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Did The Prohibition Of Marijuana Contribute To The Great Depression?

While the 1920s and 1930s are most strongly associated with alcohol prohibition, another—far more harmless—substance was also banned during this era, with dire economic implications. By 1930, the marijuana ban which had first been enacted in California in 1913 had spread to 30 states; by 1937, marijuana was illegal everywhere.

To fully understand the economic implications of this decision, one first has to consider the motivations for it: Both racism and short-term greed on the part of corporations led to the ban on marijuana.

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The Racial Justification For Outlawing Marijuana

Harry Anslinger, the so-called “father of the war on weed” and the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was an unabashed racist who used the underlying anxiety of the American people regarding the presence of cheap labor (from Mexican workers and African-American citizens) to push for the criminalization of marijuana. According to Anslinger, pot’s “effect on the degenerate races” made its prohibition necessary. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers.,” Anslinger claimed, “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Not only was Anslinger blatantly and offensively incorrect in his assertions, his remarks unleashed a tide of bitter sentiment toward immigrants, contributing directly to the formation of new, very strict immigration laws in 1929. These laws all but cut off the supply of inexpensive labor to the United States, and without inexpensive labor, the cost of consumer goods was set to rise—at exactly the same time that unemployment was also climbing. The inevitable result? People who had less money were being asked to pay more for the basic necessities they needed to live, resulting in high levels of debt and poverty. The American middle class soon dug itself into a hole from which it could not quickly ascend. Compounding this, of course, was the cost to taxpayers incurred by prosecuting and imprisoning marijuana “offenders” (today, this costs the economy over 20 billion dollars annually).

The Industrial Motivation For Destroying Hemp Crops

When Rudolph Diesel invented his combustion engine in 1896, he’d assumed it would run off of safe, available oil from the hemp (marijuana) plant, as this oil is superior to petroleum. It was the perfect solution: A fuel that could be grown by American farmers, feeding money into the American economy, that is superior to foreign oil… Or at least, it was, until chemical giant DuPont (who owned the Gulf Oil Corporation) teamed up with General Motors and decided to undercut Ford Motors (who was then relying on biofuels) by making hemp illegal (see this link for a full account of the proceedings). By drawing on the racial hysteria spurred by individuals like Anslinger, DuPont and GM managed to succeed in effectively wiping the hemp industry out, forcing all automobiles to run on petroleum. At the same time, DuPont replaced many traditional, safe, natural fabrics and materials that were formerly made from the hemp plant with its own new petroleum-based cellophane, nylon, and dacron.

The economic and environmental disaster that resulted from this dangerous alliance is too vast to be calculated; oil price fluctuations as a result of America’s reliance on foreign oil not only contributed to the great depression (as did the switch over to artificial fabrics and materials, which increased the price of many consumer goods), they have caused many waves of recession from the 1930s-present. To put things into perspective, relying on imported oil cost the Unites States over 116 billion dollars in the year 2014 alone.

All things considered, while multiple factors contributed to the stock market crash of 1929, it is likely that the duration of the Great Depression could have been significantly shortened had hemp crops been allowed to remain in operation and had cheap labor been in steady supply. Additionally, our economy today would be dramatically more stable than it is and our median quality of life would overall be higher.

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Cerrone Crowder

Cerrone Crowder is the CEO of The D.O.P.E (Delivering Opportunities for People Everywhere) House Inc., a nonprofit based in the Chicago-land area whose mission is aimed at providing equal Medical Marijuana access to low-income patients. As an emergency medical professional for over a decade, “The Weed Professor” has dedicated himself to educating the masses on the numerous health benefits of the cannabis plant.  He can be reached at:

Cerrone Crowder Author