Hemp, Hearst, and Prohibition

A popular urban legend claims that William Randolph Hearst conspired to make cannabis illegal in the United States.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies, History & Pseudohistory, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #401
February 11, 2014
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

One of the most popular urban legends in American counterculture is that of the hemp conspiracy. It's a complex tangle of facts and fiction surrounding the long history of how and why marijuana became illegal in the United States. It's a tale of economics, robber barons, racism, and back-room conspiracies. What string of events could have led to this most versatile of materials, and among the safest of psychoactives, being vilified by the law and nearly nonexistent from industry?

Hemp, cannabis, marijuana are all the same thing. Just as there are different types of roses or tomatoes, there are different types of cannabis. All varieties produce tough hemp fiber that has myriad industrial uses, notably in paper, fabric, rope, even construction bricks. Some strains produce more or less hemp seed, which can be used in foods. But most notably, some strains produce a lot of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a psychoactive that triggers relaxation and produces changes in the senses. As an analgesic, THC has long been available by prescription in a synthetic form; but with all the different strains available, many habitual users prefer different varieties. But, we all know that basic stuff already. But what we don't all know is how exactly it came to be illegal.

The usual claim, most often repeated, is that four conspirators cooperated to kill the hemp industry with something called the Marihuana Tax Act (spelled with an H) of 1937. These conspirators are identified as newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, whom the legend describes as being heavily invested in the timber industry to support his papers; the DuPont family, whose chemical company had just invented nylon and was allegedly afraid of competition from hemp fiber; Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the nation's richest man, who had significant investments in DuPont; and Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who drafted the legislation. To protect their industrial interests, these parties are said to have conspired to make hemp illegal.

This conspiracy theory was always around, but it reached prominence beginning in 1985 with an outrageously popular self-published pamphlet called The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by pro-marijuana activist Jack Herer. Herer continued revising his book until his death in 2010, and it's available online at JackHerer.com. Except that he generally exaggerates the medicinal value of cannabis and industrial uses of hemp, his book is a fairly true history of cannabis in the United States. The biggest hole in the story Herer tells is that he largely glosses over the fact that hemp was virtually nonexistent in the country before his conspirators got around to conspiring against it — largely due to racism combined with the same evangelical forces that were behind the prohibition of alcohol.

The word marijuana was popularized by the forces who were out to ban it, well represented by Anslinger, a career crusader against the drug and alcohol trades. Before Anslinger took the helm of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, marijuana was called Indian Hemp or Cannabis India. In a political spin move, Anslinger pointed to immigrant Mexicans and blacks as the prime users of illicit cannabis, and he began publicly referring to it as marijuana (the Mexican name) as a weasel word to associate it with low-status or criminal immigrants.

The conspiracy of Hearst, DuPont, and the others, as described by Herer, was greatly exaggerated. For one thing, by the time of the Marihuana Tax Act, hemp planting had managed to grow to an all-time high of only 14,000 total acres in the United States. Compared to hundreds of millions of acres of timber and about 10 million acres of cotton, hemp's market share and consequent threat it posed to wood and cotton was completely insignificant.

And it was only going to continue to get worse anyway. Many laws had been passed making cannabis illegal decades before the alleged conspiracy between Hearst, DuPont and the others. California had banned non-prescription cannabis in 1913 as part of a campaign against drugs that was largely anti-Chinese; New York City in 1914; Texas in 1915. Enforcement was almost entirely against Mexican and black communities.

The basic argument against Hearst's motivation to conspire against a cheaper alternative to paper is that, as a newspaper baron, he was a buyer of paper, not a manufacturer of it. Typically, buyers are delighted to have a cheaper alternative; or at a minimum, enjoy the reduced prices resulting from a competition-driven price war. If Hearst had been a savvy businessman, he would have been more likely to play both sides against the other in order to secure the best deal for himself. Reduced supplier competition would have created a seller's market, in which a buyer like Hearst would have suffered; increased supplier competition would have created a buyer's market in which major purchasers like Hearst would thrive.

