In 1936, the editor of a newspaper in Alamosa, Colo., wrote a letter to Henry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the federal government’s Bureau of Narcotics. The letter, introduced as evidence into a congressional hearing, informed Anslinger about a “sex-mad degenerate” who had recently “brutally attacked a young Alamosa girl” while under the influence of “marihuana,” as it was then spelled.
“This case is one of hundreds of murders, rapes, petty crimes, (and) insanity that has occurred in southern Colorado in recent years,” proclaimed Floyd K. Baskette, city editor of the Alamosa Daily Courier. “Can you do anything to help us?” And then this nasty bit of racism: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents.”
The next year, the U.S. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which subjected sales of cannabis to taxation that required a permit. Soon after, a 23-year-old from Trinidad, Colo., named Moses Baca became the first person arrested under the new law. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. The second person nabbed was a 57-year-old laborer, Samuel Caldwell, who was convicted of selling three marijuana cigarettes in downtown Denver. He served two years in prison. So began our long adventure in the criminalization of marijuana.
The federal agency never issued a permit under that legislation, and in 1970, Congress defined marijuana as a controlled substance, further giving muscle to eradication efforts in 1973 by creating the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Now, of course, 20 states and the District of Columbia have allowed some use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and in Colorado and Washington state, the federal government has chosen to ignore recreational use as long as the two states block sales to young people and control by cartels.
Figuring out how to govern this new use has been a fascinating challenge for Colorado during the last year. Many towns want nothing to do with marijuana; others embrace sales, and the taxes they generate. One ski town, Breckenridge, even expects to get $1 million in taxes this year. Most sales seem to be to tourists.