In the popular imagination, cannabis prohibition in the United States stems largely from a conspiracy between William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont Company, both of whom were supposedly threatened by advances in hemp processing. New devices called decorticators made extracting hemp fibers from stalks more effective, in turn making hemp-based products industrially and commercially viable. Hearst and DuPont had no choice but to strike back.
This myth was popularized by Jack Herer’s book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, a cornerstone of the marijuana-activist reading list. While Herer’s work has bolstered the legalization movement, his hypothesis regarding marijuana’s legal status is based on a tenuous foundation of coincidence and inference. Hearst played a role, to be sure—just not in the way most people assume.
The Yellow Tycoon
Hemp allegedly threatened Hearst’s holdings in timber and paper manufacturing; cheap and efficiently produced hemp paper would undercut his timber and paper investments. However, Hearst’s publishing empire was actually a huge purchaser of newsprint. When the cost rose in the late 1930s, Hearst was forced to sell his art collection to avoid bankruptcy. A cheaper alternative to wood-pulp based paper would have ostensibly been in his best interests.
Hearst himself, though, seems to have been less concerned with the cost of producing his papers and more concerned with how much profit he could realize from wide circulation. Hearst is remembered by history for his sensationalist media campaigns. The term “yellow journalism,” with which Hearst’s name is synonymous, emerged from his vitriolic advocacy for America’s war against Spain in the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth, his attention shifted to hunting down communist boogey-men. And in the 1930s he found a profitable monster in marijuana.
The Culture War
Truly understanding cannabis prohibition requires understanding its historical context. The first US drug bans were on opium in the late 1800s, born from fear and suspicion of Chinese immigrants on the west coast and the effect of “their” drug on white culture. Jumping ahead to 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which limited opium and cocaine to prescription use only, was spurred by an undercurrent of anti-African American sentiment. Allegedly, cocaine was a substance responsible for de-civilizing “the Negro,” the Old South’s favorite, well, whipping boy.
The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s had the same, ethnic target in the South. In the North, it was fueled by cultural differences between “Americans” and the “inassimilable” immigrants filling the cities and industrial centers. Alcohol had a long, historical prevalence in western culture—it was practically a pillar. If it could be banned, then cannabis was a shoe-in. Marijuana, though often used in medicine at the time, was not a widely used casual intoxicant. Its primary recreational users were Mexican Americans and African Americans—easy targets for a xenophobic nation.
Needless to say, Hearst had a field day with concocted reports of violent and unnatural crimes committed by ethnic minorities while under the influence of marijuana. Hearst didn’t tell his editors and journalists what to investigate, he straight up told them what to write. Whether or not he believed it was irrelevant; he believed it would sell papers, and it did.
Due in no small part to Hearst’s influence on public opinion, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act severely restricted the sale and cultivation of the eponymous plant along with hemp. In 1971, the federal government classified all cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug—dangerously addictive and with no known medical use—in a reactionary fit against the counterculture, which unambiguously used and advocated marijuana.
Herer’s work has undeniably helped shift public and federal opinion away from such long-held preconceptions about the nature of cannabis. Unfortunately, it has also misinformed many well-intentioned people regarding the history of cannabis’ legality. As the personal and economic benefits of legalized cannabis become more pervasive, hopefully so will common knowledge of the causes of its prohibition.