By Steven Wishnia
Scratch a pothead and ask them why marijuana is outlawed, and there's a good chance you'll get some version of the "hemp conspiracy" theory. Federal pot prohibition, the story goes, resulted from a plot by the Hearst and DuPont business empires to squelch hemp as a possible competitor to wood-pulp paper and nylon. These allegations can be found anywhere from Wikipedia entries on William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont Company to comments on pot-related articles published here on AlterNet. And these allegations are virtually unchallenged; many people fervently believe in the hemp conspiracy, even though the evidence to back it up vaporizes under even minimal scrutiny.
You could make a stronger case for Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy; Oswald at least left a not-quite-smoking gun at the scene.
Pot activist Jack Herer's book The Emperor Wears No Clothes is the prime source for the hemp-conspiracy theory. It alleges that in the mid-1930s, "when the new mechanical hemp fiber stripping machines to conserve hemp's high-cellulose pulp finally became state of the art, available and affordable," Hearst, with enormous holdings in timber acreage and investments in paper manufacturing, "stood to lose billions of dollars and perhaps go bankrupt." Meanwhile, DuPont in 1937 had just patented nylon and "a new sulfate/sulfite process for making paper from wood pulp" -- so "if hemp had not been made illegal, 80 percent of DuPont's business would never have materialized."
Herer, a somewhat cantankerous former marijuana-pipe salesman, deserves a lot of credit for his cannabis activism. He was a dedicated grass-roots agitator for pot legalization during the late 1980s, perhaps the most herb-hostile time in recent history. Despite a substantial stroke in 2001, he soldiers on; he's currently campaigning to get a cannabis-legalization initiative on the ballot in Santa Barbara, California. The Emperor -- an omnivorous conglomeration of newspaper clippings and historical documents about hemp and marijuana, held together by Herer's cannabis evangelism and fiery screeds against prohibition -- has been a bible for many pot activists. Unearthing a 1916 Department of Agriculture bulletin about hemp paper and a World War II short film that exhorted American farmers to grow "Hemp for Victory," Herer more than anyone else revived the idea that the cannabis plant was useful for purposes besides getting high. Unfortunately, he's completely wrong on this particular issue. The evidence for a "hemp conspiracy" just doesn't stand up. It is far more likely that marijuana was outlawed because of racism and cultural warfare.
How marijuana was prohibited
Twentieth-century cannabis prohibition first reared its head in countries where white minorities ruled black majorities: South Africa, where it's known as dagga, banned it in 1911, and Jamaica, then a British colony, outlawed ganja in 1913. They were followed by Canada, Britain and New Zealand, which added cannabis to their lists of illegal narcotics in the 1920s. Canada's pot law was enacted in 1923, several years before there were any reports of people actually smoking it there. It was largely the brainchild of Emily F. Murphy, a feminist but racist judge who wrote anti-Asian, anti-marijuana rants under the pseudonym "Janey Canuck."
In the United States, marijuana prohibition began partly as a throw-in on laws restricting opiates and cocaine to prescription-only use, and partly in Southern and Western states and cities where blacks and Mexican immigrants were smoking it. Missouri outlawed opium and hashish dens in 1889, but did not actually prohibit cannabis until 1935. Massachusetts began restricting cannabis in its 1911 pharmacy law, and three other New England states followed in the next seven years.
California's 1913 narcotics law banned possession of cannabis preparations -- which California NORML head Dale Gieringer believes was a legal error, that the provision was intended to parallel those affecting opium, morphine and cocaine. The law was amended in 1915 to ban the sale of cannabis without a prescription. "Thus hemp pharmaceuticals remained technically legal to sell, but not possess, on prescription!" Gieringer wrote in The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California. "There are no grounds to believe that this prohibition was ever enforced, as hemp drugs continued to be prescribed in California for years to come." In 1928, the state began requiring hemp farmers to notify law enforcement about their crops.
New York City made cannabis prescription-only in 1914, part to pre-empt users of over-the-counter opium, morphine and cocaine medicines from switching to cannabis preparations, but with allusions to hashish use by Middle Eastern immigrants. In the West and Southwest, anti-Mexican sentiment quickly came into play. California's first marijuana arrests came in a Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1914, according to Gieringer, and the Los Angeles Times said "sinister legends of murder, suicide and disaster" surrounded the drug. The city of El Paso, Texas, outlawed reefer in 1915, two years after a Mexican thug, "allegedly crazed by habitual marijuana use," killed a cop. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, 30 states had some form of pot law.
