The Marihuana/Hemp Tax Act of 1937 and the Birth of a Synthetic Economy


[Let's get back to local sustainability and transform Mendocino County into the industrial hemp capital of the Americas: "Before the synthetic boom of the 40’s, and the pharmaceutical boom of the 50’s, much of the world including America, depended upon natural products like hemp for their everyday needs such as foods, medicine, building materials, clothes, paint, and even fuel ..." JJL]

The date was August 2nd, 1937 whereby a relatively empty 75th congress instituted the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” after a mere 30 minutes of debate. While this act did not criminalize cannabis or hemp as it is commonly thought, it did call for heavy taxation, strict regulation, and introduced harsh penalties for those who did not adhere to it. Nonetheless, the key figures that advocated for the passing of this act had strong social, political, and economic motives towards eliminating hemp altogether. This paper will discuss the social, political, and economic motives of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and will demonstrate how the key figures behind this act paved the way for the new synthetic economy of the 1950’s which has forever changed the American way of life.

Before the synthetic boom of the 40’s, and the pharmaceutical boom of the 50’s, much of the world including America, depended upon natural products like hemp for their everyday needs such as foods, medicine, building materials, clothes, paint, and even fuel. Jack Herer, author of “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” the number one best selling hemp book of all time, writes:

“In fact, eighty percent of our economy depended on hemp for paper, fiber and fuel, 125 years ago. At that time, it took 300 man-hours to harvest an acre of hemp, but with the invention of the brand new hemp decorticator in the 1930s, it only took 1-1/2 to 2 hours. This is equivalent to reducing the labor burden from $6,000 down to $40 per acre, in today’s money. Keep in mind that the cotton gin of 1793, reduced the man-hours from 300 hours down to 2 hours to harvest and clean an acre of cotton.” [1]

Armed with the invention of the hemp decorticator, America was staring in the face of the 20th century industrial revolution; the great depression was fading, alcohol prohibition was repealed, and now an already billion dollar industry was about to explode on the already good wartime economy.

The hemp-based economy was looking very bright, optimistic, and extremely profitable for Americans.  However, in 1937, the largest ammunitions manufacturer in America, DuPont Industries, had announced exciting new developments in the chemical-based synthetic field.  These developments included plastics made from coal and oil, a sulfur based paper making processes, as well as the man made textile, Nylon.  DuPont Industries had just one problem:  Hemp already had a tight grip on the markets for plastics, paper, textiles, fuels, medicines, and with the invention of the hemp decorticator, their relatively expensive synthetic products would not stand a chance in the American marketplace. A law such as the Marihuana Tax Act would eliminate hemp from the competition by heavily taxing all medical and non-medical sales of hemp from the farmers to the end users.  As DuPont had predicted in its 1937 annual report, “Radical changes from the revenue raising power of government would be converted into instruments for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganisation.”[2]  Indeed, America was unknowingly well on its way to being forced to accept a radical new economy, as well as a radical change in their ideas of industrial and social organization.  It was as if DuPont Industries had known something that the rest of America did not.

DuPont Industries’ primary financial support came from the 6th largest bank in America, Mellon bank, which was owned by the United States Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.[3]  Andrew Mellon invested very heavily into DuPont’s patented sulfur –based process of converting wood fiber into usable paper.  According to a 1938 article that appeared in both Popular Mechanics and Mechanical Engineering magazines entitled “New Billion Dollar Crop,” hemp produces 4 times as much usable pulp per acre than trees.[4]  Not only do hemp fields outperform trees in pulp production, hemp is also a renewable resource (unlike trees), as hemp can grow up to 20 feet tall or more in one growing season.[5]  The article also states that paper alone was a billion dollar industry in America at the time, and that 80% of American paper was imported.[6]  Despite these facts, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, and owner of the 6th largest bank in America, Andrew Mellon continued to invest in DuPont’s sulfur-based paper making process.  It was as if DuPont Industries and Andrew Mellon had known something that the rest of America did not.

In 1930, Andrew Mellon had appointed his niece’s husband, Harry Anslinger, to be the first director of the Federal narcotics Bureau.[7]  Anslinger had previously been the Assistant Prohibition Commissioner for the Bureau of Prohibition.  However, when Mellon saw that the Alcohol prohibition days were numbered, Mellon used his power to appoint Anslinger to a new office for the sake of his niece’s financial security.  Anslinger eventually went on to secretly write the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 for two years before he sent a copy to Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina, who introduced the Act in Congress on April 14, 1937.[8]  Anslinger secretly worked on the act without consulting the American Medical Association or law enforcement agencies for fear of having it shot down by doctors, farmers, law enforcement, and businessmen.  At the hearings, congress called upon William C. Woodward of the American Medical Association to be present for the hearings.  Woodward opposed the act saying, ”We cannot understand yet, Mr. Chairman, why this bill should have been prepared in secret for two years without any initiative, even to the profession, that it was being prepared”[9] Indeed the act would have been shot down, had congress and the American people known that they were about to outlaw the number one cash crop of the American economy, hemp.  Woodward goes on to explain,No medical man would identify this bill with a medicine until he read it through, because marihuana is not a drug, simply a name given to cannabis.”[10]
Anslinger, with the help of William Randolph Hearst, had effectively duped the American people as well as the United States congress into outlawing cannabis hemp by simply renaming it ‘marihuana’.

