Keepapitchininny bfwebster spotted this paragraph in a 2003 Salon post:
However, the first [US] state law outlawing marijuana did so not because of Mexicans using the drug. Oddly enough, it was because of Mormons using it. Mormons who traveled to Mexico in 1910 came back to Salt Lake City with marijuana. The church was not pleased and ruled against use of the drug. Since the state of Utah automatically enshrined church doctrine into law, the first state marijuana prohibition was established in 1915. (Today, Senator Orrin Hatch serves as the prohibition arm of this heavily church-influenced state.)
[18 March 2010: Please note that Pete Guither, the author of this Salon post, took part in our conversation and edited his old post as a result of that discussion. The Salon post no longer reads exactly as quoted here; this was an accurate quotation on 9 January 2009, however, when this post was published on Keepa.]
Google, if you dare, the words “Mormon Utah marijuana law.” You’ll find literally thousands of sites parroting this claim, in virtually identical language – I gave up trying to identify the first source from which the others plagiarize. Some sites are a little more creative: My favorite account — a speech delivered at the 1995 annual conference of the California Judges Association by Charles Whitebread, a professor at USC Law School, of all things — solemnly declares that the speaker has verified the history of the first U.S. marijuana legislation with “a lot of work” and “help from some people in Salt Lake City, associated with the Mormon Church and the Mormon National Tabernacle in Washington.” His meticulous research (**cough cough**) revealed:
In 1910, the Mormon Church in synod in Salt Lake City decreed polygamy to be a religious mistake and it was banned as a matter of the Mormon religion. Once that happened, there was a crackdown on people who wanted to live in what they called “the traditional way”. So, just after 1910, a fairly large number of Mormons left the state of Utah, and indeed left the United States altogether and moved into northwest Mexico. They wrote a lot about what they wanted to accomplish in Mexico. They wanted to set up communities where they were basically going to convert the Indians, the Mexicans, and what they referred to as “the heathen” in the neighborhood to Mormonism.
By 1914, they had had very little luck with the heathen, but our research shows now beyond question that the heathen had a little luck with them. What happened apparently — now some of you who may be members of the church, you know that there are still substantial Mormon communities in northwest Mexico — was that, by and large most of the Mormons were not happy there, the religion had not done well there, they didn’t feel comfortable there, they wanted to go back to Utah where there friends were and after 1914 did.
And with them, the Indians had given them marijuana. Now once you get somebody back in Utah with the marijuana it all becomes very easy, doesn’t it? You know that the Mormon Church has always been opposed to the use of euphoriants of any kind. So, somebody saw them with the marijuana, and in August of 1915 the Church, meeting again in synod in Salt Lake City decreed the use of marijuana contrary to the Mormon religion and then — and this is how things were in Utah in those days — in October of 1915, the state legislature met and enacted every religious prohibition as a criminal law and we had the first criminal law in this country’s history against the use of marijuana.
[Added 20 October 2009: Readers desiring a brief outline of the egregious historical errors of the foregoing paragraphs will find such an outline here.]
Most of this historical claptrap – and I defy all the experts at the Mormon National Tabernacle in Washington when I call it that – appears on sites dedicated to legalizing medicinal or recreational marijuana: Since marijuana was outlawed through anti-Mexican bigotry in the case of most states, and through religious prejudice in the case of Utah, the reasoning apparently goes, and since we are now enlightened beyond racial and religious prejudice, the drug should be legal. The myth demonstrates the process, so detrimental to public understanding of Mormonism and our history, that if you repeat a lie loud enough and long enough, especially without anyone’s attempting to correct the lie, it becomes “the truth” by default. This claim of Utah’s having passed the first state anti-marijuana legislation due to Mormon fiat can be found now in timelines of drug legislation history on serious websites not obviously linked to decriminalization politics.
But how do you go about combating such a myth? We could point to all the historical flaws in the paragraphs quoted above, but somehow I doubt that would persuade anyone – “I may have got some of the details wrong, but you guys still passed the first anti-marijuana law. That had to have been because of your religion.” End of discussion.
If anyone unfamiliar with Mormon history lands on this post and wants an outline of the historical flaws, feel free to ask in a comment or to write to me privately (keepapitchinin at AOL dot com). Here, I’ll try to correct the myth by explaining the real history of Utah’s first anti-marijuana legislation.
Utahns may have heard of marijuana in the 19th century, but there is little documentary evidence of that. The only pointed trace I have found so far is an 1877 German chemical analysis of American quack medicines, which was reprinted in Utah (“Patent Medicines and Secret Remedies,” Deseret News Weekly, 17 October 1877) in an effort to debunk the mystique of “secret formulas” by exposing their active ingredients. One – a single one – of a long list of patent medicines apparently contains a compound of marijuana:
Dr. Brown’s Chlorodyne contains 5 parts of concentrated muriatic acid, and 10 parts each of ether, chloroform, tincture of cannabis indica (Indian hemp), and tincture of capsicum, 2 parts each of morphine and hydrocyanic acid, 1 part of oil of peppermint, 50 parts simple syrup, 3 parts each of tincture of hyoscyamus and tincture of aconite.
