80 Years Ago Today: First Federal Anti-Marijuana Law

Eighty years ago today, on August 2 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed House Bill 6385: the Marihuana Tax Act into law. The Act for the first time imposed federal criminal penalties on activities specific to the possession, production, and sale of cannabis.

Congress’ decision followed the actions of 29 states, beginning with Massachusetts in 1914, that had previously passed anti-marijuana laws criminalizing the plant over the prior decades. It also followed years of ‘Reefer Madness,’ during which time politicians, bureaucrats (led primarily by Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger), reporters, and science editors continually proclaimed that marijuana use irreparably damaged the brain. A 1933 editorial in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology largely summarized the sentiment of the time, “If continued, the inevitable result is insanity, which those familiar with it describe as absolutely incurable, and, without exception ending in death.”

On April 14, 1937, Rep. Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced HR 6385, which sought to stamp out the recreational use of marijuana by imposing a prohibitive federal tax on all cannabis-related activities. Members of Congress held only two hearings to debate the merits of the bill, which largely relied on the sensational testimony of Anslinger — who opined, ”This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.” Over objections from the American Medical Association, whose representatives opposed the proposed federal ban, members of the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure by voice votes.

President Franklin Roosevelt promptly signed the anti-marijuana legislation into law and on October 1, 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act officially took effect — thus setting in motion the federal prohibition that continues to this day.



By Dan Viets, J.D., Missouri NORML Coordinator

Federal courts have recently rejected the actions of university and college administrators who sought to inflict suspicionless drug tests on students at a public college and to restrict the First Amendment rights of marijuana law reformers at a public university.  Both decisions have important national implications.

Linn Tech Student Drug Testing Case

In 2011, Linn State Technical College administrators declared that they intended to drug test every student who applied for admission to the small, state-funded college located in Osage County, Missouri, a short distance east of Jefferson City.  No other public college or university in America had pursued such a program.  It seemed clear to those who follow such matters that college and university students have the same rights as other adults to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  While private institutions are not bound by the restraints of the Fourth Amendment, public tax-supported institutions are.  Nonetheless, Linn Tech seemed determined to pursue inflicting random, suspicionless drug testing on their students. 

Tony Rothert, the Legal Director of the ACLU of Missouri, filed suit against Linn Tech.  I filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, working with Alex Kreit, a law professor from San Diego.

U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey, sitting in Jefferson City, subsequently issued a decision prohibiting such testing, with a few narrowly-drawn exceptions for those participating in training programs involving heavy machinery or high-voltage electricity. 

Linn Tech appealed that decision to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.  Legal scholars were shocked when a three-judge panel of that Court later sided with Linn Tech.  In a decision which many believed ignored legal precedent and logic, two of three judges on the panel which initially heard the case sided with Linn Tech. 

Mr. Rothert then filed for a rehearing of the case by the full 11-judge Court.  Such hearings are rarely granted, but in this case, the Motion was granted.  Following that rehearing, all but two of the judges on the full Court sided with the students and the ACLU, overturning the decision of the three-judge panel.

Still not satisfied, Linn Tech squandered more public tax money pursuing a Petition for Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court.  Civil libertarians were concerned that the current high Court might indeed overturn the Eighth Circuit if it had accepted that Petition for review.  However, on June 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court denied further review in this matter.  Therefore, the decision of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court is now the final decision in this matter.  Linn Tech administrators have reluctantly acknowledged that they must now follow the Constitution and abandon their effort to impose suspicionless drug testing on their students. 

Iowa State University NORML Censorship Case

In another important case closely watched by many across the nation, members of the NORML Chapter at Iowa State University in 2012 applied for approval to print t-shirts which contained the name of the university-recognized organization and included an image of the school’s mascot, “Cy, the Cyclone”.  University administrators first approved those t-shirts, but when the ISU NORML Chapter asked to reprint them, the university caved in to pressure from legislative staff people who had complained that it appeared the university was supporting marijuana legalization. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) filed suit on behalf of the officers of the Iowa State University NORML Chapter, alleging content and viewpoint discrimination.  The lawsuit sought to prevent university administrators from treating the NORML Chapter differently from other university-recognized student organizations.  The federal district court in Iowa sided with the students and against the university.  The university appealed to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which issued a decision in February of this year upholding the federal district judge’s ruling.

Iowa State University administrators then asked the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court to reconsider its decision.  The Court did so, which caused many to fear that they might change their minds. 

