Rising Domestic Fear Of Cannahis, 1920-1934


Fear of cannabis, or marihuana, as it was beginning to be known, was minimal throughout most of the nation in the 1920s. Nevertheless it still concerned the federal government. For example, in the January 1929 authorization of the two narcotic centers for the treatment of addicted federal prisoners, the law specifically defined “habit-forming narcotic drugs” to include “Indian hemp” and made habitual cannabis users, along with opium addicts, eligible for treatment.16 Although there seem to have been few cannabis users transferred to Lexington and Fort Worth, it is significant that congressional worry about cannabis continued after passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and clearly was present before the Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930.

In areas with concentrations of Mexican immigrants, who tended to use marihuana as a drug of entertainment or relaxation, the fear of marihuana was intense. During the 1920s Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, rapidly increased into the region from Louisiana to California and up to Colorado and Utah. Mexicans were useful in the United States as farm laborers and, as the economic boom continued, they traveled to the Midwest and the North where jobs in factories and sugar-beet fields were available.17

Although employers welcomed them in the twenties, Mexicans were also feared as a source of crime and deviant social behavior. As early as 1919 federal officials were reporting that marihuana was a cause of violence among Mexican prisoners in the southwestern states.18 By the mid-twenties horrible crimes were attributed to marihuana and its Mexican purveyors. Legal and medical officers in New Orleans began studies of the evil and within a few years published articles claiming that many of the region’s crimes could be traced to marihuana, for they believed it was a sexual stimulant that removed civilized inhibitions.19 As a result, requests were made to include marihuana in the Harrison Act.

When the Great Depression settled over America, the Mexicans, who had been welcomed by at least a fraction of the communities in which they lived, became an unwelcome surplus in regions devastated by unemployment. Cotton, fruit, and vegetable growers in the Southwest and sugar-beet farmers in Colorado, Michigan, Montana, and the Northwest favored further immigration, but the American Federation of Labor understandably sought strict barriers. Another group that worked energetically for an end to Mexican immigration did so for social reasons, afraid that mixture with an inferior race was causing race suicide. Citizens anxious to preserve what they believed valuable in American life banded together into “Allied Patriotic Societies,” “Key Men of America,” or the group which united many of these associations, the “American Coalition,” whose goal was to keep America American.20 One of the prominent members of the American Coalition, C. M. Goethe of Sacramento, saw marihuana and the problem of Mexican immigrants as closely connected:

Marijuana, perhaps now the most insidious of our narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration. Easily grown, it has been asserted that it has recently been planted between rows in a California penitentiary garden. Mexican peddlers have been caught distributing sample marijuana cigarettes to school children. Bills for our quota against Mexico have been blocked mysteriously in every Congress since the 1924 Quota Act. Our nation has more than enough laborers.21

Southwestern police and prosecuting attorneys likewise protested constantly to the federal government about the Mexicans’ use of the weed.

In 1934 Dr. Walter Bromberg, a respected researcher, informed a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association that some authors had estimated the number of marihuana smokers in the southern states to be one out of four.22 Dr. Bromberg, who did not subscribe to the alarm over marihuana displayed by some writers, nevertheless told of its spread from the South to New York and to other large cities. Although asserting that it was something like alcohol in its effect, nevertheless, on the basis of good physiological and psychological studies of cannabis, he was persuaded that it was “a primary stimulus to the impulsive life with direct expression in the motor field. [It] releases inhibitions and restraints imposed by society and allows individuals to act out their drives openly [and] acts as a sexual stimulant [particularly to] overt homosexuals.”

Dr. Bromberg’s description of marihuana in 1933 differed in quality from the writings, for example, of New Orleans’ Prosecuting Attorney, who in 1931 fearfully portrayed marihuana leading to crime.23 Neither the New Orleans studies, which began at least in the late 1920s, nor Dr. Bromberg’s research can be ascribed to any campaign by the FBN for a federal marihuana law. It is reasonable to assume that in the first few years of the 1930s marihuana was known among police departments and civic leaders, particularly those in association with Mexican immigrants, and even among scientific investigators, as a drug with dangerous possibilities. This situation led naturally to pressure on the federal government to take some action. What was the attitude of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics to the growing concern over marihuana?