The campaign against cannabis heated up after Repeal. "I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents," a Colorado newspaper editor wrote in 1936. "The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a DEADLY DRUG, and American children must be PROTECTED AGAINST IT," the Hearst newspapers editorialized.
Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed the charge. "If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana, he would drop dead of fright," he thundered in 1937.
An ambitious racist (a 1934 memo described an informant as a "ginger-colored nigger") who had previously been federal assistant Prohibition commissioner, Anslinger railed against reefer in magazine articles like 1937's "Marihuana: Assassin of Youth." It featured gory stories like that of Victor Licata, a once "sane, rather quiet young man" from Tampa, Fla., who'd killed his family with an axe in 1933, after becoming "pitifully crazed" from smoking "muggles." (Actually, the Tampa police had tried to have Licata committed to a mental hospital before he started smoking pot.)
Anslinger's other theme was that white girls would be ruined once they'd experienced the lurid pleasures of having a black man's joint in their mouth. "Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution," he noted. "Result, pregnancy."
In 1937, after a very cursory debate, Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act, levying a prohibitive $100-an-ounce tax on cannabis. "I believe in some cases one cigarette might develop a homicidal mania," Anslinger testified in a hearing on the bill.
The case against the "hemp conspiracy"
The hemp-conspiracy theory blames that law on Hearst and DuPont's plot to suppress hemp paper and cloth. The theory is that the invention of a hemp processor known as the "decorticator" made it easier, faster and much more cost-effective to extract hemp fiber from the stalks. In February 1938, Popular Mechanics hailed hemp as the "New Billion Dollar Crop." In response, Hearst and DuPont, scared by the prospect of hemp's resurrection as a competitor for their products, schemed to eliminate the plant.
However, The Emperor makes only three specific claims to support that theory. One is the anti-marijuana propagandizing of the Hearst newspapers. Second, it claims that Anslinger's anti-pot crusade was on behalf of Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon, who supposedly was DuPont's "chief financial backer," lending the company the funds it needed to purchase General Motors in the 1920s. And finally, The Emperor argues that DuPont anticipated the Marihuana Tax Act in its 1937 annual report, which worried that the company's future was "clouded with uncertainties" -- specifically about "the extent to which the revenue-raising power of government may be converted into an instrument for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganization."
None of these claims stand up.
Claim 1: Hearst the propagandist
According to W.A. Swanberg's extensive biography Citizen Hearst, the Hearst chain was actually the nation's largest purchaser of newsprint -- and when the price rose from $40 a ton to over $50 in the late 1930s, he fell so deep in debt to Canadian paper producers and banks that he had to sell his prized art collection to avert foreclosure. "It therefore seems that it would have been in Hearst's interest to promote cheap hemp paper substitutes, had that been a viable alternative," Dale Gieringer wrote in his article, calling the hemp-conspiracy theory "fanciful" and a "myth."
In any case, the Hearst papers never needed hidden self-interest to trumpet fiendish menaces. The expression "yellow journalism" comes from Hearst's campaign for a war against Spain in 1898. And from the 1930s on, his papers were finding RED SUBVERSIVES and PINKO FELLOW-TRAVELERS under every bed. In 1935, a University of Chicago professor accused of being a Communist by the Hearst-owned Herald-Examiner told the Nation that the reporter covering him had admitted, "We do just what the Old Man orders. One week he orders a campaign against rats. The next week he orders a campaign against dope peddlers. Pretty soon he's going to campaign against college professors. It's all the bunk, but orders are orders."
Claim 2: The Anslinger-DuPont Connection
There was an Anslinger-Mellon connection. Anslinger was appointed to head the Bureau of Narcotics by Andrew Mellon, his wife's uncle, who was treasury secretary in the Herbert Hoover administration. However, it's unlikely that DuPont needed to borrow money to buy GM in the 1920s, as the company had done very well as the leading manufacturer of explosives for the Allied forces during World War I.
