The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States

The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States

The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States, by Richard J. Bonnie and Charles H. Whitebread II (1999, Lindesmith Center Press, 368 pp.)

I don’t customarily review books that aren’t hot off the presses, and The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States is even older than that 1999 publication date above, considerably so. In fact, it was originally published by the University of Virginia Press in 1974, back when Richard Nixon was still president. But we got our hands on a bunch of copies of it that we intend to share with our supporters, so I thought I would take a look.

I’m glad I did. Although I consider myself fairly well-read on the topic of marijuana law reform, I came away with a refreshed appreciation for the tumultuous social currents and historical happenstance that forged pot prohibition in the first place, the role of race and class, the opinion-shaping power of early media and political opportunists, and the bureaucratic maneuvering that enabled Harry Anslinger to shepherd the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act into law, enacting for the first time a federal ban on marijuana.

This is a foundational text for serious scholarship about the making of marijuana policy in America. Bonnie and Whitebread were University of Virginia law professors, and Bonnie had just finished a stint as Assistant Director of the Shafer Commission, which had been appointed by Nixon to examine the nation’s drug policies (and ignored by him when he didn’t like what it had to say). The Marijuana Conviction first took form as an appendix to the commission report in 1972, and Bonnie and Whitbread spent the next year or so expanding and revising it into its published form.

We’re talking primary documents here. Departmental memoranda from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, congressional testimony, state legislative hearings, and the like. It may sound dry, but it will be deeply fascinating and thought-provoking for serious marijuana policy wonks and even just pot history buffs.

And it’s not all dusty documents. There is detailed social and cultural history, and there are extensive references to the lurid and outlandish press coverage of murderous marijuana maniacs and the campaign that percolated up from the states to criminalize the demon weed.

For that was the original charge against marijuana: It will enslave you, it will drive you to commit horrible crimes, and it will drive you insane. Bonnie and Whitebread devote much space to describing how such a view of marijuana emerged, and they tie it squarely to attitudes toward racial outsiders — first the Chinese and the opium laws, then the Mexicans and blacks with the marijuana laws.

It doesn’t paint a very appealing picture of American political decision-makers, whether it’s lawmakers in Montana laughing as they voted to outlaw marijuana after testimony that consisted of a joking anecdote about how after Mexicans smoked it, they thought they were the Emperor of Mexico and wanted to assassinate their political enemies, or bureaucrats in Washington — and not just Anslinger — who deliberately covered up or suppressed information that didn’t fit the emerging “marijuana menace” consensus.

It does, however, provide fascinating insight on the back-and-forth, both between Washington and the states and among the competing bureaucratic and political interests in Washington as that consensus concretized in harsh state and federal laws against marijuana.

But reading The Marijuana Conviction now, nearly four decades after the fact, leaves one feeling appalled and frustrated, too. Because not only do Bonnie and Whitebread describe the prohibitionist marijuana consensus — that pot is addictive, criminogenic, and psychosis-inducing — of the 1920s and 1930s, they also describe its disintegration in the 1960s. Of course, that consensus only crumbled when marijuana use spread to middle- and upper-class white youth, provoking not only the concern of well-placed parents, but also the interest of scientists and researchers who were just unable to find all of those pot-addled, blood-stained psychos.

But crumble it did. Almost a half century ago, the supposed scientific and medical basis for marijuana prohibition was exposed for the sham it was. At the time, Bonnie and Whitebread were too cautious, too professorial, to call for immediate “regulation” instead of prohibition. But as a first step, they demanded, at an absolute minimum, decriminalization.

In the decade in which they wrote, the reform impetus flourished, and 11 states actually did decriminalize. But since then, progress stalled, then came to a screeching halt during the Reaganoid dark ages of “Just Say No” and “This is your brain on drugs.” It is only in about the last 15 years that the marijuana reform movement has begun moving forward again, now with ever increasing momentum.

But even with all that’s gone on since the groundbreaking passage of Proposition 215 in California in 1996, marijuana is still illegal. The number of states that have even decriminalized is still in the teens, and while Bonnie and Whitebread waxed indignant about 250,000 people being arrested for pot each year, that number is now north of 800,000.

The Marijuana Conviction can’t tell us how we can get out of this mess, although a close reading should yield some insights, but it certainly and artfully shows how we got into it. This is a must-have for any serious student of marijuana’s bookshelf.

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  • Tom McM

    Why in the world is this book almost $100?! Is it because of the subject matter?

  • Lunarcat

    Wasn’t it in 1938 that Orsen Wells did his famous radio show on the Martians invading earth & the people at that time panicked?  Wasn’t this the time period of the Great Depression caused in part because people panicked & starting withdrawing their monies out of the banks?  So it must have been pretty easy back then to whip people up in a frenzy over a plant that blacks & Mexicans used, & never hurt anybody because of it,  because I have heard people justify racism with biblical quotes.  And because those at the top are receiving graft from various lobbyists who don’t want the competition of marijuana it remains illegal.  Thanks Great Great Granddaddy & Grandma.  Nice legacy.