However, on June 13, 2017, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court reaffirmed its earlier decision and went even further, holding that university administrators who prevented the ISU NORML Chapter from using the university’s trademarked images were individually liable for their actions and could, therefore, be ordered to pay damages from their own pockets!

Administrators at the University of Missouri in Columbia have taken similar actions in regard to the MU NORML Chapter.  It is hoped that the decision of the Eighth U.S. Circuit will encourage MU administrators to reconsider their position.

The federal appellate court sent a loud and clear message to university administrators that they are required to respect the Constitutional rights of students, including those who advocate for reform of the marijuana laws. 

While Iowa State could do as Linn Tech administrators did and continue to squander more public tax money pursuing an ill-considered position, it is not at all likely the U.S. Supreme Court would grant further review in this matter.

Administrators at the University of Missouri in Columbia have taken similar actions in regard to the MU NORML Chapter.  It is hoped that the decision of the Eighth U.S. Circuit will encourage MU administrators to reconsider their position.

Taken together, these two decisions have reaffirmed the rights of students to be free from unreasonable drug testing and to have the same rights and privileges as other university-recognized student organizations.     

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Kansas City voters

More than 70% of voters in Kansas City on Tuesday, April 4, supported a measure to decriminalize the possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana. This level of support for Question 5 is truly incredible, considering the fact that the voter turnout for municipal elections is typically very low and those who tend to vote in such elections skew toward the older and more conservative demographics.

It is also a remarkable outcome given the fact that The Kansas City Star newspaper repeatedly editorialized against the measure, calling it “a confusing half-step that didn’t solve a difficult problem”. Apparently the voters did not share The Star’s confusion and recognized the fact that political change is almost always evolutionary. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise. Opposing a measure because it is does not achieve everything one wants is a sure path to political oblivion.

The measure fits the classic definition of “decriminalization” because it eliminates arrests for possession, eliminates jail as a punishment and convictions in Missouri municipal courts are not considered criminal convictions. This initiative limits the fines for possession to a maximum of $25.

Based in part on an initiative passed in Columbia, Missouri in 2004, the KC initiative was placed on the ballot by NORML’s Kansas City Chapter led by Jamie Kacz who said, “It’s a very positive result . . . . Kansas City is ready for this change”.

Some opponents had argued that, because the City’s current contract with Legal Aid of Western Missouri allows Legal Aid to only represent defendants faced with the possibility of jail, the measure would deprive indigent defendants in that court of free legal representation. Those opponents failed to recognize that the obvious solution to this “problem” is to change the contract. It is foolish to argue that we need to continue threatening to put people in jail just so they can have a free attorney. If the crocodile tears shed by opponents reflected a real concern for the welfare of marijuana defendants, those opponents will recognize this and pursue amending the contract with Legal Aid.

In fact, Missouri NORML Coordinator Dan Viets spoke with attorneys on staff with Legal Aid who confirmed that they would certainly be willing to continue representing such defendants, even if the decriminalization initiative passed.

Further, under a new law which goes into effect January 1, 2018, such convictions can be expunged from all public records, so even those who choose to pay the $25 fine rather than be placed on probation and subjected to drug testing will still be able to eliminate this impediment to employment.

For More Information Contact
Dan Viets at 573-819-2669 or
DanViets@gmail.com or
Jamie Kacz at 816-974-3412 or


Pot belongs in the anti-opiate arsenal Government monitoring is useless in reducing overdose deaths

Published February 26, 2017

Dan Viets

As is often pointed out, 49 other states have adopted laws that allow the government access to prescription records.

According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Missouri ranks 22nd among the 50 states in opioid overdose death and its per capita death rate is close to the average for all 50 states. If allowing the government access to our prescriptions helped reduce this problem, those other 49 states would have less of a problem than Missouri. The fact they do not is strong evidence that allowing government access to our prescription records does not reduce this problem.

If the government wants us to sacrifice yet another piece of our precious and rapidly shrinking right to privacy, it ought to bear the burden of producing some evidence that this sacrifice would have a positive impact on the problem. There is simply no evidence that it will.

If this proposal were really about reducing opioid overdose deaths, it would be limited to opioid drugs. However, the proposal is far broader. The proposal would include all of the hundreds of “controlled substances” contained in Schedules 2, 3 and 4 of the list of prescription drugs. Schedule 5 drugs are over-the-counter, nonprescription drugs. Schedule 1 drugs are not available by prescription.

Ironically, Schedule 1 drugs include marijuana. If politicians and public health officials truly want to take steps that are proven to have a positive impact on opioid overdose death, they should be working to increase legal access to marijuana as medicine.

