Scratch a pothead and ask them why marijuana is outlawed, and there's a good chance you'll get some version of the "hemp conspiracy" theory. Federal pot prohibition, the story goes, resulted from a plot by the Hearst and DuPont business empires to squelch hemp as a possible competitor to wood-pulp paper and nylon.
These allegations can be found anywhere from Wikipedia entries on William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont Company to comments on pot-related articles published here on AlterNet. And these allegations are virtually unchallenged; many people fervently believe in the hemp conspiracy, even though the evidence to back it up evaporates under even minimal scrutiny.
You could make a stronger case for Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin of John F. Kennedy; Oswald at least left a not-quite-smoking gun at the scene.
Pot activist Jack Herer's book The Emperor Wears No Clothes is the prime source for the hemp-conspiracy theory.
It alleges that in the mid-1930s, "when the new mechanical hemp fiber stripping machines to conserve hemp's high-cellulose pulp finally became state of the art, available and affordable," Hearst, with enormous holdings in timber acreage and investments in paper manufacturing, "stood to lose billions of dollars and perhaps go bankrupt." Meanwhile, DuPont in 1937 had just patented nylon and "a new sulfate/sulfite process for making paper from wood pulp" -- so "if hemp had not been made illegal, 80 percent of DuPont's business would never have materialized."
Herer, a somewhat cantankerous former marijuana-pipe salesman, deserves a lot of credit for his cannabis activism.
He was a dedicated grass-roots agitator for pot legalization during the late 1980s, perhaps the most herb-hostile time in recent history.
Despite a substantial stroke in 2001, he soldiers on; he's currently campaigning to get a cannabis-legalization initiative on the ballot in Santa Barbara, California. The Emperor -- an omnivorous conglomeration of newspaper clippings and historical documents about hemp and marijuana, held together by Herer's cannabis evangelism and fiery screeds against prohibition -- has been a bible for many pot activists.
Unearthing a 1916 Department of Agriculture bulletin about hemp paper and a World War II short film that exhorted American farmers to grow "Hemp for Victory," Herer more than anyone else revived the idea that the cannabis plant was useful for purposes besides getting high. Unfortunately, he's completely wrong on this particular issue.
The evidence for a "hemp conspiracy" just doesn't stand up. It is far more likely that marijuana was outlawed because of racism and cultural warfare.
How marijuana was prohibited
Twentieth-century cannabis prohibition first reared its head in countries where white minorities ruled black majorities: South Africa, where it's known as dagga, banned it in 1911, and Jamaica, then a British colony, outlawed ganja in 1913. They were followed by Canada, Britain and New Zealand, which added cannabis to their lists of illegal narcotics in the 1920s. Canada's pot law was enacted in 1923, several years before there were any reports of people actually smoking it there. It was largely the brainchild of Emily F. Murphy, a feminist but racist judge who wrote anti-Asian, anti-marijuana rants under the pseudonym "Janey Canuck."
In the United States, marijuana prohibition began partly as a throw-in on laws restricting opiates and cocaine to prescription-only use, and partly in Southern and Western states and cities where blacks and Mexican immigrants were smoking it. Missouri outlawed opium and hashish dens in 1889, but did not actually prohibit cannabis until 1935. Massachusetts began restricting cannabis in its 1911 pharmacy law, and three other New England states followed in the next seven years.
California's 1913 narcotics law banned possession of cannabis preparations -- which California NORML head Dale Gieringer believes was a legal error, that the provision was intended to parallel those affecting opium, morphine and cocaine.
The law was amended in 1915 to ban the sale of cannabis without a prescription. "Thus hemp pharmaceuticals remained technically legal to sell, but not possess, on prescription!" Gieringer wrote in The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California. "There are no grounds to believe that this prohibition was ever enforced, as hemp drugs continued to be prescribed in California for years to come." In 1928, the state began requiring hemp farmers to notify law enforcement about their crops.
New York City made cannabis prescription-only in 1914, part to pre-empt users of over-the-counter opium, morphine and cocaine medicines from switching to cannabis preparations, but with allusions to hashish use by Middle Eastern immigrants. In the West and Southwest, anti-Mexican sentiment quickly came into play. California's first marijuana arrests came in a Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1914, according to Gieringer, and the Los Angeles Times said "sinister legends of murder, suicide and disaster" surrounded the drug. The city of El Paso, Texas, outlawed reefer in 1915, two years after a Mexican thug, "allegedly crazed by habitual marijuana use," killed a cop. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, 30 states had some form of pot law.
The campaign against cannabis heated up after Repeal. "I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents," a Colorado newspaper editor wrote in 1936. "The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a DEADLY DRUG, and American children must be PROTECTED AGAINST IT," the Hearst newspapers editorialized.
Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed the charge. "If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana, he would drop dead of fright," he thundered in 1937.
An ambitious racist ( a 1934 memo described an informant as a "ginger-colored nigger" ) who had previously been federal assistant Prohibition commissioner, Anslinger railed against reefer in magazine articles like 1937's "Marihuana: Assassin of Youth." It featured gory stories like that of Victor Licata, a once "sane, rather quiet young man" from Tampa, Fla., who'd killed his family with an axe in 1933, after becoming "pitifully crazed" from smoking "muggles." ( Actually, the Tampa police had tried to have Licata committed to a mental hospital before he started smoking pot. )
Anslinger's other theme was that white girls would be ruined once they'd experienced the lurid pleasures of having a black man's joint in their mouth. "Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female students ( white ) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution," he noted. "Result, pregnancy."
In 1937, after a very cursory debate, Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act, levying a prohibitive $100-an-ounce tax on cannabis. "I believe in some cases one cigarette might develop a homicidal mania," Anslinger testified in a hearing on the bill.
The case against the "hemp conspiracy"
The hemp-conspiracy theory blames that law on Hearst and DuPont's plot to suppress hemp paper and cloth.
The theory is that the invention of a hemp processor known as the "decorticator" made it easier, faster and much more cost-effective to extract hemp fiber from the stalks.
In February 1938, Popular Mechanics hailed hemp as the "New Billion Dollar Crop." In response, Hearst and DuPont, scared by the prospect of hemp's resurrection as a competitor for their products, schemed to eliminate the plant.
However, The Emperor makes only three specific claims to support that theory. One is the anti-marijuana propagandizing of the Hearst newspapers. Second, it claims that Anslinger's anti-pot crusade was on behalf of Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon, who supposedly was DuPont's "chief financial backer," lending the company the funds it needed to purchase General Motors in the 1920s. And finally, The Emperor argues that DuPont anticipated the Marihuana Tax Act in its 1937 annual report, which worried that the company's future was "clouded with uncertainties" -- specifically about "the extent to which the revenue-raising power of government may be converted into an instrument for forcing acceptance of sudden new ideas of industrial and social reorganization."
None of these claims stand up.