Although marijuana prohibition is commonly supposed to have begun with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, cannabis had already been outlawed by California in 1913, during the first, Progressive Era wave of anti-narcotics legislation.
The 1913 law received no public notice in the press, but was passed as an obscure technical amendment by the State Board of Pharmacy, which was then leading one of the nation’s earliest and most aggressive anti-narcotics campaigns. Inspired by anti-Chinese sentiment, California was a nationally recognized pioneer in the war on drugs. In 1875, it instituted the first known anti-narcotics law in the U.S., a San Francisco ordinance against opium dens. By 1907, seven years before the US Congress restricted sale of narcotics by enacting the Harrison Act, the Board of Pharmacy had engineered an amendment to California’s poison laws so as to prohibit the sale of opium, morphine and cocaine except by a doctor’s prescription. The Board followed up with an aggressive enforcement campaign, in which it pioneered many of the modern techniques of drug enforcement, including undercover agents and informants, criminalization of users, and anti-paraphernalia laws, climaxed by a series of well-publicized raids on pharmacists and Chinese opium dens.
During this time, cannabis was never an issue, its use as an intoxicant being largely unknown in California. “Marihuana” the Mexican name for the drug, was scarcely heard of before 1910. Instead, it was known as hashish or Indian hemp, an exotic vice of Asiatic foreigners and a handful of bohemians. Although cannabis was grown for hemp in the Central Valley and occasionally used in medicine, California newspapers of the early 1900s are silent on hashish and marijuana. In 1909, the police department of San Francisco reported, “there has been only one case of the use of Indian hemp or hasheesh treated in the Emergency Hospitals in six years, and that was accidental” (presumably an overdose).
Nevertheless, Indian hemp had come to the attention of the narcotics authorities, in particular Hamilton Wright, the chief architect of U.S. narcotics policy, and Henry J. Finger, a prominent member of the California Board of Pharmacy who had been appointed with Wright to the U.S. delegation to the first International Opium Conference at the Hague in 1911.
Wright, a brash and enthusiastic drug prohibitionist, had been pushing to have cannabis included in federal drug legislation. “I would not be at all surprised if, when we get rid of the opium danger, the chloral peril and the other now known drug evils, we shall encounter new ones,” he wrote. “Hasheesh, of which we know very little in this country, will doubtless be adopted by many of the unfortunates if they can get it.”
Finger, a forceful proponent of aggressive enforcement in California, had similar ideas. In a remarkable letter to Wright, dated July 2, 1911, he urged that the Conference take up the cannabis issue:
“Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast…the fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit… We were not aware of the extent of this vice at the time our legislature was in session and did not have our laws amended to cover this matter, and now have no legislative session for two years (January, 1913). This matter has been brought to my attention a great number of time[s] in the last two months…it seems to be a real question that now confronts us: can we do anything in the Hague that might assist in curbing this matter?”
The “Hindoos,” actually East Indian immigrant of Sikh religion and Punjabi origin, had become a popular target of anti-immigrant sentiment after several boatloads arrived in San Francisco in 1910. Their arrival sparked an uproar of protest from Asian exclusionists, who pronounced them to be even more unfit for American civilization than the Chinese. Their influx was promptly stanched by immigration authorities, leaving little more than 2,000 in the state, mostly in agricultural areas of the Central Valley. The Hindoos were widely denounced for their outlandish customs, dirty clothes, strange food, suspect morals, and especially their propensity to work for low wages. Aside from Finger, however, no one complained about their use of cannabis. To the contrary, their defenders portrayed them as hard-working and sober. “The taking of drugs as a habit scarcely exists among them,” wrote one observer.
Nonetheless, Finger’s concerns were sympathetically received by Wright, who replied, “You certainly should have your legislature do something in regard to Indian hemp.” Wright’s effort to include cannabis in federal drug legislation would later be foiled by the pharmaceutical industry, which objected to the inclusion of a seemingly innocuous patent medicine ingredient. However, the wheels for prohibition were set in motion in California, where legislation to ban “narcotic preparations of hemp” was introduced in the 1913 legislature.
By this time, another menace had appeared on the horizon: “marihuana” had begun to penetrate north of the border from Mexico, carried by immigrants and soldiers during the revolutionary disorders of 1910 – 1920. Though hardly known to the American public, marihuana or “loco-weed” was noticed by the pharmacy journals, which surmised that it was a relative of Indian hemp or perhaps jimsonweed. In Mexico its use was mainly associated with delinquents and soldiers, lending it a discreditable reputation for madness and violence. With this in mind, the Board duly added “loco-weed” to its 1913 legislation.
SOURCE: California NORML