William Randolph Hearst is arguably one of the most powerful men in American history.  Hearst who owned almost every major newspaper in the country had a heavy investment in the timber industry to support the trillions of pages in his newspapers and did not want to see hemp ruin his investments.[11]  Hearst began a new form of political and social influence called ‘yellow journalism’, which he used against hemp in 1898 when he lost 800,000 acres of timber land to Poncho Villa in the Spanish American War.[12]  Hearst then, had a hatred for Mexicans and through the use of his media monopoly, associated marihuana usage with lazy Mexican immigrants which in turn shaped American’s negative views on both Mexican immigrants and ‘marihuana’.  In the 1930’s Hearst’s campaign shifted from the lazy Mexican who abused marihuana, to the violent Negros that abuse marihuana, rape white women, and create the satanic music that Americans now appreciate as jazz and soul.[13]  The Hearst smear campaign was one of the worst and most inaccurate campaigns in history.  It was also one of the most effective.  By the time Anslinger’s bill was sent to congress, even congress believed that marihuana was a powerfully addictive and very dangerous narcotic that should be outlawed for the sake of public safety.  Little did they know that they were about to outlaw hemp, the billion dollar cash crop that would have began the 20th century equivalent of the industrial revolution.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 solidified the foundations for the new synthetic economy of the mid 40’s to early 60’s by eliminating hemp from the marketplace. The heavy taxation and strict fines made it a risky business to cultivate, distribute, prescribe, or manufacture hemp based products forcing many farmers, businesses, and consumers to accept the new wave of a synthetic based economy.  The future of the American economy was now in the hands of a select few unscrupulous elitists, DuPont, Mellon, and Hearst.  As a result, the synthetic market exploded as synthetics became popular in almost every application imaginable replacing their natural predecessors.  In an article that appeared in Popular mechanics, the president of DuPont explains, “Synthetic plastics find application in fabricating a wide variety of articles, many of which in the past were made from natural products… the chemist has aided in conserving natural resources by developing synthetic products to supplement or wholly replace natural products.”[14]  These were truly the golden years of synthetic science. Scientists were well funded and well paid, synthetics were proving to be reliable and cost effective, and the American people were open and accepting to the synthetic movement.During the 1940’s the United States Armed forces were tremendously invested in synthetic markets in an effort to make their war machines cheaper, faster, lighter, and more reliable.  After Pearl Harbor, the rubber supply lines from South East Asia were constantly being disrupted and other exporters of natural rubber such as South America could not fulfill the wartime need for rubber.[15]  It came to a point where the United States Military was going to have a graveyard of useless and tireless cars, trucks, and planes.[16] As time was dwindling to correct the American rubber shortage, the United States Government met with the industry leaders, including the Goodyear Tire Company, to formulate a cost effective synthetic rubber that could meet the high demands of the military.[17]    By 1945, the American government had shelled out more resources developing synthetic rubbers than they had developing the atomic bomb![18] Not only was the Government concerned about their military program, but they were also concerned with the average American family who had come to depend on rubber tires for their automobiles.  If Americans could not drive to work due to a shortage in rubber tires and gaskets, the American economy would fail at a very inconvenient time. The American military also relied very heavily on synthetic lubricants for their increasingly complicated highly refined aviation engines.  Synthetic lubricants could withstand higher temperatures for longer periods of continuous use without losing viscosity, allowing the air force to evolve from small turbo-props to jet fighters that could travel faster than the speed of sound.

The 1940’s and 1950’s also saw an immense increase in the usage of synthetic pesticides such as DDT.  Prior to the 1940’s, pesticides were limited to a few botanicals such as pyrenthium and rotenone, as well as a few inorganic pesticides such as copper, sulfur, and arsenic.[19]  All of which proved to be both effective and generally well tolerated with a high safety rating and very few incidents.  The ‘second generation pesticides’ of the 1940’s, were mostly synthetic because they were cheap to synthesize, more effective against a wider range of pestilences, and had a perceived low toxicity to mammals.  DDT was often called the miracle pesticide due to its ability to increase crop yields.[20]  Soon the petrochemical companies found the pesticide market to be a very profitable way to dispose of their toxic byproducts such as hydrocarbons and organophosphates, which became the dominant chemicals for controlling pests over the next several decades.[21]  As the market became dominated with synthetic pesticides, the research and development of organic pesticides came to a standstill and organics were unable to compete in the open market with their synthetic counterparts.