However, the hemp conspiracy also has an answer for this. Hearst, it's said, also owned vast timber holdings and paper mills to fuel his insatiable appetite for more paper; hemp paper would have threatened his timber empire. So, where exactly was this timber empire so popularly described? Although the Internet alludes over and over again to Hearst's "vast timber holdings" and his "vast acreage" and the "Hearst Paper Manufacturing Division of Kimberly-Clark", no such empire existed.

Hearst did own one significant paper related business. In 1920 he purchased the Dexter Sulphite Pulp & Paper Company in New York state, which was a processing mill that bought wood from timber companies; there was no "vast acreage" owned. Hearst's idea was to produce paper for his newspapers. But it turned out not to be a good fit for the mill, so the company reverted to producing wrapping paper and wood fiber. He later sold the affair to lumbering giant Kimberly-Clark.

Surely Hearst must have owned timberlands somewhere? Hearst inherited two major pieces of land: the 270,000-acre San Simeon in California, later the site of his famous Hearst Castle; and the 900,000-acre Babicora Ranch in Mexico. Later he purchased the lease that was inherited by one of his cousins on the 50,000-acre Wheeler Ranch in Northern California. San Simeon and Wheeler Ranch were both retreats that were never commercially lumbered in Hearst's lifetime, although his trustees began lumbering on Wheeler Ranch after his death. Babicora, which Hearst later expanded to about 1.5 million acres, was a cattle and horse ranch.

William Randolph Hearst as a timber baron appears to be entirely fictional. Though paper suppliers were absolutely among the many industries in which he owned securities, Hearst was a buyer of paper, not a seller. It would have made no sense for him to shun a more profitable option, or to encourage the paper manufacturers in which he held interests not to expand. This popular myth about Hearst is also debunked by one of today's leading cannabis proponents, Dr. Dale Gierenger, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in his paper The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California. He writes:

Herer has never produced an iota of evidence to substantiate this theory. To the contrary, according to Hearst's biographer, W.A. Swanberg, Hearst's newspaper empire was heavily dependent on imports of Canadian newsprint, rising prices of which left him seriously strapped for cash by 1939. It therefore seems that it would actually have been in Hearst's interest to promote cheap hemp paper substitutes, had that been a viable alternative.

Hearst's newspapers absolutely did sensationalize and exaggerate marijuana crimes and the dangers of the drug, but so did virtually all publications of the day. Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics pumped a constant stream of hysterical press releases to satiate the media, blaming murders on single reefer doses of the drug, and all sorts of crazy amplifications. A 1936 church film called Tell Your Children was massively promoted nationwide and remade by Hollywood as the 1938 Reefer Madness, a cautionary tale designed to show the horrific results of marijuana. By the time the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, the United States population was well primed to view cannabis as the deadly symbol of the criminal immigrant class.

But as we now know, the government's public opposition to hemp was short lived. Only a few years after the tax act, we were embroiled in World War II, and resources of every type quickly become precious. In 1989, a videotape was rediscovered showing a 1942 war propaganda film called Hemp for Victory. The war effort called upon farmers to produce hemp as much as possible to address the need for ropes and fabric that even our gargantuan cotton industry couldn't keep up with. There's a popular urban legend that says when George H. W. Bush was a young pilot who was shot down in the Pacific, his parachute was made of hemp fabric, his parachute lines were of hemp rope, his engine was lubricated with hemp oil, and when he was picked up by a ship, its ropes and firehoses were all of hemp. This is nearly all unverified, and highly improbable. There remained an almost total lack of cultivation in the United States, and most industrial hemp products of the day were made with hemp fiber imported from overseas. The war with Japan severely hampered those imports, so cotton had to do double duty and the call for renewed domestic hemp production was simply too little too late.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Products made from hemp oil and hemp fiber continued in industry after the war, though it was nearly all imported from Canada and other countries. Why didn't it take off? Two reasons. First, the anti-cannabis sentiment has continued. Second, industrial hemp is a fine product but it's simply not the miracle solution to every manufacturing need that many marijuana proponents, such as Herer, have made it out to be. It's good for coarse fiber but not for fine fiber, and it has so far never fulfilled its initial promise to successfully replace wood fiber in paper production. Hemp products do exist in industry, and they exist at a level pretty well established by supply and demand. No compelling reason exists to suppress hemp; but industry has also not found much reason to replace wood and cotton with it.

