How marijuana came to be illegal in PA
How marijuana came to be illegal on a federal level is well understood. Everybody knows the whole story. If you don’t, look it up, there are tons of stories. I first started reading about it in High Times magazine and then learned the whole story from Jack Herer’s book ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes’. What is not understood however, is how marijuana came to be banned in Pennsylvania. I can not find anything that has ever been written about it. I have been spending some time trying to unravel it all. Some of the pieces are falling into place but I need further and deeper investigation to get the whole story, the big picture. Who knows how long it will take me, perhaps months or even a year or more. However long it takes I intend to get to the bottom of this.
Here are a few interesting things I have found so far.
The election for governor of Pennsylvania in November of 1930 was intense. The country was eleven years into the failed experiment with alcohol prohibition and Pennsylvania was flat out sick of it. In most of Pa. state and local officials refused to make arrests for alcohol. They let the feds take care of that for the most part.
I am from Ephrata in Lancaster County. My great, great grandfather was a bartender at a place called the Owl’s Club. My grandfather would sometimes tell me about him. I don’t know exactly the years that he was a bartender there but late in prohibition federal agents raided the place. Barrels and barrels of beer and alcohol of all kinds. They had been operating freely with no interference by Ephrata cops. The feds said that they were “Shocked at how easy it was to get a drink in Ephrata”.
So in 1930 the issue of alcohol prohibition became the NUMBER ONE ISSUE of the campaign for governor of Pennsylvania. Within the Republican party there was much dissent. As a party in general they were all for prohibition but there were many in the party who saw no harm in having a drink every now and then and were fervently against prohibition. Many announced that they were bolting from the party and campaigning for the Democrat candidate over this over this one issue, including the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
After all sorts of jockeying for position, political intrigue and so forth, Gifford Pinchot emerged as the winning candidate for the Republicans and was as “dry” as they get. He was a true believer in prohibition. He had lived for awhile in Germany when he was young and said the appalling memories he had of the shocking use of alcohol made him firmly against it. He thought that the government should use all the resources it took to stamp out this “evil” from society. He vowed that he would direct Pennsylvania law enforcement to start cracking down hard.
Gifford Pinchot was a former governor of Pennsylvania. Back then you could not run for two successive terms. He had been governor from 1923-1927. He waited it out for 4 years and then jumped back in, determined to stamp out alcohol completely.
In the Democratic party it was the opposite but the same. As a party they were largely united against prohibition. In the primary fight, groups like ours were sending out questions to all the political candidates asking them if they supported repeal of prohibition on a state and federal level. A lot of stuff was happening in that race too and it is fascinating to follow. To make a long story short, the winner of that race was a man named John Hemphill. John Hemphill hated prohibition. He called it an insidious cancer eating away at Pennsylvania. The Liberal party of Pa. endorsed Hemphill. Some Democrats jumped ship and joined the Republicans.
When the election came in November of 1930 Gifford Pinchot defeated John Hemphill by a slim margin of just 58,000 votes. That is a narrow victory considering that millions of votes were cast. The Socialist and the Communist parties also got tens of thousands of votes but they were not a factor in the election results. Had all third party candidates voted for Hemphill it just would have made Pinchot’s victory even more narrow.
The defeat of Hemphill may have changed history here in Pennsylvania. Governor Pinchot would become the first governor in the history of Pennsylvania to sigh a prohibition law against cannabis and hemp. He took office in January of 1931 and just less than 2 1/2 years later he would sign the bill banning “marihuana”.
Pinchot was a Skull and Bones guy. Ironically, he is known as a great conservationist, was friends with Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot National Park is named after him.
It is my sincere belief that they smoked the hemp buds here in Pennsylvania from the beginning. I believe they always did. The hemp they grew was not the same as today’s strains of “industrial hemp”. There was no such thing back then. It may have not been the greatest but it did have psychoactive properties. I believe many of them intentionally grew the more potent strains in their garden. Definitely by the 1840’s cannabis medicines were all over the state.
