As of last week, recreational marijuana is legal in California. And at about the same time legalization took effect, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared to be flirting with a federal crackdown on those states that have legalized the drug.
California, of course, is not the first state to legalize the drug for recreational use, but it has generally been out in front of public policy shifts when it comes to marijuana. So now seems like a good time to look back at the state’s fascinating history with pot. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from that history.
California was among the first states to prohibit cannabis. At the height of the temperance movement, California then toughened the penalties for possessing and selling the drug. During the mid-20th-century reefer madness, it toughened them again. As attitudes about marijuana relaxed in the 1970s, the state correspondingly relaxed those penalties. By the 1980s, the country was in the midst of a reactionary tough-on-crime wave, and California was at the fore. It was then the first state to legalize medical marijuana in the 1990s. California was home to the Haight-Ashbury counterculture movement, the Grateful Dead and Cheech & Chong. It’s also the home state of Richard Nixon, who birthed the modern drug war, and Ronald Reagan, the president who made Nixon’s war metaphor all too literal. Today, we’ll look at cannabis in California up until about the late 1960s.
As I mentioned, California was among the first states to prohibit cannabis — a 1913 amendment to the state’s Poison Act made possession of the drug a misdemeanor. But oddly, as Dale Gieringer writes in his paper on the origin of cannabis prohibition in the state, that law doesn’t appear to have been in response to any notable use of the drug. In fact, if you wanted to ingest cannabis in early-20th-century California, you’d have had a tough time finding it. Spanish colonials did grow hemp in the state, a tradition that continued until the early 1800s. But hemp was grown only for fiber, and there’s no indication that cannabis was cultivated for its psychoactive properties.
By the end of the 19th century, hemp production had all but ceased, and there were few references to hemp, cannabis or marijuana to be found. For his paper, Gieringer scoured news archives, literature, state records and medical publications, and found only a sprinkling of references to ingestion of cannabis of any form in the state, either as a psychoactive drug or for medical purposes. At the time, the drug was primarily consumed in the form of hashish, but not so much in California. There were news accounts of hashish houses and clubs in the East going back to the 1890s, but news mentions of the drug west of the Mississippi were sparse.
Of course, California did have plenty of opium. In the mid-1800s, the state saw an influx of Chinese immigrants, first in response to the gold rush, and then to work on the railroad. The immigrants brought opium, which quickly grew popular in cities and mining towns. California cities began banning opium and opium dens in the 1870s. The statewide ban came in 1881. Of course, opium was by no means limited to the Chinese community, but a surge of anti-immigrant fervor came to associate them and Asian immigrants in general with not just opium but also intoxicants in general. News stories about a rise in the use of some exotic drug inevitably linked the drug to immigrants of Asian descent, usually with plenty of exaggeration and wild-eyed wonder.
One of the few newspaper accounts Gieringer found of hashish in the state, for example, was an 1895 article in the San Francisco Call about an alleged hashish farm in Stockton. The article called hashish “the opium of Arabs” and used the terms Arab, Turkish and Armenian interchangeably. (Gieringer wrote that the immigrants in question were likely Syrian.) Gieringer noted that this farm quickly disappeared from the news and “no more mentions of hashish are to be found in California newspapers until after its prohibition in 1913.”
The term marijuana (or marihuana) comes from Mexico, and originally referred only to ingestion of the plant by smoking its leaves. That, too, was rare in California at the time but was common in Mexico. Here too, Gieringer found only a handful of news references to the drug during the late 1800s and early 1900s, but what he found tended to be cartoonish depictions that would foreshadow the press accounts to come. One 1895 article, also in the San Francisco Call, reported that prison officials in southern Arizona were growing concerned about the “seductive mariguana [sic].” The paper called the drug “more powerful than opium” and fretted that it “produces a hilarious sprit in the smoker that cannot be equaled by any other form of dissipation.”
A decade later, depictions of the drug grew more colorful still. One California medical publication noted that as use of the drug had spread through Mexico, “many are the wild orgies it has produced.” It warned that the habitual marijuana user “finally loses his mind and becomes a raving maniac,” adding that “it is said that those who smoke marihuana frequently die suddenly.” A few year later, the same publication warned that smoking the drug produces “a species of insanity which frequently ends in a horrible death.”
In 1905, the Los Angeles Times published the most frightful report yet. “Marihuana is a weed used only by people of the lower class, and sometimes by soldiers,” the report warned, and “the drug leaves … the smoker wilder than a wild beast.” It went on: “Everything … takes the shape of a monster, and men look like devils … People who smoke marihuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of the time suddenly.”
A 1911 report that ran in several publications (including The Post) claimed that marijuana “destroys body, soul and mind” and that a third of the population of Mexico was “more or less addicted to use of the drug.”
And yet for the most part, marijuana was mostly unheard of in California. Gieringer argues that the state banned cannabis in 1913 not in response to an epidemic of spontaneous orgies or men in the shape of monsters, but because a public health official, Henry J. Finger, seemed oddly fixated on the drug. Here too, anti-immigrant sentiment was a likely motivator. In a 1911 letter to a colleague, for example, Finger fretted about an “influx of Hindoos,” whom he called “a very undesirable lot,” and, he claimed, had an insatiable appetite for cannabis. Gieringer could find no contemporaneous references to Hindu cannabis use in the state. He speculates that Finger was likely referring to group of East Indian Sikhs who had arrived in San Francisco the year before. Their arrival only stoked anti-Asian sentiment in the state and sparked an immediate backlash. But it’s doubtful the Sikhs were using cannabis, either. The religion opposes smoking and consumption of alcohol, Gieringer notes, and while they were targets of some ugly bigotry, drug use wasn’t a common accusation. Nevertheless, aided by the media reports such as those above, Finger’s fear-mongering was successful. The California legislature approved the amendment to prohibit cannabis by a unanimous vote.
