The Agenda That Spurred Hemp’s Prohibition
During the early 1900s hemp was a top agricultural crop in the United States. New machinery made the retting and processing of industrial hemp cheaper and faster then previous methods. Because of its textile uses and economic and medicinal value, the crop was covered in favorable light by mainstream and alternative media.
But hemp and its many uses were not viewed favorably by everyone. At the time, there were a few prominent businessmen and government officials that went to great lengths to see to it that hemp didn’t become a threat to their business and professional interests.
Hemp Threatens The Corporate Interests of Early Industrialists
As plastics, paper, and fuel innovations were being invented with the use of industrial hemp, American industrialists like the Dupont family, John D. Rockerfeller, and newspaper publisher and politician, William Randolph Hearst, viewed hemp-derived products as a threat to their corporate interests. Each with their own agendas, these industrialists, along with Harry Anslinger—the first commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and former Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon—played a significant role in the prohibition of hemp in the U.S.
A major piece of the hemp prohibition puzzle stems from an innovation by Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Corporation. In the 1930s, scientists at Ford experimented with creating biomass fuels from extracted materials of the hemp plant. Cars fueled by hemp. It was an ingenious concept, but one that never had a chance to be proven successful.
At the time, DuPont, a petrochemical company, produced gasoline additives and was in partnership with General Motors—a direct Ford competitor. Ford’s hemp-derived biofuels were a threat to the market share of DuPont’s own biofuel line. DuPont also viewed hemp as a competitor to their pesticide and herbicide enterprise. Cotton farmers cultivating large-scale cotton crops (a hemp fabric competitor) used DuPont’s pesticides and herbicides in abundance. Hemp, as a fiber source, was also a competitive hindrance to DuPont’s synthetic line of textiles, which included nylon, rayon, and other cellulose-based products.
William Randolph Hearst, prominent newspaper tycoon and politician, owned dozens of newspapers and magazines from California to New York during the early 20thcentury. In addition to his publishing enterprise, he was well invested in timber operations and paper mills. Since hemp is a reliable resource for paper production, Hearst had it out for industrial hemp because it was a cost-efficient alternative to paper produced from timber. It’s also been noted that Hearst’s companies utilized DuPont products to preserve the timber paper used for newspapers.
Two industrialists now had major financial reason to cut down the hemp threat.
Harry Anslinger Initiates the War on Drugs
After Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1929 he appointed Andrew Mellon—owner of the then banking powerhouse Mellon Banks—as Secretary of Treasury. Mellon Banks had investments in many petrochemical companies at the time, including DuPont. In 1932, Mellon appointed his niece’s husband, Harry Anslinger as the commissioner of the Treasury Department’s F.B.N.—a branch of government that would evolve into today’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
With the prohibition on alcohol coming to end following Anslinger appointment, scholars believe he looked to make his own mark in his new position. He knew maintaining prohibition on cocaine and heroine wasn’t enough. He made it his mission to outlaw all drugs in the U.S.—including cannabis. Many say President Nixon created the War on Drugs, but Anslinger certainly had his hand in initiating that movement decades earlier.
Anslinger needed a justification to target cannabis (and subsequently industrial hemp) and DuPont, Rockerfeller, and Hearst gave them a reason, their support, and financial backing.
The “Bad Boys of Hemp” Influence American Perception
It’s noted these “Bad Boys of Hemp” congregated to discuss a strategy to swing public perception against cannabis. With Hearst’s influence in media, the group used sensationalism and propaganda (or fake news, as we know it today) as a means to jump start the criminalization of cannabis in the U.S. Stories were published nationwide about the crazed, maniacal, and maddening effects cannabis had on those who used the plant. Newspaper articles targeted cannabis’ influence in many aspects of culture including morality, crime, sex, and education. Harry Anslinger is quoted as saying, “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” He also said, “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
Magazine and newspaper articles and radio announcements also used prejudice and racial framing to taint the perception of cannabis. It’s been studied that Hearst was prejudice against Mexicans after losing close to a million acres of timber property to Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Anslinger warned American citizens that, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
As widespread fear of immigrants ensued during the Great Depression the sensationalized articles had an effect on Americans’ thought processes. The sad part is many American citizens began to believe the narrative, because at the time they had no reason not to trust the media or journalism.
Furthering the Bad Boys cause, the exploitation film Reefer Madness of 1936 pushed the anti-cannabis agenda to its peak. The film chronicled the hysteria that ensues when a group of high school students are peer pressured into trying marijuana. If you haven’t seen the film, view a few minutes on YouTube—if for nothing else than a good laugh.
Not long after Reefer Madness and similar films were released, Congress passed the infamous Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively heavily taxed and applied strict penalties for the use and sale of cannabis of all types, including industrial hemp. These taxes and penalties deterred companies in the industrial hemp market from continuing business. Medical practitioners of the time strongly opposed these taxes as it limited their ability to sell and prescribe cannabis products for health purposes. Unfortunately, their pleas and arguments in court went unheard.
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was designed to stop the recreational use of marijuana, but industrial hemp became associated with the new legislation. In slow but steady measures hemp and cannabis’ use in the U.S. dwindled as prohibition made its new mark in society.
In our next History of Hemp, we’ll discuss the long road hemp and cannabis have taken to replant their legal place in business and health industries.