Roots | Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Irie Magazine | Roots | Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

August 2, 1937

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, enacted August 2, 1937, was a United States Act that placed a tax on the sale of cannabis. The H.R. 6385 act was drafted by Harry Anslinger and introduced by Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina, on April 14, 1937. The seventy-fifth Congress held hearings on April 27, 28, 29th, 30th, and May 4, 1937. Upon the congressional hearings confirmation, the H.R. 6385 act was redrafted as H.R. 6906 and introduced with House Report 792. The Act is now commonly referred to, using the modern spelling, as the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. This act was overturned in 1969 in Leary v. United States, and was repealed by Congress the next year.

Shortly after the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act went into effect on October 1, 1937, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Denver City police arrested Moses Baca for possession and Samuel Caldwell for dealing. Baca and Caldwell’s arrest made them the first marijuana convictions under U.S. federal law for not paying the marijuana tax.

Judge Foster Symes sentenced Baca to 18 months and Caldwell to four years in Leavenworth Penitentiary for violating the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.
After the Philippines fell to Japanese forces in 1942, the Department of Agriculture and the US Army urged farmers to grow fiber hemp. Tax stamps for cultivation of fiber hemp began to be issued to farmers. Without any change in the Marihuana Tax Act, 400,000 acres (1,600 km2) were cultivated with hemp between 1942 and 1945. The last commercial hemp fields were planted in Wisconsin in 1957.

In 1967, President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice opened, “The Act raises an insignificant amount of revenue and exposes an insignificant number of marijuana transactions to public view, since only a handful of people are registered under the Act. It has become, in effect, solely a criminal law, imposing sanctions upon persons who sell, acquire, or possess marijuana.”

In 1969 in Leary v. United States, part of the Act was ruled to be unconstitutional as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, since a person seeking the tax stamp would have to incriminate him/herself. In response the Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which repealed the 1937 Act.

Although the spelling “marijuana” is more common in current usage, the actual spelling used in the Marihuana Tax Act is ‘marihuana’. ‘Marihuana’ was the spelling most commonly used in Federal Government documents at the time.

In addition, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 legitimized the use of the term ‘marijuana’ as a label for hemp and cannabis plants and products in the US and around the world. Prior to 1937, ‘marijuana’ was slang; it was not included in any official dictionaries. The word marijuana is probably of Mexican origin. Mexico itself had passed prohibition for export to the US in 1925, following the International Opium Convention.

In the years leading up to the tax act, it was in common use in the United States, ‘smoked like tobacco’, and called ‘ganjah’, or ‘ganja’. After the enactment, illegal immigrants and US citizens could be arrested for possession of cannabis.