Cannabis hardly needed a conspiracy of Hearst and DuPont to put it out of business by the 1930s. It had already been doomed to extinction by racism, class warfare, and a complicit government and media to feed them. Though we often tend to look toward the rich and powerful to point the blame for society's missteps, oftentimes the true root of the problem is uncomfortably in our own back yards.

Brian Dunning

© 2014 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Adams, C. "Is Hemp the Answer to Our Environmental Problems?" The Straight Dope. Sun-Times Media, 31 Jan. 1997. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. <http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1116/is-hemp-nonpharmacological-marijuana-the-answer-to-our-environmental-problems>

Bonnie, R., Whitebread, C. "The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: An Inquiry into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition." Virginia Law Review. 1 Oct. 1970, Volume 56, Number 6.

Gieringer, D. "The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California." Contemporary Drug Problems. 1 Jul. 1999, Volume 26, Number 2.

Surgeon General. "State Laws Relating to the Control of Narcotic Drugs and the Treatment of Drug Addiction." Public Health Reports. 1 Jan. 1931, Supplement 91.

Swanberg, W. Citizen Hearst. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961. 581-582.

Wishnia, S. "Debunking the Hemp Conspiracy Theory." AlterNet. Independent Media Institute, 20 Feb. 2008. Web. 1 Feb. 2014. <http://www.alternet.org/story/77339/debunking_the_hemp_conspiracy_theory>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Hemp, Hearst, and Prohibition." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 11 Feb 2014. Web. 10 Oct 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4401>


10 most recent comments | Show all 28 comments

Thank you for another great episode! You're on a roll! Red flags always went up for me about this conspiracy theory. Thank you for exposing it and for presenting the truth, which in fact reflects even more poorly on Hearst and others for their racist paranoia.

Will Tomlinson, Houston, Texas
February 21, 2014 8:52am

Why no mention of Andrew Mellon's ties to Anslinger. Mellon a Big Banker, of the time appointed Harry Anslinger to the position of the first Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Andrew Mellon's bank was heavily invested in DuPont in terms of massive loans. How in the world did Andrew Mellon become head of the Federal Reserve in the first place. And how did he ever have the power to appoint someone to a new cabinet position?

Sally Moss, Flint, MI
March 3, 2014 6:34pm

"Hemp products do exist in industry, and they exist at a level pretty well established by supply and demand. No compelling reason exists to suppress hemp; but industry has also not found much reason to replace wood and cotton with it."

I'm not for or against hemp, but how can you say that they exist at a level established by supply and demand? Obviously! Everything is, but that doesn't mean that there wouldn't be a higher supply and/or demand if it wasn't ILLEGAL. Except for a few instances, hemp is illegal to cultivate in the US. The law of supply an demand is based on a free marketplace. There are high costs on importing hemp and restrictions on the volume that can be imported. Demand is stifled by the high cost of import and the supply is restricted by volume.

If hemp were legal to cultivate efficiently and wasn't restricted by volume there would be a different economic outcome. Maybe then the industry would find a reason to replace timber with hemp. Or not. But that's not a fair argument assuming the competitor to timber and cotton is ILLEGAL to cultivate in America.

Kevin, LA
March 3, 2014 8:09pm

Haley I fail to see how a machine invented in Italy in the mid 1800s is related to this article.

