In doing research for our feature on the history of cannabis in Colorado, we came across some amazing old news stories from local papers about marijuana arrests and more. We'll share the most memorable of them in our quasi-regular feature, Colorado Cannabis Time Capsule.
Today's item, from August 9, 1937: "Marijuana American Hashish; School Children Buy Drug."
Last week we wrote about a salacious August 8, 1937 Rocky Mountain News expose featuring two reporters slinking out into the late night on Larimer Street to score some "hay." But the day after that article appeared, the Rocky published one of the better pieces we found -- one that offered an interesting look the cannabis culture of the 1930s. The writers looked at cannabis from a wide angle, talking about who used it, what it does and what penalties were like. But while it's a more balanced look at things, it is, of course, sprinkled with a heavy dose of racism and fear, as the scary headline indicates.
"Beet workers, returning from the fields, bring sacks filled to the brim with marijuana," the article states. Police Judge Ellet Shepherd -- who proudly brags about sentencing "scores of addicts and peddlers to jail" -- tells the Rocky that the workers do it to help augment their "scanty income." Yes, even back then, we knew we were paying these workers a below-livable wage and then criminalizing them when they tried to make a little side scratch.
Which they apparently could, because Colorado was considered a paradise for marijuana growers compared to other states. The story chalks this up to the almost mythic-sounding claim that the minerals in the soil here offer the perfect mix to grow the most high-grade cannabis known to man. Colorado ganja was so good that it easily fetched a higher price than Nebraska and Iowa weed on the black market in Chicago. (Boom! You can have your damn corn!)
In a surprising moment of honesty and clarity, there is brief mention of marijuana being used medically along with other drugs to treat "nervous headaches" -- though the reference includes the caveat that doctors use it sparingly and little had been done to study the plant up to that time.
And then it's right back to good old blatant racism, with comments about marijuana being a common drug around the world -- especially in the "Orient," where the article claims people are "particularly addicted" to its use. The writer quotes a current (at the time) manual of pharmacology that goes so far as to say Asians show marked intoxication compared to other people and the high is often accompanied by "some irritability, dozing" and "hallucination of double personality."
Another report cited says that nearly every smoker becomes an imbecile at some time. This wasn't meant as an insult, but as a serious health warning. "Imbecile" was an actual medical term used for people with moderate to severe mental retardation and an IQ no greater than fifty. Police also said that smoking marijuana and drinking booze caused people to run amok and commit senseless acts of violence.
Page down for the rest of this week's Colorado Cannabis Time Capsule. But it's wasn't just terrifying Mexican beet workers, irritable Asians and stoned-drunk psychopaths who were into marijuana. According to this article, marijuana was apparently used by musicians. Shocker. And not just any musicians: We're talking band musicians "of the 'swing' variety."
This passage reads comically now, especially when the writer talks about the "greater sense of harmony and increased ability to concentrate" the musicians experience. Move it forward thirty years and this is almost exactly the same crap reporters wrote about hippie bands.
Finally, after you've read about this horrible weed and its effects on the crazy minorities and musicians, the article hits you with the danger this herb posed to children (gasp!).
This section starts by talking about the rise in price around Denver during the dry months before the big September harvest, as well as inflation caused by "police drives" -- the colloquial term for police raids back then. But apparently making a bust wasn't that easy. The article says vendors could conceal the drug easily and sellers were usually busted for vagrancy, not on marijuana charges. "Evidence sufficient to prosecute successfully is hard to get," the writer states. That sure is different from today.
June, July and August were hard times to come by herb because the new harvest wasn't in. Subsequently, prices were jacked sky high. A tobacco tin's worth would fetch $5, stems, seeds, leaves and all -- maybe an ounce or so, just based on the size of tobacco and cigar tins from that era. That sounds paltry, but if you plug the figure into an inflation calculator, it comes up to around $80 in today's money. Nothing a kid could afford.
But when the September and October harvest rolled around, the article said the price dropped to $3 to $5 per pound. Joints sold for a dime apiece. And that, readers, is when children were at the highest risk of danger. Their puny allowances can't afford the herb in the dry months, but come fall, they could spend their tiny lunch money on one or two joints a day.
But that's it -- nothing more about kids and drugs. One small paragraph, no statistics, no source for the information, nothing. The writer just leaves the whole thing hanging on a final quote from Judge Shepherd for the mothers of Denver to freak out on -- which they likely did.
"It's a poor man's drug used as an escape from harsh reality," he said, no doubt in an blustery old-timey fashion while clutching his gavel. "We may not be able to control the use of it by adults, but we should certainly keep it away from our children."
More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Amendment 64 critic on why Boulder DA should take action against backers" and "Medical marijuana dispensary re-review: Fall harvest at Grassroots Grown in Sunnyside."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.