The Marijuana Conspiracy
The drive to demonize pot started with a power play in one act
By Alaine Lowell 10/08/2010
Reading about history can be boring, but the history of marijuana prohibition is anything but. When Congress outlawed marijuana in 1937, it was the climax of a story surrounded by mystery, intrigue and a cast of characters that would rival any blockbuster movie ever made. Think Orson Wells’ 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane,” a film portraying the life of powerful newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who, by the way, happens to be one of the major players in the marijuana story.
In November, California voters will decide the fate of the 100-year battle against the marijuana plant. We were among the first states to ban marijuana with an amendment to the California Poison Law in 1913, the first to allow medical marijuana in 1996 with Proposition 215 and, I hope, we will be the first to allow adults to grow, possess and transport cannabis for personal use in 2010 with a yes vote on Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, which will also permit local governments to regulate and tax marijuana sales. The law is projected by the California State Board of Equalization to bring in $1.4 billion in desperately needed annual tax revenues.
It takes a tremendous amount of power, influence, finance and deception to convince a population that a plant that grows naturally, has been used for centuries to create the staples for everyday existence — such as clothing, rope and paper — and is an effective medicine used to treat a variety ailments with compete safety should be outlawed and its users imprisoned.
Follow the money
What would happen if you put publisher William Randolph Hearst, banking mogul Andrew Mellon and Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, in a room together? Wait, let’s make it more interesting, make that the “Morning Room” at Hearst’s opulent 165-room estate in California — Hearst Castle — and we’ll invite Lammot DuPont, one of the richest men in the world at the time, to join the conversation.
In this imagined scenario set in 1936 and loosely based on known history, the room becomes a haze of smoke from cigarettes and cigars — a staple of the “boys clubs” of the day and a popular symbol of masculinity. For a little eye candy, Hearst’s live-in girlfriend, movie star Marion Davies, will be on hand, puffing away on her own cigarette, extended out over the table by a fancy gold cigarette holder. She was liberated, but Davies died from cancer of the jaw in 1961. Soon, the butler rolls in a fancy cart laden with the best aged whiskey and finest brandy that money can buy — never mind that it’s 11 in the morning. These cocktails will definitely stimulate the conversation.
The stage is now set for a first-class conspiracy to take shape. So, as flies on the wall during at an important moment in history, join me for some “dramatized” eavesdropping on the men who outlawed marijuana.
Money talks, but ‘Old Money’ screams
“The Rembrandts are by far my greatest acquisitions,” Mellon said as Hearst listened intently. Ignoring the others, they were engaged in a lively conversation about their shared passion: collecting priceless works of art. Mellon spent $7 million (about $90 million today) on 21 masterpieces from the Hermitage in Leningrad, while Hearst’s outrageous buying habits were legendary and would eventually bring down his empire.
The meeting started off with the normal socializing; after all, these men were far from strangers. It was Mellon, as US Secretary to the Treasury from 1921 to 1932, who appointed Anslinger as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930. Sitting next to Hearst, Mellon looked frail at 81, his visage like “a dried-up dollar bill that any wind might whisk away,” a contemporary is quoted saying in recent biography by David Cannadine. But looks can be deceiving. As head of the T. Mellon Bank in Philadelphia, he was the money man behind both Alcoa Aluminum and Gulf Oil and, important to this story, was the chief financial backer for the DuPont Co., where his powerful purse would be instrumental in deciding the future of marijuana.
As the two moguls talked personal wealth, DuPont looked bored while Anslinger, on the other hand, was getting antsy, so much so that he was forced to interrupt his “Uncle Andy” in mid-sentence. (Did I forget to mention that Anslinger also happened to be married to Mellon’s niece?) Standing for increased impact, Anslinger cleared his throat. “Gentlemen,” he began, “The scourge of marijuana is what we have come here to talk about and I suggest we get down to business right away.”
Sensing the change of mood, Marion lit another cigarette, gave Hearst a peck on the cheek and excused herself to lounge by the pool. As the door closed behind her, Anslinger proceeded to lay out his plan. “It seems to me,” he said, “that a prohibitive tax is the way to go to avoid any questions that might be raised about constitutionality.” Suddenly, Hearst slammed his fist down on the table, “Constitutionality hell,” he shouted. “Those filthy Mexicans are crawling over the border like ants, and we’re going to stop ‘em.” Buoyed by Hearst’s anger and blatant racism — though in an age predating the “high five” — all the men agreed, “Here! Here!” cried DuPont, while Mellon moved forward slightly in his chair and managed a feeble shout, “We’ll put an end to it.”