Peter, newcastle
March 20, 2014 4:39pm

I roll my eyes most times I see this particular issue brought up, thinking "oh great, now I have to listen to this pothead tell me why pot is great..."

But this was very accurate, down to the economics of why hemp products are not very popular. I especially liked the very concise elimination of "OMG RICH PPLZ!" as a cause for prohibition; Rich people don't make laws, corrupt politicians do.

James, Durham NC
April 7, 2014 3:07am

Good article, but I fully concur with what Kevin said. It's an extreme stretch to glibly say "they exist at a level pretty well established by supply and demand" when if you try to supply it in this country, you will have Federal agents pointing guns at your head.

Or, put another way, we prohibited it, and people aren't growing it, therefore it must not be desired. Utter, and complete garbage that detracts from an otherwise legitimate article.

Only when America fully legalizes industrial hemp production, will we know the true benefits. It might be great, it might not work out so well, but we need to let the market decide, instead of fear mongering neo prohibitionist politicians deciding for us.

Matt, San Diego, CA
May 6, 2014 5:03pm

Regardless of the benefit (or lack thereof) for hemp, the point of contention lies in whether or not private prison companies and pharmaceutical reps are lobbying for the continued illegality of the marijuana bud. To declare the stalk of a plant legal, but still say the bud is illegal is a contradicting piece of legislation.

I would like to see Bryan explore the extent to which pharmaceutical companies, private prison companies, police, drug cartels etc. are opposing current legislation. The general population appears to have no lasting significant sentiment against the drug, and even though Brian referenced hemp as not being particularly beneficial to an industrial market, I agree with earlier comments reflecting on the rise of supply/demand with legalization.

Anyways, love the site, love the discussions, glad there are intellectual forums in which you aren't ATTACKED for contributing a viewpoint/

David, Nashville
May 15, 2014 7:28am

Hearst had tens of thousands of acres in CA and CO and an empire of land in Mexico and it says even on Hearst corp's webpage that they have timber holdings at the "historic family ranch" in California. His father was a massively wealthy natural resource tycoon post Civil War, literally owning an empire of a million acres in Mexico. His profit from his investments (that you call securities) are absolutely what those of us who follow this theory are talking about. Publicizing false articles in the name of news is a loathsome act, no matter how you try to mitigate it a generation later.

The Alternet article doesn't tractably absolve Hearst of culpability, glossing over that issue by saying basically, "Well everyone was racist and terrible back then anyway!" It was not authored to specifically debunk Herer's tract*, and not all of us got to here through there anyway. That article's actual intent is to focus on the racism and class warfare of the 30s in order to draw parallels to our own time.

Here's another article with a bit about the History of Hemp cultivation in the US. Cotton's win had more to do with the invention of the cotton gin and ease in industrial production than anything else. It also seems that the founding fathers had trouble producing the good fiber for export. Popular racism does not absolve Hearst from sin.


*If your political enemies are lying and stretching the truth, turnabout's merely fair play

June 30, 2014 3:13am

"No compelling reason exists to suppress hemp; but industry has also not found much reason to replace wood and cotton with it".

You are committing the fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. Why does it have to replace cotton and wood? Why can we not produce both?

I used to have a hemp shirt that I really loved. It was cool and comfortable. I am not sure what happened to it. I think maybe it just wore out and someone eventually smoked it.....(LOL)

gigmaster, Chatsworth, Ga.
December 16, 2014 11:09am

If hemp makes better and cheaper paper than timber I guarantee some third world country would be flooding the market with cheap paper today. No conspiracy could prevent an industry from flourishing if it produces something people need. There is no ban on hemp paper anywhere yet you can't walk into the store and buy it for less than regular paper. I get this crappy conspiracy posted on my Facebook wall about ever week. This conspiracy only makes sense to people smoking pot.

Citizen Cane, Los Angeles
August 21, 2015 11:44am

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