuana usage and on the penalties associated with possession are in stark contrast to the public perceptions of the 1940s.
In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed. As with the Volstead Act that resulted in the prohibition of alcohol sales, the Marijuana Tax Act was based largely on a national morality campaign rather than science. The statute effectively criminalized marijuana. Possession was severely restricted to authorized individuals associated with medical research or various industrial uses for marijuana.
The public perception that marijuana was a dangerous narcotic on par with heroin overshadowed developments in medical research. In 1944 the New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report on marijuana usage. The report noted that contrary to earlier research and popular belief, use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes. The report also noted that moderate use of marijuana did not lead to addiction or other drug use.
While medical science was moving toward a more enlightened view of marijuana, the legal system was still locked in the view that possession and usage presented a dangerous threat to society. In the late 1940s the Los Angeles Police Department launched a high profile anti-drug campaign that was linked with extensive media coverage. The rich and famous as well as average citizens were caught up in the sweep to eradicate drugs from the city.
In late 1948, Robert Mitchum, an up and coming movie star, was arrested during a raid on a party at a home in Laurel Canyon. There was such a stigma associated with an arrest for marijuana possession Mitchum reportedly said at the time, “Well, this is the bitter end of everything—my career, my marriage, everything.” Through the intervention of high-priced studio lawyers that questioned irregularities in the case, Mitchum accepted a plea deal. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and two years probation.
Surprisingly, in spite of further research and reports on marijuana usage that further indicated the drug was not in the same class as cocaine or heroin, further restrictions were imposed in the 1950s. The enactment of federal laws (Boggs Act, 1952; Narcotics Control Act, 1956) set mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses, including marijuana. As a result, a first-offense marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2-10 years with a fine of up to $20,000.
The more balanced approach to the regulation of marijuana that has allowed for the establishment of businesses such as The Bud Farmacy in Needles, California, the largest dispensary along the northern Colorado River, was a decades long process. It would be 1996 before California voters passed the ground breaking Proposition 215. This allowed for the restricted sale of marijuana to be used by patients with AIDS, cancer, and other serious and painful diseases.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America