America's Love-Hate History with Pot

This story was written by Charles Cooper and Declan McCullagh as part of a new special report on the evolving debate over marijuana legalization in the U.S. Click here for more of the series, Marijuana Nation: The New War Over Weed

Norm Stamper still remembers the day, nearly six decades ago, when a police detective visited his elementary school class to warn of the dangers of smoking the "devil weed."

"That was the term he used -- and he even brought along a bag of marijuana to show us," said Stamper, 65, who would later become Seattle's police chief. "I remember him saying something to the effect that, 'If you smoke this, it will rot the membrane in your nose.' He was an authority figure, and so I figured he could tell me something about the dangers of this drug. That was my early education about marijuana."

By today's standards, such a warning might sound as dated as the bug-eyed, morally-depraved pot fiends portrayed in the 1936 movie Reefer Madness.

But it was in line with the prevailing view of the 1950s, which considered marijuana to be not just a dangerous drug, but a stepping stone to the use of heroin or even more dangerous controlled substances. In 1979, 27 percent of Americans favored legalization, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll at the time.

A new CBS News poll released today finds that more Americans now support legalization. Forty-one percent said they think marijuana should be made legal and 52 percent are opposed. That's even more than in a CBS News poll in March when 31 percent said they were in favor of legalization in all cases with another seven percent saying they would favor legalization if marijuana were taxed and the money went to projects. (Read more from the poll.)

"They told us that marijuana was a gateway drug," said Stamper, who these days is a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "It was not."

The story of how a child of the post-war era came to doubt, and then reject, conventional wisdom about the horrors of the "devil weed" parallels the story about how the rest of America has gradually rethought its views of marijuana. The transformation has been intertwined with the rise of the Baby Boom generation and its successors, the societal upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, and a generational shift that chipped away at long-held assumptions about trust and authority.

Today the potent smell of marijuana legalization is in the air. States including California and New Mexico -- and, as of mid-June, Rhode Island -- already permit marijuana's use for medicinal purposes. The success of those initiatives, coupled with an economic downturn, a president who did inhale and governors who are willing to discuss complete legalization, make it seem possible that legal bans on recreational use of marijuana will, in the not-so-distant future, go up in smoke.

Smoke or Fire: How Pot Got Banned

By historical standards, today's federal ban on possession of marijuana may eventually be viewed as something of an aberration. There's evidence that the intoxicating properties of cannabis were known to Chinese physicians about 2,000 years ago. And for the first few hundred years after colonies were established on Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, the possession of intoxicants was not forbidden.

That began to change about 100 years ago. In response to worries about opium addicts, the International Opium Convention was held in 1909, which led to a drug-control treaty signed three years later by the major nations at the time, including the United States.

The domestic political debate over opiates had unmistakable racist overtones. A 1914 headline in the New York Times said "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are A New Southern Menace; Murder And Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken To 'Sniffing' Since Deprived Of Whisky By Prohibition." Another article about a black man who was lynched refers to him as a "cocaine fiend"; another says that "opium, the most pernicious drug known to humanity, is surrounded, in this country, with far fewer safeguards than any nation in all Europe fences it with."

Congress enacted a law known as the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, which regulated cocaine and opiates. Because that era coincided with a robust view of states' rights, the federal law did not seek to prohibit the private possession of pot directly. Such a measure probably would have experienced a swift demise at the hands of the judicial system at the time. So the Harrison Act's drafters took a more circuitous approach: they imposed stiff taxes.

Cannabis was believed to be a narcotic having practically the same effect as morphine and cocaine, and state restrictions began sprouting like weeds.

Some western states seem to have restricted it out of hostility to Mexican immigrants; a Chicago Tribune article from 1919 called cannabis "a weed of the Mexican desert." During the debate on Texas' first marijuana law, The Legal War Over the Weed One year after the filming of "Reefer Madness," Congress enacted a law restricting the use of marijuana, cannabis or hemp. While it was a tax bill that did not officially ban pot, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first step toward a complete federal prohibition. (note: "Marihuana" was the spelling used in 1937)

The net effect of this Prohibition-era provision was to deter -- and stigmatize --recreational use of these substances for more than the next couple of generations. The Marihuana Tax Act is perhaps most remembered for the controversial testimony supporting its passage.

One of its chief proponents, Harry J. Anslinger, then the Commissioner of Narcotics for the Treasury Department, offered testimony depicting marijuana in stark terms.

"Some individuals have a complete loss of sense of time or a sense of value," Anslinger said. "They lose their sense of place. They have an increased feeling of physical strength and power. Some people will fly into a delirious rage and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes... It is dangerous to the mind and body, and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions."

At the time, there were more than two dozen medicinal products on the market which contained marijuana. In the new political climate, replete with warnings from the federal government, they didn't last long.
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