77 years later, here comes pot
February 23, 2014
In 1936, the editor of a newspaper in Alamosa, Colo., wrote a letter to Henry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the federal government's Bureau of Narcotics. The letter, introduced as evidence into a congressional hearing, informed Anslinger about a "sex-mad degenerate" who had recently "brutally attacked a young Alamosa girl" while under the influence of "marihuana," as it was then spelled.
"This case is one of hundreds of murders, rapes, petty crimes, [and] insanity that has occurred in southern Colorado in recent years," proclaimed Floyd K. Baskette, city editor of the Alamosa Daily Courier. "Can you do anything to help us?" And then this nasty bit of racism: "I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents."
The next year, the U.S. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which subjected sales of cannabis to taxation that required a permit. Soon after, a 23-year-old from Trinidad, Colo., named Moses Baca became the first person arrested under the new law. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. The second person nabbed was a 57-year-old laborer, Samuel Caldwell, who was convicted of selling three marijuana cigarettes in downtown Denver. He served two years in prison. So began our long adventure in the criminalization of marijuana.
The federal agency never issued a permit under that legislation, and in 1970, Congress defined marijuana as a controlled substance, further giving muscle to eradication efforts in 1973 by creating the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Now, of course, 20 states and the District of Columbia have allowed some use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and in Colorado and Washington state, the federal government has chosen to ignore recreational use as long as the two states block sales to young people and control by cartels.
Figuring out how to govern this new use has been a fascinating challenge for Colorado during the last year. Many towns want nothing to do with marijuana; others embrace sales, and the taxes they generate. One ski town, Breckenridge, even expects to get $1 million in taxes this year. Most sales seem to be to tourists.
Denver fussed at length whether residents should even be able to smoke 420 — that seems to be the name preferred by younger people — on their own patios and porches. The answer, finally, was yes. But unlike liquor, there are no bars for cannabis in Colorado that I'm aware of.
I never particularly liked how marijuana affected me. I tended toward paranoia. Was that Johnny Carson on the TV making fun of me? Nor do I like how it affects others. It dulls, not sharpens. As with alcohol, the trick is moderation. Some do it better than others.
In voting for legalization, I hoped it would change the supply chain. The underground economy made cannabis lucrative, spawning mass murders in Mexico. In a sense, I voted for the psychoactive equivalent of the local food movement: Grow it local, smoke it local.
"Prohibition Ends," proclaimed The Telluride Watch in the first days of January. Could this have turned out otherwise? Our sitting president, Barack Obama, openly admitted to smoking pot. George W. Bush deflected questions about drug use, saying: "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." Bill Clinton, of course, responsibly chose not to inhale.
When I think of the past, what I find most interesting — and disturbing — was the logic we used to prohibit marijuana. It was the stuff of do-gooders. Various histories of the drug war point out that reformers associated marijuana with jazz musicians and others on the racial, economic and cultural margins of the American mainstream. By the 1960s, pot was linked to the "tune in, turn on, drop out" culture of rebellion. Tainted by these associations, the drug could then be targeted as a villainous erosion of American values, even safe society.
The letter from Alamosa in 1936 points not just to the pervasive racism of the time, but also to confusion about causality. According to that newspaper editor, back then, you could blame marijuana for sexual assault and even murder.
The American Medical Association in 1937 wanted more evidence before it agreed that marijuana should be banned, but Congress was in a rush. Evidence such as the letter from Colorado was enough. The 77-year lesson here is that it doesn't take leafy, herbaceous substances to make people muddleheaded. Even when we're stone-cold sober, we're fully capable of making stupid choices.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He publishes an e-zine from the Denver area called Mountain Town News (mountaintownnews.net).