New Dealish: The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937


Courtesy, Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The federal government began taxing marijuana in 1937 after Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, testified to a Congressional committee that smoking marijuana “produces in it users insanity, criminality and death.” H.R. 6385, The Marihuana Tax Act, regulated the importation, cultivation, possession and/or distribution of cannabis and placed a tax on its sale. Moses Baca and Samuel Caldwell, arrested in Denver for possession and dealing, respectively, were the first in the nation to be convicted for failure pay the tax. During WWII, the US Department of Agriculture and the Army urged farmers to grow hemp for fiber and issued tax stamps to sellers to limit access to the drug. States sold their own tax stamps, some of which are highly sought after by stamp collectors. In 1969 in Timothy Leary v. United States, part of the Marihuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional as a violation of the Fifth Amendment, since a person seeking the tax stamp would have to self incriminate. In response, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1971, which repealed the 1937 drug tax. Marijuana today is treated as an illegal substance under federal law, but illegal drugs are no longer taxable.
With thanks to Roger Catlin, Smithsonian Magazine.
View the trailer of the 1936 film, Reefer Madness (1:30 minutes)

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

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