Medicine was also rapidly adopting the synthetic approach during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Up until the early 1950’s, several of the leading pharmaceutical companies continued to market and sell botanical medicines, which had been effectively employed for thousands of years by every culture throughout recorded history.  However, botanical medicines like hemp were quickly on their way out as their synthetic pharmaceuticals counterparts began to overtake the market.  In the early 1950’s, pharmaceutical manufacturers shifted their primary focuses from selling botanical medicines to researching, developing, and marketing potent synthetic chemicals. For example, by the end of the 1950’s, Smith Kline & French, a large pharmaceutical firm, had cut their line of botanical products down to less than 60, whereas in the 1920’s they had stocked over 15,000 botanical products.[22] However Americans were enjoying many of the positive aspects that the new synthetic medicines had to offer.

James Harvey Young, PhD, author of The Medical Messiahs:  A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America, explains the tremendous immediate heath benefits that synthetic medicines had made available to the American people:

“Life expectancy at birth in the United States had been 60 years in 1937, when sulfanilamide appeared. By 1956 it had risen to almost 70 between 1938 and 1950 as between 1921 and 1937. Infants, children, and young adults had benefited most. The death rate from childhood diseases had tumbled 90 per cent. Almost as dramatic were declines in the death rates for influenza-pneumonia and for infectious diseases.”[23]

Austin Smith, the scientist that is recognized today as the pioneer of human embryonic stem cells, rhetorically asked in 1959, “How much value can we place on 3.2 million American lives?…These are the lives that can be attributed in large part to the chemical revolution in medicine.”[24] The synthetic economy was beginning to change every aspect of the American way of life, it was even saving lives.

Through pharmaceuticals, synthetics were changing the way that Americans looked, lived, felt, thought, and behaved.  Synthetics were revolutionizing industries, strengthening the military, increasing agricultural productivity, saving lives, while simultaneously rocketing America’s economy to an all-time high.  By the early 1960’s, natural products were a thing of the past and synthetics now had now absorbed the markets of its natural predecessors. As DuPont Industries had eerily predicted in 1937, “Radical changes from the revenue raising power of government would be converted into instruments for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganization.”  For better or for worse, the economic, political, and social motifs of DuPont, Andrew Mellon, and William Randolph Hearst, resulted in the birth of the synthetic economy had left America forever changed.


[1]  Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes Ah Ha Publishing Company; 11th edition (November 2000) pp 23.

[2] Ibid. pp 29.

[3] Colby, Gerard. DuPont Dynasty. (Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1984) pp. 238-239

[4] "New Billion-Dollar Crop" Popular Mechanics Feb 23. 1938. pp. 238-239.

[5] Lower, George A., “Flax and Hemp: From the Seed to the Loom”, Mechanical Engineering, Feb. 26, 1937. pp. 282-283.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Harry J. Anslinger” All Experts: About.com < http://experts.about.com/e/h/ha/Harry_J._Anslinger.htm&gt; Last Accessed 10/21/2006.

[8] N.O.R.M.L. “Still Crazy after all These Years, Marijuana Prohibition 1937-1997” August 2, 1997

[9] Ernest L. Abel  Marijuana The First 12,000 Years  (New York: Plenum 1980) Pp. 244

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. pp 29

[12] Ibid. pp 29

[13] Ibid. pp 28

[14] Lammot DuPont quoted in Popular Mechanics, June 1939. pp. 805.

[15] “The Synthetic Rubber Project” Science Reference Services (linked from library of Congress) <http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/trs/trschemical_rubber.html&gt; Last accessed 10/21/2006.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19]  Robert Hatherill, Ph.D, “Commercial Agriculture: Facts and Figures” Environmental Studies
Program,
University of California at Santa Barbara. 
<http://www.vegsource.com/articles/chemical.farming.htm&gt; Last accessed 10/21/2006.

[20] “DDT Ban Takes Effect” The Environmental Protection Agency Website <http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/ddt/01.htm&gt; Last accessed 10/21/2006.

[21] Ibid.

[22] R.T. Stormont, “From Alchemy to Antibiotics,” FDC Law Jnl., 11 (Feb. 1956), 98-99

[23] James Harvey Young The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967) pp. 356-357.

[24] Ibid.
Written and Copywritten by KT Botanicals
~~

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