As the Journal of the American Medical Association has confirmed, access to legal medical marijuana has a dramatic impact in the reduction of opioid overdose deaths. A study published in the August 2014 JAMA Internal Medicine shows far fewer people die from opioid overdose in states with legal access to medical marijuana. A 2015 RAND Corp. study also showed less opioid-related abuse and mortality where medical marijuana is legal.

According to JAMA, the reduction in the opioid overdose death rate averages 25 percent and ranges from 20 percent to 33 percent. The reduction correlates with the number of years legal access to medical marijuana has been available. States that have had legal access to medical marijuana the longest have the most dramatic reductions. This strongly suggests a causal relationship and not merely a correlation. It also indicates legalizing medical marijuana might continue to reduce opioid overdose deaths even beyond 33 percent.

A University of Georgia study shows a dramatic reduction in the prescribing of opioid drugs in states where legal access to medical marijuana exists. This study concluded that the Medicare program saved more than $165 million in just one year because of legal access to medical marijuana in several states.

Most people do not want to take opioid narcotic painkillers. The narcotics cause several unpleasant side effects, in addition to the potential for addiction and death. The need for potentially addictive and deadly narcotic painkillers is dramatically reduced where people have legal access to marijuana as medicine. Pain reduction is one of the most well-documented, proven benefits of medical marijuana. The potential side effects of marijuana as medicine pale in comparison to the potential addiction and death associated with narcotic painkillers.

A study from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, published in June 2016 in The Journal of Pain, showed that 244 chronic pain patients rated marijuana as more effective in pain relief than opiates. “Among study participants, medical cannabis use was associated with a 64% decrease in opioid use, decreased number and side effects of medications, and an improved quality of life. This study suggests that many chronic pain patients are essentially substituting medical cannabis for opioids and other medications for chronic pain relief, and finding the benefit and side effect profile of cannabis to be greater than these other classes of medications.”

A study published in the December 2016 edition of The Clinical Journal of Pain and conducted at Hebrew University in Israel showed 66 percent of patients experienced improvement in their pain symptoms after cannabis therapy and that most reported “robust” improvements in their quality of life. Those patients’ overall consumption of opioid drugs declined 44 percent during the study, and a significant percentage of participants discontinued opioid therapy all together.

If the Columbia City Council and Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services want to take steps that have been proved to actually have an impact on the opioid overdose problem, they should focus on providing greater access to marijuana as medicine for our citizens. In 2004, nearly 70 percent of Columbia voters endorsed a measure that eliminates all penalties for the possession and use of up to 35 grams of marijuana when a doctor has recommended such use. However, that ordinance provides no legal access to marijuana for those patients.

In October 2014, the Columbia City Council fell one vote short of passing a measure that would have eliminated the penalties for the cultivation of up to a half-dozen plants by patients whose doctors recommend their use of marijuana as medicine. The council should revisit this issue and should pass this measure.

Of course, it would be preferable if such a law were passed statewide. There is an effort underway to place an initiative on the November 2018 Missouri ballot that would do what 28 other states have done: legalize access to medical marijuana for our citizens. The Columbia City Council should also pass a resolution endorsing the Missouri Medical Marijuana Initiative proposed by New Approach Missouri.

It is ironic that, for decades, prohibitionists have argued that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” meaning it leads to the use of more dangerous drugs. The truth, supported by published peer-reviewed studies in the world’s most credible scientific and medical journals, shows precisely the opposite. Access to marijuana as medicine dramatically reduces the use of addictive and potentially deadly narcotics.

Attorney Dan Viets is secretary of the pro-medical marijuana group New Approach Missouri and state coordinator for NORML, an organization that advocates for reform of marijuana laws.

Marijuana for Pain

Canada: Rising Popularity Of Medical Cannabis Among Veterans Associated With Declining Opioid Use

by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director June 9, 2016

Rising rates of medical cannabis use among Canadian military veterans is associated with a parallel decline in the use of prescription opiates and benzodiazepenes, according to federal data recently provided to The Globe and Mail.

According to records provided by Veterans Affairs Canada, the number of veterans prescribed benzodiazepines (e.g. Xanax, Ativan, and Valium) fell nearly 30 percent between 2012 and 2016, while veterans’ use of prescription opiates declined almost 17 percent. During this same period, veterans seeking federal reimbursements for prescription cannabis rose from fewer than 100 total patients to more than 1,700.

Canadian officials legalized the use of cannabis via prescription in 2001.

While the data set is too small to establish cause and effect, the trend is consistent with data indicating that many patients substitute medical cannabis for other prescription drugs, especially opiates.