Historians find no evidence of a DuPont-Mellon connection either. "General Motors was historically associated with the Morgan group during that period," Mark Mizruchi, a professor of sociology and business administration at the University of Michigan, told me in an email interview in 2003. Sociologist G. William Domhoff of the University of California at Santa Cruz, author of Who Rules America?, concurred, saying it was safe to state there was no connection. And in the 440-page tome considered the definitive account of American banking and corporate finance during the Depression era, Mizruchi added, Japanese historian Tian Kang Go does not mention "even the smallest financial connection between DuPont and Mellon."
Claim 3: Dubious DuPont claims
The argument that DuPont's 1937 complaint about federal taxes had anything to do with hemp is an extremely dubious stretch. If the company had been talking about the government eliminating a competitor by levying a prohibitive tax, it wouldn't have been worrying about the uncertainty of foreseeing new federal imposts. It would have been celebrating its newly cleared path. Given the context of the times, it's almost certain that this statement was merely typical 1930s corporate-class whining about the New Deal's social programs and business regulations -- akin to current corporate-class complaints about government "social engineering."
Prohibition's racist history
The belief that marijuana prohibition came about because of the secret machinations of an economic cabal ignores the pattern of every drug-law crusade in American history. From the 19th-century campaigns against opium and alcohol to the crack panic of the 1980s, they have all been fueled by racism and cultural war, conflated with fear of crime and occasionally abetted by well-intentioned reform impulses. (The financial self-interest of the prison-industrial complex has been a more recent development.) The first drug-prohibition laws in the United States were opium bans aimed at Chinese immigrants. San Francisco outlawed opium in 1875, and the state of California followed six years later. In 1886, an Oregon judge ruled that the state's opium prohibition was constitutional even if it proceeded "more from a desire to vex and annoy the 'Heathen Chinee'… than to protect the people from the evil habit," notes Doris Marie Provine in Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. In How the Other Half Lives, journalist Jacob Riis wrote of opium-addicted white prostitutes seduced by the "cruel cunning" of Chinese men.
The path to the 1914 federal narcotics law that limited cocaine and opioids to medical use -- and was almost immediately interpreted as prescribing narcotics to addicts -- was more complex. The main rationale was ending the over-the-counter sale of patent medicines such as heroin cough syrup, but there was a definite racist streak among advocates for controlling cocaine. "Cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes," Hamilton Wright, the hard-drinking doctor-turned-diplomat who spearheaded the first major multinational drug-control agreements, told Congress. In 1914, Dr. Edward Huntington Williams opined in the New York Times Magazine that "once the negro has formed the habit, he is irreclaimable. The only method to keep him from taking the drug is by imprisoning him."
The movement to prohibit alcohol was part puritanical, part racist. In the big cities, it was anti-immigrant. Bishop James Cannon of the Anti-Saloon League in 1928 denounced Italians, Poles and Russian Jews as "the kind of dirty people that you find today on the sidewalks of New York," while in 1923, Imogen Oakley of the General Federation of Women's Clubs described the Irish, Germans, and others as "insoluble lumps of unassimilated and unassimilable peoples … 'wet' by heredity and habit." In the South, it was anti-black. "The disenfranchisement of Negroes is the heart of the movement in Georgia and throughout the South for the Prohibition of the liquor traffic," Georgia prohibitionist A.J. McKelway wrote in 1907. "Liquor will actually make a brute out of a negro, causing him to commit unnatural crimes," Alabama Rep. Richmond P. Hobson told Congress in 1914, a year after he'd sponsored the first federal Prohibition bill. (He said it had the same effect on white men, but took longer because they were "further evolved.")
Prohibitionism was an early example of fundamentalist Christians' political strength. The midpoint of William Jennings Bryan's odyssey from the prairie populist of 1896 to the evolution foe of 1925 was his endorsement of Prohibition in 1910. The rural puritans were abetted by middle-class do-gooders who, when they saw a slum-dwelling factory hand come home drunk and beat his wife, would blame the saloon instead of the pressures of capitalist exploitation or the license of misogyny. And many industrial employers, including DuPont's gunpowder division, demanded abstinent workers. World War I's austerity was the final piece of the puzzle.
