International Cannabis Business Conference

One Hundred Years of Marijuana Prohibition

Reefer Madness
The exploitation classic ’Reefer Madness’ came out in 1936. One year later marijuana was prohibited by the federal government.

There was recently a claim going around that Aug. 10, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the very first marijuana prohibition law written and passed in the United States. On that date, the California State Board of Pharmacy added what they called “locoweed” to the State Poison Act.

According to Dale Gieringer of CA NORML, “They began launching raids. Law enforcement would pose as addicts who needed a fix but didn't have a doctor's note, then arrest the druggist.” This was indeed a very early legislative anti-marijuana move by a state, prior to the federal 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which required anyone dealing in pot to purchase a tax stamp or certificate, effectively outlawing the production, sales and use of marijuana in the U.S.

But this was not actually the first state or local anti-marijuana law in the U.S., as near as I can find. That dubious distinction goes to Massachusetts when Gov. Eugene Foss signed Chapter 372 of the Acts of 1911 on Apr. 29, 1911, calling for the "the issuance of search warrants for hypnotic drugs and the arrest of those present.”

At least 30 cities and states had passed anti-marijuana laws by 1937, not a well-known fact today. A fantastic source for just about anything concerning drug legalities, the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy lists many of these local and state ordinances that existed before the landmark 1937 Marijuana Tax Act.

El Paso passed a local ordinance in 1914 banning sale and possession, and by 1915 the state of Texas, under the Food and Drug Act, barred its import for anything other than medical use. “The McMillan Senate Bill amended the anti-narcotic law so as to make unlawful the possession for the purpose of sale of marihuana or other drugs. Marihuana is a Mexican herb and is said to be sold on the Texas-Mexican border," the Austin Texas Statesman wrote in 1923. New Mexico prohibited the “sale, cultivation and importation” of marijuana that same year. By 1931, Texas flat out banned the use of marijuana for any reason.

More from the Schaffer Library archives: “Practically every state west of the Mississippi River prohibited the possession or sale of marihuana during the period 1915 to 1930. Most of them acted by 1930: California (1915), Iowa (1921), Nevada (1923), Washington (1923), Arkansas (1923), Nebraska, (1927) and Wyoming (1929).”

Colorado prohibited possession, cultivation and sale by 1927, and Montana banned it for anything but medical use in 1929. In the East, Maine (1913), Massachusetts (1914), Vermont (1915) and Rhode Island (1918) all barred the use of marijuana without a prescription. New York included marijuana as a habit-forming drug in a “comprehensive anti-narcotics bill” in 1927.

This by no means covers all the states that had passed anti-pot laws, but it gives a good idea of how widespread the mania for prohibition was in the U.S. at the time, and not just for alcohol and cocaine.

The U.S. has a long way to go to alter the minds of those making laws concerning marijuana. One would like to think times have changed and folks have evolved, but if our not-so-ancient history shows us anything, sadly there have been and probably will always be those for whom prohibition seems a great idea.

Preston Peet

Preston Peet

Editor of "Under the Influence, the Disinformation Guide to Drugs," former editor of DrugWar.com, and writer of numerous articles around the globe.