Fear, lies and hate
During the 1930s, there were relatively few people smoking marijuana, save for jazz musicians, Mexican laborers in towns near the border and a sprinkling of others. In fact, most of the public had never even heard of it. That would soon change when Hearst’s newspaper syndicate began bombarding the public with outrageous stories about the dangerous new threat of marijuana. In an extremely successful case of what today we call “product branding,” Indian hemp — or cannabis, as it was called by the medical profession — was renamed “marijuana"”and repeated regularly in Hearst’s publications, further associating it with Mexican immigrants.
Jack Herer, author of “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” the seminal resource for marijuana and hemp information, explains that after the Spanish-American War in 1898, Hearst had developed a personal dislike and prejudice toward Mexicans, prompted by the “seizure of 800,000 acres of his prime Mexican timberland by the ‘marihuana’-smoking army of Pancho Villa.” Hearst papers, the chief purveyors of “yellow journalism” at the time, slapped terrifying headlines across their front pages: “Marihuana Makes Fiends of Boys in 30 Days” and “Hotel Clerk Identifies Marijuana Smoker as ‘Wild Gunman’ Arrested for Shootings,” screamed the bold type, stoking a new hysteria. Before long, the public was well aware of this new and threatening drug menace. Hearst’s prejudices weren’t restricted to Mexicans, as Herer tells it:
Hearst’s stories portray[ed] “negroes” and Mexicans as frenzied beasts who, under the influence of marijuana would play anti-white “voodoo-satanic” music (jazz) and heap disrespect and “viciousness” upon the predominantly white readership. Other such offenses resulting from this drug-induced “crime wave” included: stepping on white men’s shadows, looking white people directly in the eye for three seconds or more, looking at a white woman twice, laughing at a white person ... For such “crimes,” hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and blacks spent, in aggregate, millions of years in jails, prisons and on chain gangs, under brutal segregation laws that remained in effect throughout the U.S. until the 1950s and ’60s.
But that’s not the conspiracy.
As Anslinger continued his lecture about the upcoming marijuana legislation, interrupted occasionally by outbursts from Hearst, Lammot DuPont reached into a leather satchel he’d placed in front of him and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “I have managed to secure the information we spoke about earlier,” he said in a low whisper, spreading the papers across the table for all to see. Before them was the draft of an article being compiled by the editors at Popular Mechanics Magazine about hemp — industrial marijuana. One headline in particular stood out because of words that even this group of the wealthiest Americans rarely came across, and perhaps had never seen in print: “Billion-Dollar Crop.”
Hemp: The ‘Billion-Dollar Crop’
The DuPont Chemical Co. had by far the most to lose in the marijuana wars of the 1930s. In February 1938, Popular Mechanics Magazine published its article describing hemp as “The New Billion-Dollar Crop,” that could be used for anything from “cellophane to dynamite,” and could even replace trees for producing paper, which was particularly alarming to Hearst, who held vast forestlands in California that produced the newsprint for his newspapers.
The DuPont family made its fortune in gunpowder and dynamite and held a monopoly on this lethal industry until forced to divest by the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, which led to their foray into numerous other industries including automobiles (General Motors) and chemical research. During the 1930s, with financing from Mellon's Bank, the DuPont Co. created a monopoly in the textile industry by placing patents on its chemical formulas for synthetic fabrics such as Nylon, Lucite and Teflon, and in 1937 acquired patents to make plastics from oil and coal. Hemp, a miracle crop with 25,000 uses that were superior alternatives to synthetics, looked like formidable competition.
Around 3 o’clock the butler returned. Rolling the cart through the cavernous room, he removed the empty glasses and ashtrays piled with butts and ash. The meeting was wrapping up. Hearst, still seated and a little glassy-eyed from several scotches, fondled the stack of newspapers in front of him. “We’ve got this one in the bag, fellas,” he said, raising his glass to empty the last dribbles. DuPont carefully folded and tucked his purloined papers into his briefcase then helped the aged Mellon to his feet. The pair, who had traveled together by private train car and would return to the East that day, said their goodbyes. Hearst, at this point, started to doze off when Anslinger nudged him awake. “I’d like to borrow some of this stuff,” he said, pointing to the newspapers on the table. “I need something concrete, a ‘gore file’ to convince these thick-headed congressmen about the urgency of our plan.” Hearst smiled. “Take the whole stack, won’t you — and give ‘em hell, Harry.”
The following year, Anslinger would testify before Congress.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937
Harry Anslinger was America’s first drug czar and was the driving force behind enactment of The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the federal law that would criminalize marijuana use through prohibitive taxation. In his testimony to Congress, Anslinger drew a deadly picture of marijuana, which he augmented with his infamous “gore file,” a stack of sensational newspaper clippings “manufactured” and supplied by Hearst. “Some individuals have a complete loss of sense of time or a sense of value ... they have an increased feeling of physical strength and power ... making a ‘monster-Hyde’ of users,” Anslinger told Congress. “All experts agree; continued use leads to insanity.” And if that wasn’t enough, he thought to include the legend of the assassins, “an ancient religious and military order ... who derived their name from hashish, known in this country as marihuana, and noted for their acts of cruelty. The word ‘assassin,’” he said, “very aptly describes the drug.”