Prior assessments from the United States report that incidences of opioid-related addiction, abuse, and mortality are significantly lower in jurisdictions that permit medicinal cannabis access as compared to those states that do not.


Study: Opioid Abuse Rates Lower In Medical Cannabis States

San Francisco, CA: Rates of prescription opioid abuse are significantly lower in jurisdictions that permit medical marijuana access, according to data reported by Castlight Health, an employee health benefits platform provider.

Investigators assessed anonymous prescription reporting data from over one million employees between the years 2011 and 2015.

In states that did not permit medical cannabis access, 5.4 percent of individuals with an opioid prescription qualified as abusers of the drug. (The study's authors defined "abuse" as opioid use by an individual who was not receiving palliative care, who received greater than a 90-day cumulative supply of opioids, and received an opioid prescription from four or more providers.) By contrast, only 2.8 percent of individuals with an opioid prescription living in medical marijuana states met the criteria.

The findings are similar to those reported by the RAND Corporation in 2015, which determined, "[S]tates permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not."

Data published in 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine also reported that the enactment of statewide medicinal marijuana laws is associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates, finding, "States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws."

For more information, please contact Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director, at: paul@norml.org. Full text of the study, "The opioid crisis in America's workforce," appears online at: http://www.castlighthealth.com/typ/the-opioid-crisis/.

Cannabis vs. Pills

Medical Cannabis Access Decreases Opioid Use In Chronic Pain Patients

Ann Arbor, MI: Chronic pain patients with legal access to medicinal cannabis significantly decrease their use of opioids, according to data published online ahead of print in The Journal of Pain.

Investigators at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor conducted a retrospective survey of 244 chronic pain patients. All of the subjects in the survey were qualified under Michigan law to consume medicinal cannabis and frequented an area dispensary to obtain it.

Authors reported that respondents often substituted cannabis for opiates and that many rated marijuana to be more effective.

"Among study participants, medical cannabis use was associated with a 64 percent decrease in opioid use, decreased number and side effects of medications, and an improved quality of life," they concluded. "This study suggests that many chronic pain patients are essentially substituting medical cannabis for opioids and other medications for chronic pain treatment, and finding the benefit and side effect profile of cannabis to be greater than these other classes of medications."

About 40 people die daily from opioid overdoses, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

Long-term daily use of herbal cannabis has been shown to mitigate analgesia and significantly reduce opioid use in chronic pain patients unresponsive to conventional therapies. Observational studies also show lower levels of opioid-related abuse and mortality in jurisdictions where patients are permitted medical cannabis access.

For more information, please contact Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director, at: paul@norml.org. Full text of the study, "Medical cannabis associated with decreased opiate medication use in retrospective cross-sectional survey of chronic pain patients," appears in The Journal of Pain.

Pain Relief

Study: Long Term Cannabis Use Mitigates Pain, Reduces Opioid Use

Jerusalem, Israel: The daily, long-term use of cannabis is associated with improved analgesia and reduced opioid use in patients with treatment-resistant chronic pain conditions, according to clinical trial data reported online ahead of print in The Clinical Journal of Pain.

Investigators with Hebrew University in Israel evaluated the use of cannabis on pain in a cohort of 176 patients, each of whom had been previously unresponsive to all conventional pain medications. Subjects inhaled THC-dominant cannabis daily (up to 20 grams per month) for a period of at least six months.

A majority of participants (66 percent) experienced improvement in their pain symptom scores after cannabis therapy, and most reported "robust" improvements in their quality of life. Subjects' overall consumption of opioid drugs declined 44 percent by the end of the trial, and a significant percentage of participants discontinued opioid therapy altogether over the course of the study.

Authors concluded, "In summary, this long-term prospective cohort suggests that cannabis treatment in a mixed group of patients with treatment-resistant chronic pain may result in improved pain, sleep and quality of life outcomes, as well as reduced opioid use."

The Israeli results are similar to those reported in a 2015 Canadian trial which concluded that chronic pain patients who use herbal cannabis daily for one-year experienced reduced discomfort and increased quality of life compared to controls, and did not possess an increased risk of serious side effects.

Separate data published in 2014 in The Journal of the American Medical Association determined that states with medical marijuana laws experience far fewer opiate-related deaths than do states that prohibit the plant. Investigators from the RAND Corporation reported similar findings in 2015, concluding, "States permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not." Clinical data published in 2011 in the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics previously reported that the administration of vaporized cannabis "safely augments the analgesic effect of opioids."