The first arrests came the following year. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1914 that police had confiscated $500 worth of marijuana from a property in a Mexican neighborhood. Helpfully, the paper noted that the drug is associated with “sinister legends of murder, suicide and disaster.”
Use of the drug in Southern California began to pick up by the 1920s, and as it did, so too did the media and public officials’ exaggeration of its effects. One state judge claimed that “more men are seriously injured by persons under the influence of marihuana than from any two causes.” One article warned that the drug was “a shortcut to the lunatic asylum.” In 1923, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner laid down this warning:
Hasheesh will turn the mildest man in the world into a blood-thirsty murderer. The man who takes hasheesh ‘runs amok’ with his bloody knife in one hand and his strangling cloth in the other, and he kills, kills, kills until the hasheesh has burnt out its deadly flame.
As Gieringer points out, the first marijuana arrest in San Francisco wouldn’t occur for another 5½ years.
The Progressive era brought the temperance movement, and with it, yet more hysteria about intoxicants of all kinds. California followed other state legislatures by stiffening its penalties for cannabis. A 1925 law prescribed the same penalty for possession as for sale. Either could bring up to six years in prison. Four years later, the state made a second offense for possession punishable by up to 10 years. And yet despite all the hype, Southern Californians were increasingly finding something to like about the drug. By 1932, three out of five narcotics arrests in Los Angeles were for cannabis. The number of arrests continued to grow throughout the decade, then picked up again after World War II.
One of the more infamous postwar arrests was that of Robert Mitchum, the film noir star probably best known for appearing in the original “Cape Fear.” Mitchum at the time was known to be a partier, a well-known marijuana smoker and a bit of a carouser. His arrest was significant because at the time marijuana was widely believed to be a low-society drug. Browse California headlines from the 1940s and 1950s, and you’ll find lots of marijuana arrests of blacks, people with Latino names, and — occasionally — working-class whites. The most prominent arrests to make headlines were of jazz musicians, particularly if they were found with white women. But Mitchum was a bona fide movie star. His arrest made headlines for months. It probably both broadened the drug’s appeal and sparked panic about its use outside of marginalized populations.
The bust happened in September 1948, after Mitchum, actress Lila Leeds, a real estate developer and a dancer were set to smoke some pot in a house rented by the real estate developer. Just as the party began, the police scratched at an outside door, pretending to be the developer’s dogs. When the dancer opened the door to let them in, the police rushed in, guns drawn.
The entire operation was a setup, likely with the cooperation of the real estate developer. It also involved some illegal surveillance. By the time the four arrived at the police station, the police had already tipped off members of the press, who were waiting for a glimpse of the star. One police officer claimed to have seen the marijuana cigarettes that Lila Leeds brought to the house while peering through a window. (That this was the less incriminating version of events is telling.) A Los Angeles Police Department sergeant told the Los Angeles Times that the bust was part of broader plan to “clean the dope and narcotics users out of Hollywood.”
Only Mitchum and Leeds were prosecuted. Mitchum served two months in jail and was later exonerated after the shady police tactics were exposed. His career recovered just fine. The same can’t be said for Leeds. She also served two months in jail. She later said it was during those two months that she started using heroin. (Even back then, state officials somehow thought they could eradicate drug use by arresting movie stars for pot, even as they couldn’t keep heroin out of the jails.)
Despite Mitchum’s reputation, Leeds got the brunt of the blame as the supplier. After she violated her parole, a state judge banished her from California for five years, essentially ending her career in movies. She tried to find work in New York, but state officials refused to grant her an entertainer’s license, citing her conviction. She tried to redeem herself by starring in “Reefer Madness” knockoffs such as “Wild Weed” (in which the brother of Leeds’s character catches her smoking pot, which for some reason drives him to suicide), and “She Shoulda Said No!,” an unintentionally hilarious bit of campy propaganda loosely based on the Mitchum episode. (You can watch it in its entirety below.)
Mitchum had the star power (and — let’s be honest — was probably of the correct gender) to survive a pot arrest. Leeds wasn’t so lucky. She never worked in movies again. She battled depression and addiction and had numerous run-ins with the law for years. She apparently eventually found religion. There are reports of her volunteering at soup kitchens and raising money for the Shriners. She died in 1999.
In 1954, the California legislature stiffened the pot penalties again, putting the penalty for first-offense possession at one to 10 years behind bars and a conviction for selling the drug at five to 15 years. A third offense could have brought a life sentence. Despite the stiffer sentencing laws, the breathless media reports and the campy propaganda, by the mid-1950s marijuana was hugely popular in California. According to Gieringer, the state saw 140 pot arrests in 1935. In 1960, that number topped 5,000.
By the mid-1970s, pot arrests were well into six figures. All of those bodies were overburdening the state’s courts, prisons and budgets, and lawmakers had no choice but to roll back the tough sentencing regimes. We’ll pick up there tomorrow.