The two Congressional hearings to pass the Marijuana Tax Act were short and sweet, about an hour, according to Professor of Law and Medicine Richard J. Bonnie. The American Medical Association (AMA) was one of the few voices testifying against prohibition. At the time, cannabis (marijuana) was being prescribed by doctors as safe for treating a number of medical conditions. Presenting the AMA’s position was Dr. William C. Woodward. “There is no evidence marijuana is a dangerous drug,” he told the committee. But it became clear that the government already had its mind made up when Woodward questioned committee members as to why legislation was being passed based on newspaper accounts instead of legitimate data from the Bureau of Prisons or the children’s bureaus, and a member shot back, “If you want to advise us on legislation, you ought to come here with some constructive proposals rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the federal government is trying to do.” When the bill reached the House of Representatives, the debate lasted only a few minutes. Two questions were asked, the first was directed to Speaker Sam Rayburn, asking for a summary of the bill, to which Rayburn responded, “I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called marijuana. I think it is a narcotic of some kind.” The next question, “Does the American Medical Association support the bill?” was answered erroneously by a member of the House Ways and Means Committee: “Their Doctor Wharton (sic) gave this measure his full support [and the approval of] the American Medical Association.” Based on these lies, The House approved the federal prohibition of marijuana and the Senate, after another brief hearing, overwhelming passed the Bill. It was signed into law on Aug. 2, 1937.
The Stepping Stone Theory is born
The view that marijuana caused violence and insanity continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s. However, cracks started to appear in this mountain of lies as researchers began looking more closely at the facts. In 1951, during congressional hearings to implement even tougher anti-drug legislation, Dr. Harris Isbell, director of research at the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Ky., stated, “It has not been proved that smoking marijuana leads to crimes of violence or to crimes of a sexual nature. Smoking marijuana has no unpleasant after-effects, no dependence is developed on the drug and the practice can easily be stopped at any time. In fact, it is probably easier to stop smoking marijuana cigarettes than tobacco cigarettes.”
Never deterred by either science or reason, the ever-vigilant Harry Anslinger was right there with the new best argument. It was all well and good that marijuana might not be as deadly as previously thought. “The danger is this,” he told the Boggs Committee, “over 50 percent of those young addicts started on marijuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin; they took the needle when the thrill of marijuana was gone.” This argument would come to be known as the “stepping stone theory” and would become the government’s argument against any and all scientific evidence of marijuana’s safety — even today. In another victory for marijuana’s opponents, the Boggs Act passed, making the punishment for a first marijuana offense a mandatory two to 10 years in prison with a $2,000 fine. Marijuana wouldn’t appear on the radar again until the 1960s, when it became the drug of choice for the counterculture generation.
In 1970 Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act that created five drug schedules, from the most dangerous to the least, and put the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — not doctors or scientists — in charge or determining which drugs were safe and had medicinal value. The DEA placed marijuana in Schedule I, along with drugs like heroin and LSD, labeling it a dangerous substance “having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”
While there is only circumstantial proof of this industrialist conspiracy, in the years that followed marijuana’s prohibition, DuPont monopolized the chemical and petrochemical industries — a monopoly that endures today — while Hearst and others continued to destroy the forests to produce paper. Anslinger reigned as America's drug czar for 32 years, from 1930 to 1962, and marijuana and its industrial cousin hemp remain illegal.
In the film “Citizen Kane,” the once-powerful Kane is shown in a mock newsreel nearing the end of his life as a pathetic shadow of his former self, a victim of his own uncontrolled materialism and greed. He is old, withered and wheelchair-bound, “Alone in his never-finished, already decaying pleasure palace [as happened to Hearst and his castle],” the narrator intones, “he attempted to sway as he once did the destinies of a nation that had ceased to listen to him, ceased to trust him.” In the next frame, a banner crosses the screen: “Charles Foster Kane is Dead.”
It’s 2010 and Hearst, Mellon, Anslinger and DuPont have all joined Citizen Kane in that Xanadu on high where millionaires and robber barons ascend once their work is finished here on Earth. Still, the effect of their money, power and influence reaches beyond the grave to deprive the nation of a vital crop and valuable medicine, and its citizens of their constitutional right to decide what substances they want to consume.
Please vote yes on Proposition 19 on Nov. 2 and stop the intolerant ghosts of our past from deciding our future.
Alaine Lowell is the author of the soon to be published “Going Dutch: How Marijuana Can Save the Economy,” with Dutch marijuana expert Wernard Bruining. Excerpts from the book will run each week until the Nov. 2 election.