Reefer Madness Flashback: How One Article Shaped Modern Prohibition

A 1933 article about marijuana published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology explains a lot about why, in 2015, marijuana’s legalization is underway in the United States.

Marihuana,” one would learn from this article, makes people violently insane when they aren’t lost in thought in comfortable chairs or wandering around Kansas thinking they are elephants. The article by M. H. Hayes (from Friends’ University in Wichita, Kansas) and L.E. Bowery (a member of the Wichita Police Department) is simply titled “Marihuana,” and its widespread influence in the 1930s is discussed by Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread in their classic history of marijuana prohibition, “The Marijuana Conviction.”

Marijuana legalization is underway today because society has a much more scientific and accurate understanding of cannabis, mainly because people don’t rely on police officers as their primary sources of information about it.

It is tempting, when revisiting an influential article such as this, to dwell on the motivation of its authors. But that’s a matter of speculation.

Assume, for the moment, that they meant well and made a good faith attempt to be accurate and truthful… start here, at least, merely as part of the critical thinking process.  Even with this generous perspective, what stands out about an article such as this is just how wrong and ignorant it seems given contemporary scientific knowledge. This is important to understanding how many of the same arguments are still being made today—in support of the same laws and policies supported when prohibition was enacted.

Marijuana, according to Hayes and Bowery, produces exhilaration and pleasure along with a distorted perception of time. They claimed the drug has anesthetic properties, causes a rapid pulse rate, slows respiration, puts people to sleep and possibly causes an increase in sexual desire.

According to the article, Mary Warner, called by users who could not pronounce the Mexican name “Marihuana,” has three stages of effects. The first state consists of coughing, because the smoke is an irritant to the lungs. The second stage produces exhilaration because of the effect on the higher nervous centers. Fear and fatigue are suppressed, and there is a great feeling of well-being and strength as control over emotions is lowered. The user “may commence to boast, shout or dance.” The third stage consists of depression, along with numbness and a “staggering gait” and “always ends in a profound sleep.”

This much of what Hayes and Bowery report is reasonably accurate with scientific knowledge, though specific cannabinoid levels have a lot to do with variations from this very general profile.

Hayes and Bowery get it wrong, though, when they delve into further detail of what happens in that second stage. This is where hysteria and fantasy appear to take over.

Consider this comment, for example, “Any contradiction or restraint now offered may excite a state of frenzy leading to actions of uncontrollable violence or even murder.”

Or this, attributed to a Los Angeles Police Detective, “Numerous assaults have been made upon officers and citizens with intent to kill by Marihuana addicts which were directly traceable to the influence of Marihuana.”

Hayes and Bowery also reported that during this second stage of effects that “sexual desires are stimulated and may lead to unnatural acts, such as indecent exposure and rape.”

Here is where the elephant story is presented, attributed to a Chicago newspaper account from 1926.

“A Kansas hasheesh eater thinks he is a white elephant… they found him strolling along a road… naked, his clothing strewn along the highway for a mile… not violently insane, but crazy – said he was an elephant and acted as much like one as his limited physique would let him.  Marijuana did it.”

Perhaps a more realistic account comes from a case study reported in the article from an individual identified as “A” about the sensations produced by marihuana use.

“I hardly know how to explain it to you, but it was just like going to a big party, and having a wonderful time for two or three hours, and waking up to find that you were still at home sitting in your chair.” The case study continues: “He said that he had great thoughts, and was unable to concentrate on any one thing.”

There is a great contradiction in the reported effects. On one hand, criminals use marijuana before starting an enterprise because “they lose all sense of fear.” On the other hand marijuana produces “hallucinations of sight and hearing,” “beautiful sights or moving pictures, or trees, or people dancing or running, surrounded by beautiful colors… others say… they hear musical voices or delightful sounds.”

So which is it? Steel nerved criminals or “meditatively gazing into vacancy”?  In any event, chronic use is reported as causing “Cannabinomania,” leading to a loss of mental activity like “chronic alcoholics or opium eaters.”

Marijuana, according to Hayes and Bowery, was brought to the United States by Mexicans and was now (in 1933) found growing in “practically every state in the Union—in fact wherever Mexicans are located.” They reported that in Kansas it is mostly “native whites” using the drug, its use was spreading to school children and that “youths were using Marihuana in place of liquor, due to its lower cost.”

At this time, just about the end of alcohol prohibition, enough “Mary Warner” for four cigarettes cost about 25 cents and would produce “a form of intoxication greater than that obtained from a pint of whiskey,” costing anywhere from a dollar to a dollar and a half.  Also, marihuana was preferred by youths because, despite the dramatic effects reported above, its use was easier to hide from parents “due to the absence of odor.”

Another cause for alarm, though, was that in Kansas “the habit has recently spread among the negroes and that they are known to be trafficking in it.

The stories about marijuana use may have changed, but their reliance on ignorance and hysteria rather than science, medical and social, remains constant. This 1933 article presented an argument that has been made over and over again throughout the last 80 years and is still presented today. Marihuana must be subject to criminal penalties to stop its use.

“The rapid spread of this habit among young people throughout the country and the inability of officers and courts to stamp it out under present inadequate laws, together with the damage both to the individual and to society resulting from its use, makes it imperative that some action be taken, and that expeditiously.”

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