The push to ban cocaine and opium (and later marihuana) at the federal level ran into a serious obstacle: the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states:
"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."
In short, there was simply no constitutional authority which would allow the federal government to override state laws and the right of the citizens to ingest whatever substance they wanted. It must be remembered the federal government was designed to be a Republic, a government that was only allowed to exercise the limited, specified powers given to it by the Constitution.
A clever idea emerged which would circumvent or do an "end-run" around the Constitutional limitations. Instead of a passing an unconstitutional ban on narcotic drugs, the government would instead use its power to "tax" - and thus regulate - possession and use of whatever it wanted.
The Harrison Act of 1914, which 'taxed' cocaine and opiates, was the federal government's first attempt to criminalize and outlaw narcotic drugs like opium, heroin, morphine, and cocaine. Proponents of the Harrison Act played on populace fears of "drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes" and made reference to negroes under the influence of drugs murdering whites, degenerate Mexicans smoking marijuana, and Chinamen seducing white women with drugs. Medical doctors testified that drugs made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers, and caused them to rebel against white authority. One medical doctor brazenly testified at a congressional hearing that: "most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain." - Dr. Christopher Koch, State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established in 1930, and the naming of Harry J. Anslinger as its director was the beginning of the war on marijuana. With the help of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Anslinger began the campaign to make marijuana illegal at the federal level.
Just as the federal government had used fear, prejudice, racism, and false stories of violence to 'tax' cocaine and opium products like heroin and morphine, in 1914, the newly formed Bureau of Narcotics used similar themes of uncontrollable violence and falsities to demonize marijuana. Movies and advertisements ran in theaters and newspapers around the country warning of the evils and dangers of its use: "Beware! Young and Old - People in All Walks of Life! It contains the Killer Drug "Marihuana" - a powerful narcotic in which lurks Murder! Insanity! Death!" Stories were told of people who became insane and uncontrollable criminals as a result of smoking marijuana. Marihuana was repeatedly referred to as "The Devil's Harvest" or "Devil's Weed."
The billboards and movie posters from this era speak louder than words. Remember that the United States as a country was still mired in the Great Depression and about to enter World War II. The patriotic sentiment and faith at the time just could not comprehend that the government would lie to its citizens. Unfortunately, the evidence uncovered shows that it did just that.
A government financed movie named 'Reefer Madness' was released in 1936. Among other things, it showed 'evidence' of how the lives of four high school students, lured to try marijuana by a drug pusher, spiraled out of control. The movie included a hit and run accident, suicide, homicide, rape, and the rapid descent of marihuana users into madness. The so called 'evidence' in Reefer Madness was later proven to be utterly false. This interesting propaganda movie was thought to have disappeared, but was discovered in the Congressional Archives in the 1980's by NORML. It is available to rent or view through Netflix or a similar company.
After a two-hour committee hearing and a 92-second debate on the house floor, marijuana was de facto criminalized by Congress with the passage of The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937, signed into law by President F.D. Roosevelt. A violation of the Tax Stamp Act was a felony with a maximum fine of $2,000 and/or 5 years in prison.
Like the Harrison Act passed twenty-three years earlier, the 1937 Marijuana Act did not make possession or use of marijuana illegal, as this would violate the Tenth Amendment's limitation on federal power. Instead, the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act required that the person possessing the marijuana have a "tax stamp."
In a classic Catch-22 situation, it was a legal impossibility to obtain a marijuana tax stamp for recreational use. Why? Because to obtain a tax stamp you had to have the non-tax stamped marijuana in hand. Since you did not have a tax stamp for the marijuana in hand - for which you sought a tax stamp - you were instantly guilty of a five year felony. This same "tax" tactic was used during Prohibition (1920's) to ban machine guns. Not surprisingly, there was not a single recreational marijuana stamp tax ever issued.