A scientific review published earlier this year assessing the clinical use of cannabinoids for pain in over 1,300 subjects concluded, "Overall, the recent literature supports the idea that currently available cannabinoids are modestly effective analgesics that provide a safe, reasonable therapeutic option for managing chronic non-cancer-related pain and possibly cancer-related pain."

For more information, please contact Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director, at: paul@norml.org. Full text of the study, "The effect of medicinal cannabis on pain and quality of life outcomes in chronic pain: A prospective open-label study," appears in The Clinical Journal of Pain.


Study: Medical Marijuana Laws Linked To Less Prescription Drug Use, Medicare Spending

Legalization nationwide estimated to reduce Medicare costs by nearly half a billion dollars

Athens, GA: The enactment of statewide medicinal cannabis laws is associated with a quantifiable decline in the use of traditional prescription drugs, according to data published in the July edition of the scientific journal Health Affairs.

Investigators at the University of Georgia assessed the relationship between medical marijuana legalization laws and physicians' prescribing patterns in 17 states over a three-year period (2010 to 2013). Specifically, researchers assessed patients' consumption of and spending on prescription drugs approved under Medicare Part D in nine domains: anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders, and spasticity.

Authors reported that prescription drug use fell significantly in seven of the nine domains assessed.

"Generally, we found that when a medical marijuana law went into effect, prescribing for FDA-approved prescription drugs under Medicare Part D fell substantially," investigators reported. "Ultimately, we estimated that nationally the Medicare program and its enrollers spent around $165.2 million less in 2013 as a result of changed prescribing behaviors induced by ... jurisdictions that had legalized medical marijuana."

Investigators estimated that prescription drug savings would total more than $468 million annually were cannabis therapy to be accessible in all 50 states.

They concluded, "Our findings and existing clinical literature imply that patients respond to medical marijuana legislation as if there are clinical benefits to the drug, which adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that the Schedule I status of marijuana is outdated."

Survey data compiled from medical marijuana patients reports that subjects often reduce their use prescription drug therapies, particularly opioids, when they have legal access to cannabis. According to a 2015 RAND Corporation study, opiate-related abuse and mortality is lower in jurisdictions that permit medical cannabis access as compared to those that outlaw the plant.

For more information, please contact Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director, at: paul@norml.org. Full text of the study, "Medical marijuana laws reduce prescription medication use in Medicare Part D," appears in Health Affairs.

Happy New Year


                On New Year’s Day, the new Missouri Criminal Code will become effective!  Contained in that massive reorganization of all of Missouri’s criminal laws are several changes which will reduce the penalties for a wide variety of marijuana law violations.

            I was honored to serve on the Missouri Bar Association’s Criminal Law Subcommittee which drafted the new Criminal Code.

            The change affecting the largest number of people is the elimination of the possibility of a jail sentence for the first offense possession of ten grams or less of marijuana.  While relatively few such cases result in jail sentences now, there are at least two counties in Missouri where every single misdemeanor marijuana or paraphernalia guilty plea results in a sentence of five days served in jail.  That will no longer happen starting January 1.

            In addition, the laws prohibiting the cultivation and distribution of marijuana will carry reduced penalties in the future.  Currently, any distribution or cultivation of marijuana, or even the attempt to do so, carries a range of punishment of five to fifteen years in the Missouri Department of Corrections.  Under the new Criminal Code, the maximum punishment for first such offenses will be ten years.

            Perhaps most importantly, the new Criminal Code eliminates the “prior and persistent drug offender” law.  This law allows prosecutors to charge defendants who have two or more prior drug felonies in such a manner that they face a range of punishment of ten to thirty years or life in prison.  That sentence must be served without the possibility of probation or parole!

            This is the law under which Jeff Mizanskey was sentenced to serve life without parole in prison for his third small marijuana law violation.  Jeff has no other criminal convictions whatsoever, but he was ordered to serve life without possibility of ever leaving prison under the law which will be repealed January 1.

            In 2015, marijuana law reform advocates, including NORML and Show-Me Cannabis, were able to persuade Governor Nixon to grant Jeff a commutation of his sentence which made him eligible for parole.  I had the privilege of representing Jeff in his parole hearing.  He was released from prison only a few days after that hearing took place, on September 1, 2015.         

            NORML, Show-Me Cannabis, ACLU and others will continue to work in 2017, both in the legislature and through the Initiative process, to continue the progress we have made in recent years.  Now is an excellent time to make a monthly pledge of support to NORML in the coming year at http://monorml.com/donation/.