How and why industrial hemp was criminalised in the USA in 1937

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Industrial hemp was criminalised in the USA in 1937, under the guise of ‘reefer madness’ and at the encouragement of plastics, oil and forestry industrialists

In 1937, the United States government passed the Marihuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing the cultivation, distribution, and possession of cannabis. The act was introduced under the guise of “Reefer Madness” – a campaign of fear and misinformation aimed at demonizing the plant and those who used it. However, the real motivation behind the criminalisation of cannabis was not public health, but the economic interests of powerful industrialists.

One of the industries most threatened by cannabis was the timber industry. Hemp, a variety of cannabis, had long been used for paper production, and it was cheaper and more sustainable than wood pulp. As a result, the timber industry lobbied for the criminalisation of cannabis to eliminate the competition.

At the same time, the oil and petrochemical industries were also threatened by the rise of hemp. Hemp could be used as a source of fuel, and its fibres could be used to create plastics. In fact, Henry Ford famously built a car in 1941 with a body made from hemp plastic. The car ran on hemp fuel, and Ford believed that hemp could revolutionise the entire manufacturing industry.

However, the potential of hemp posed a threat to the established petroleum industry, and they also lobbied for the criminalisation of cannabis.

Big pharma benefits from cannabis and hemp criminalisation

The pharmaceutical industry also had a vested interest in the criminalisation of cannabis. In the early 1900s, cannabis was widely used as a medicine for a variety of ailments. However, as the pharmaceutical industry began to develop synthetic drugs, they saw cannabis as a threat to their profits. They lobbied for the criminalisation of cannabis and worked to promote their own synthetic drugs instead.

All of these industries had one thing in common – they were threatened by the rise of hemp as a cheaper, more sustainable, and more versatile alternative. By demonising cannabis and criminalising its use, they could eliminate the natural competition and increase their stranglehold on the economy.

Reefer Madness poster and, yes, the propaganda film is as shitty as it looks.

The Reefer Madness campaign was a key part of this strategy. The campaign spread fear and misinformation about cannabis, portraying it as a dangerous drug that would lead to madness, violence, and sexual promiscuity. The campaign was supported by powerful media moguls such as William Randolph Hearst, who owned a large stake in the timber industry and was concerned about the threat posed by hemp.

The campaign was successful in shaping public opinion and creating a moral panic around cannabis. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, effectively criminalising cannabis and hemp (which are genetically the same, but have been bred by humans for different purposes, and with entirely different traits) and paving the way for decades of harsh drug laws and mass incarceration.

Today, we know that the Reefer Madness campaign was built on lies and misinformation. Cannabis is not a dangerous drug, and it has many therapeutic benefits. In fact, cannabis has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Racist victimisation

Moreover, the criminalisation of cannabis has had devastating consequences. It has led to mass incarceration, particularly of Black and brown communities, and has perpetuated systemic racism and inequality. It has also stifled innovation and prevented the development of more sustainable and eco-friendly industries.

The truth will set us free

It’s time to recognize the truth about the criminalisation of cannabis. It was never about public health or safety – it was about protecting the profits of powerful industries. As we move forward, we must work to undo the damage caused by decades of prohibition and create a more just and sustainable future.

Learn more

Wikipedia on hemp prohibition.

Read Jack Herer’s book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes on Wikimedia Commons.

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By Gary Byrnes

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