Prohibitionists played key roles in the campaign to outlaw cannabis. Harry Anslinger had been so hardline that he advocated prosecuting individual users for possession of alcohol. (Federal Prohibition, unlike the current marijuana laws, only banned sales, allowed personal possession and limited home brewing, and had an exemption for medical use.) Richmond P. Hobson, who crusaded against drugs in the 1920s as head of the World Narcotic Defense Association, was an early advocate of marijuana prohibition. In 1931, he told the federal Wickersham Commission that marijuana used in excess "motivates the most atrocious acts." And in early 1936, the General Federation of Women's Clubs joined Anslinger's campaign to make reefers verboten.
In a country that was puritanical and racist enough in 1919 to outlaw alcohol in 1919, forbidding cannabis was politically very easy. Alcohol had been the most pervasive recreational drug in the Western world for millennia. Marijuana was virtually unknown. And though Prohibitionists -- like the immigration laws of the 1920s, the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and the 1928 presidential campaign against Irish Catholic Democrat Al Smith -- demonized whiskey-sodden Micks, wine-soaked wops, traitorous beer-swilling Krauts and liquor-selling Jew shopkeepers, at least those people were sort of white. Marijuana was used mainly by Mexican immigrants and African-Americans.
The Nixon-era escalation of the war on drugs was one of the few times in U.S. history when white users were a prime target, as marijuana and LSD provided legal pretexts to attack the '60s counterculture. Richard Nixon's White House tapes captured him in 1971 growling that "every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish." But Nixon and other law-and-order politicians were most successful when they lumped youthful cultural-political rebellion and black militance with ghetto heroin addiction and the rising crime of the 1970s. New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973 as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was trying to look "tough on crime," were a harbinger of the federal mandatory minimums of the 1980s. The result was that more than 90 percent of the state's drug prisoners are black or Latino.
The crack hysteria of the late 1980s was another example of the fear of dark-skinned demons breeding racially repressive law enforcement. Both federal and many state crack laws were designed to snare street dealers and bottom-level distributors, giving them the same penalties as powder-cocaine wholesalers. The racial results were obvious almost immediately. In overwhelmingly white Minnesota, more than 90 percent of the people convicted of possession of crack in 1988-89 were black. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Attorney's office in Southern California went more than five years without prosecuting a white person for crack.
That pattern still holds: In 2003, 81 percent of the defendants sentenced on crack charges nationwide were black. And law enforcement didn't spare the African-American innocent. In an August 1988 drug raid on an apartment block on Dalton Avenue in South Central Los Angeles, 88 city cops smashed walls and furniture with sledgehammers and axes, beat people with flashlights, and poured bleach on residents' clothes -- and arrested two teenagers who didn't live there on minor drug charges.
Why do people believe it?
Why, then, do so many people believe in the "hemp conspiracy"? First, it's the influence of The Emperor Wears No Clothes; many people inspired to cannabis activism by Jack Herer's hemp-can-save-the-world vision and passionate denunciations of pot prohibition buy into the whole "conspiracy against marijuana" package. Another is that many stoners love a good conspiracy theory; secret cabals are simpler and sexier villains than sociopolitical forces. The conspiracist worldview, a hybrid of the who-really-killed-the-Kennedys suspicions of the '60s left and the Bilderbergs-and-Illuminati demonology of the far right, is especially common in rural areas and among pothead Ron Paul supporters. Most people don't have the historical or political knowledge to dispute a conspiracist flood of detailed half-truths.
Counterculture people who see the evil done by corporations and politicians are often quick to believe that they are thus guilty of anything and everything -- that because the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar, it's therefore indisputable that it killed Bob Marley by giving him boots booby-trapped with a carcinogen-tipped wire. Witness the multitudes who zealously argue that because George W. Bush gained a political advantage from the 9/11 attacks and told a thousand lies to justify the war in Iraq, it's proof that his operatives planted explosives in the World Trade Center and set them off an hour or so after the planes hit.
The Bush administration's attempt to link buying herb to "supporting terrorism" proved more laughable than lasting. Yet the racism-culture war combination is still very potent. Among the 360,000 arrests for marijuana possession in New York City between 1997 and 2006, the decade when mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg turned the city into the nation's pot-bust capital, 84 percent of the people popped were black or Latino, mostly young men. And the oft-cited statistic that there are more black men in prison than in college should be the equivalent of a doctor's warning that the nation has a cholesterol level approaching Jerry Garcia's after years on a diet of ice cream, cigarettes and heroin.