Some historians assert that smoking “marijuana” was unheard of and never practiced in this country until it was introduced at the World’s Fair centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876. After that Turkish “smoking parlors” were in every major city on the East Coast. In New York City there were more smoking parlors than there were speakeasies during prohibition.
Regardless of when they started smoking cannabis in Pennsylvania, whether they always did it or whether they started in the 1840’s or the 1870’s or when, we DO know for a FACT that by the 1920’s it was well known here in all parts of the state and it became ESPECIALLY popular here during prohibition.
Imagine Pennsylvania in the 1920’s. A world where alcohol is illegal but you can freely smoke as much hemp tops as you could gather with both arms. At that time everyone agrees and there is no dispute that hemp was growing wild all over the state and it was also being grown by the acres intentionally by many throughout the state. All perfectly legal. A lot of people didn’t even notice. In the 1920’s farmers were still growing hemp in many of the rural parts of Pennsylvania. They grew it for all kinds of reasons, including seeds for chickens. Some grew it as insect repellent buffers between potatoes crops and so forth. These are facts based not on anecdotal evidence but facts that were asserted and documented in the 1920’s around here.
By 1931 when Gifford Pinchot came to power in Pa. cannabis had been banned already in dozens of states and Pa. was hearing the call of reefer madness from California and Texas and other states. Some people were beginning to pay attention here.
I need to dig deeper because so far anyway, I have not found much of a campaign against “marihuana” here in Pa. between 1931-1933 when it was banned. I have so far not found the debates yet. Surely they must have discussed and debated it? I am hoping that evidence exists somewhere but so far it eludes me. It almost seems like the General Assembly just decided one day to make it illegal. It was passed into law on May 22, 1933. (Actually, heroin and cocaine had already been banned and they just amended it to include “marihuana”.
Now, from May of 1933 until 1939 it gets interesting. Believe it or not, a lot of people simply did not get the news that it was banned. There were old farmers out there who had been growing hemp all their lives and remember when their fathers and grandfathers grew it. As the campaign against “marihuana” proceeded, law enforcement came up against this argument from the people of Pennsylvania again and again.
In the early part of 1938 a Harrisburg newspaper sounded the alarm and called for a statewide campaign to crush the “reefer” industry in the state. All of a sudden the war started. Hundreds of people were arrested and by the end of they year they announced that marihuana had finally been crushed in Pennsylvania. They declared mission accomplished.
But of course it wasn’t over. In 1939 Governor Earle took over and escalated the reefer rhetoric and continued the war. Now look how far they’ve got…
One of the unfortunate victims of the campaign of 1938 was an 81 year old Lancaster County hemp farmer named Enos Sheaffer. When he was charged with producing a hundred pounds of pot he admitted that the crop was his but that he had no idea whatsoever that it was illegal. As far as Enos was concerned, he was growing hemp for seeds for his chickens to eat. At his trial he told the judge that head grown the plant for many years and that his father had grown it.
I have gathered a lot of information lately. A lot of names. The whos, whats, where’s and whys. I can’t wait to put it all together and tell the whole story. That’s just a taste and a little sample.
Oh yeah, here’s something interesting. So Gifford Pinchot, the governor who signed the bill into law had a niece. She had a well documented affair with JFK. She is the one you may have heard of that smoked pot with the president. She is also rumored to have given him LSD. After JFK was assassinated she called her friend Tim Leary and said that she was scared. She said that they killed him because he was changing too fast and they couldn’t control him anymore. She often walked with JFK along the towpath. Less than a year after JFK was killed, she was murdered, shot at close range in the head and chest along the same towpath. Strange, huh? The niece of the man who made pot illegal smoked pot with the president of the Untied States.
So in the beginning of 1933 the writing was on the wall. Pinchot could not stop the war on the people from ending. He found another evil. That evil was “marihuana”. It was passed on May 22, 1933. Alcohol prohibition ended in December, just 5 months later. Pennsylvania was the 35th state to ratify the 21st amendment. Our delegate was John Hemphill.
~KCC Executive Director, Les Stark