Oddly enough, this week is also the 80th anniversary of the House floor vote on the first major piece of federal marijuana legislation, the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act of 1937. That was when the whole country officially caught reefer madness. In the following decades, a series of misguided government policies made the problem worse, and prejudice toward marijuana and myths about the drug still abound.
Only in the last 20 years has the country begun to get over our self‐inflicted disease. Unfortunately, there are those in whom the condition is lingering.
In a letter, Sessions asked Congress to remove the restriction due to the “historic drug epidemic and potentially long‐term uptick in violent crime,” showing that the attorney general has clearly imbibed our coarsest and most antiquated form of anti‐marijuana propaganda: its supposed connection to crime and its status as a “gateway drug.” Such rhetoric goes back to the years before the Marihuana Tax Act, a piece of legislation that emerged out of a haze of smoky propaganda from the Hearst newspaper company and the unrelenting zealotry of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
The bill came to the House floor late in the afternoon on Thursday, June 10, 1937. The vote was rushed, and at least one congressman wondered if it was “a matter we should bring up at this late hour of the afternoon. I do not know anything about the bill.” Another congressman reassured him that “it has something to do with something that is called marihuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.”
At one point a group of congressmen asked that the bill’s proponents explain the provisions in further detail. In response, a member of Ways and Means recounted the hyperbolic testimony of Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a man who zealously hated drug users. In committee, Anslinger had presented photographs of bloody murder scenes in order to show “the fury of the murderer” who is high on marijuana. He recounted the “case of a 20‐year‐old boy who killed his brothers, a sister, and his parents while under the influence of marijuana,” and he testified that in “some cases” a single marijuana cigarette “might develop a homicidal mania.” In all, the congressional record of floor debates over the law takes up fewer than two pages.