Federal Control Of Cannabis, 1906-1920


Social reformers successfully initiated federal restrictions on cannabis along with alcohol, opiates, cocaine, and chloral hydrate in the first decade of this century. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required that any quantity of cannabis, as well as several other dangerous substances, be clearly marked on the label of any drug or food sold to the public.8 Early drafts of federal antinarcotic legislation, which finally emerged as the Harrison Act in 1914, also repeatedly listed the drug along with opiates and cocaine. Cannabis, however, never survived the legislative gauntlet, probably because of the pharmaceutical industry’s opposition. At that time, and for at least a decade longer, the drug trades saw no reason why a substance used chiefly in corn plasters, veterinary medicine, and nonintoxicating medicaments should be so severely restricted. Not even the reformers claimed, in the pre-World War I hearings and debates over a federal antinarcotic act, that cannabis was a problem of any major significance in the United States.

Congress rarely heard any witness defend opiates or cocaine, but during the January 1911 hearings on a federal antinarcotic law before the House Ways and Means Committee, the National Wholesale Druggists’ Association’s representative protested the inclusion of cannabis alongside opiates and cocaine. Charles A. West, chairman of the NWDA legislative committee, testified that cannabis was not what might be called a habit-forming drug. Albert Plaut, representing the New York City pharmaceutical firm of Lehn and Fink, also objected to the inclusion of cannabis: he attributed its reputation more to literary fiction, such as the description of hashish in the Count of Monte Cristo, than to informed opinion. When questioned whether cannabis might be taken by those whose regular supply of opiates or cocaine was restricted, Plaut responded that the effects of cannabis were so different from those of opiates and cocaine that he would not expect an addict to find cannabis attractive.9

The drug industry’s complaints received stern rebuttals, but no one denied that cannabis then constituted a very small part of the drug abuse spectrum. Arguments for including it rested on the belief of such authorities as Lambert, Towns, and Wiley, that the drug was habit forming. One of the most stirring attacks on cannabis came from Towns:

To my mind it is inexcusable for a man to say that there is no habit from the use of that drug. There is no drug in the Pharmacopoeia today that would produce the pleasurable sensations you would get from cannabis, no not one — absolutely not a drug in the Pharmacopoeia today, and of all the drugs on earth I would certainly put that on the list.10

While most spokesmen for the drug trades opposed federal regulation of cannabis, one distinguished member favored its control and most of the other provisions of the new legislation: Dr. William Jay Schieffelin of New York, who moved with the progressive and reform spirit of the era and was therefore somewhat apart from the rank and file of his colleagues in the drug trade. Schieffelin believed that cannabis was “used only to a slight extent in this country,” but he had heard that there was a demand for it in the Syrian colony in New York, where he thought it was smoked like prepared opium. He concluded that the evil was small but that cannabis ought to be included in the bill.11

But cannabis was not included finally, and except for the Pure Food and Drug Act’s provision for labeling, no federal regulatory law was enacted until 1937. Meanwhile the two contrasting attitudes toward cannabis remained pretty much the same — the reformers feared its use; the drug industry felt less concern about possible misuse and opposed its regulation.

Still, complaints about cannabis continued to come to the attention of the federal government. One of the American delegates to the First Hague Conference, Henry Finger, drew particular attention: Californians, especially in San Francisco, were frightened by the “large influx of Hindoos … demanding cannabis indica,” who were initiating “the whites into their habit.” Finger wanted the world traffic in cannabis to be controlled.12 The United States delegation gladly adopted Finger’s goal but did not find the Hague Conference favorably disposed. The best the United States could accomplish was the adoption of a recommendation that other nations look into the character of the drug.13 Agreement that international traffic in cannabis should be regulated did not come until the Second Geneva Convention in 1925.14

Domestic concern over cannabis seemed to originate in the Southwest and to begin increasing after World War I. John M. Parker, governor of Louisiana, and Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of Louisiana’s Board of Health, argued that cannabis also ought to be controlled. Their reaction to marihuana had elements which would become familiar in the 1930s. A white, 21-year-old musician in New Orleans had been arrested for forging a physician’s signature in order to get some “mariguana” imported from Mexico. The musician said the substance was taken to “make you feel good,” but its dangers seemed clear to Dowling and Parker. Dowling warned the governor that marihuana was “a powerful narcotic, causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucinations, and its subsequent actions, drowsiness and stupor.” He also urgently requested of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service that the federal government take “some action” to control the traffic in marihuana.15 On 26 November 1920 Governor Parker wrote to Prohibition Commissioner John F. Kramer that “two people were killed a few days ago by the smoking of this drug, which seems to make them go crazy and wild,” and he expressed his surprise that there were no restrictions against marihuana. But the trouble the government was already having with enforcing the Harrison Act did not encourage the bureau to take on the policing of more drugs.