A careful search for the terms marijuana, marihuana, loco-weed, Indian hemp, cannabis indica, and cannabis sativa in electronic databases turns up few further references to marijuana in Utah in the 19th century (although I did find a fascinating article, “Joy for the Topers,” concerning the hallucinogenic properties of peyote – “not considered dangerous like alcohol!” – in an 1896 issue of the Manti Messenger, which compared those properties to the visions, “generally of a gay character,” produced by cannabis. That article, note, was supplied as boilerplate by eastern companies that furnished much syndicated matter to small town newspapers; it was not written locally). For Mormons – for Utahns, for western Americans in general – “loco-weed” meant not cannabis, but a common western herb that crippled and killed their livestock, and “Indian hemp” meant not a hallucinogenic drug from the East Indies but the yucca fibers that held together ancient ladders leading to cliff dwellings, and the other plant fibers twisted by living Paiutes into the cords used in their rabbit hunts.
You may know from your reading of historical documents that in the United States, throughout the 19th century, there was virtually no regulation on the purchase or use of poisons, alcohol, and narcotics of any kinds. Temperance women might rail against Demon Rum and newspaper editors might rant against opium dens, but the production, distribution and use of those substances was not illegal. Laudanum (opium) was freely available from druggists, and even a child could purchase arsenic from the hardware store.
Too many suicides and accidents later, local, state, and federal governments began to pass regulations for such dangerous substances. First came laws requiring poisons to be sold in containers marked with a skull and crossbones, with the antidote printed on the label. This was followed by additional labeling laws, then by regulations governing by whom and to whom such substances could be possessed or sold, and in what strengths.
In 1907, the Miles Medical Co. of Elkhart, Indiana, purveyors of a patent medicine designed to cure headaches, whose ads were carried by the Salt Lake newspapers, complained – or was it a “complaint” meant only to advertise? – that they had been the targets of false statements accusing them of using dangerous narcotics in their product. They repeatedly offered a $5,000 reward,
to any person who can find one atom of opium, chloral, morphine, cocaine, ether, chloroform, heroin, alpha and beta eucaine, cannabis indica, or chloral hydrate or any of their derivatives
in their remedy. The recitation of that long list of drugs is no mere advertising invention. That is the list of narcotics that was beginning to come under regulation, a list apparently compiled by the American Pharmaceutical Association’s model legislation proposed to Congress in 1903. (Caveat: I am relying on summaries here, and have not yet found the exact wording of that model legislation.)
New York City passed its first regulatory law in 1906, followed shortly by Washington, D.C. The national Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906; by 1913, the states of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington had all passed drug laws governing the labeling of products containing a set of narcotics which included marijuana. The common origin (i.e., the national law) of all these state laws is obvious in their identical wording of that list of narcotics: “alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, alpha or beta eucaine, chloroform, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide.”
Other states passed pure food and drug laws similar to but differing in details from the national legislation: Louisiana’s law is structured very differently but regulates the same drugs, including cannabis. Utah’s law governed “cocaine, morphine, heroin, codein, alpha eucaine, beta eucaine, nova-caine [and] opium,” but did not mention cannabis (nor the chloroform, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide of the national legislation).
In other words, the placing of narcotics under state regulation was the mood of the Progressive Era, and was certainly not unique to states in the Mormon Corridor. [J. Stapley provides this link to the history of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act; and Justin provides this link to the texts of the actual pure drug laws enacted in the various states through 1913.]
I suspect that very few people, including Utahns, knew anything reliable about marijuana at that point. The Ogden Standard-Examiner of 17 January 1907 equated marijuana with hashish (a confounding of drugs appearing many times in my short research), and saying that some Asians used marijuana as a love potion: “The man’s brain becomes fogged, and he is ready to believe anything that is suggested to him.” The same paper of 5 February 1907 gravely informs readers that “a single grain of the resin of Indian hemp will produce catalepsy in a man.” A syndicated story in the Box Elder News for 7 November 1907, describes substitutes for tobacco, including “cannabis, a drug that gives one the desire to caress people’s feet.” The Salt Lake Herald of 23 November 1908 informed Utahns that “Indian hemp is smoked by nearly all classes in Jamaica, with terrible results. It is supposed that this weed was used by the leaders of the Indian mutiny to unbalance the minds of the Sepoys and to excite them into the terrible passions of raging mania which they exhibited during that campaign.”
Yet despite such horror tales and the legislature’s willingness to consider such laws in common with the rest of the country, Utahns resisted drug regulation laws to some extent. An editorial in the Salt Lake Herald, 9 January 1907, discussed the difficulties being imposed on druggists and grocers by the requirements of the new pure food law governing the use of opiates, and scoffed at such regulations as being tailor-made for the “dope fiend.”
[He] should glory in the new law. He will be able to discover just what drug contains the greatest percentage of cocaine, opium or morphine, and instead of frightening him into a disuse of the remedy, the siren voice of the label will be all the more captivating. The new law, in fact, does not drive cocaine-loaded mixtures from the market, but surrounds them with a halo having especial fascination for dope fiends of all degrees of degradation.
Nevertheless, regulators pressed on.
Contrary to the claims of the mythmakers, Utah was not the first to pass a statewide law controlling the sale and use of marijuana (beyond, that is, the labeling laws discussed above). No, that honor goes to the progressive state of … California! [Update: See Justin's note 38 for a possibly even earlier law in Massachusetts. Anyone writing seriously about this topic (i.e., not writing in haste for a blog) really needs to obtain the text of all these laws and verify their dates of passage from primary sources.]
Dale H. Gieringer, one of the less sensational voices discussing the history of marijuana laws, traces California’s marijuana laws to the 1910 immigration to California of a group of “Hindoos” (actually East Indian Sikhs and Punjabis), who may or may not have brought narcotics with them, and to growing prejudice against Hispanics who in fact had brought marijuana with them from Mexico to California. Reaction to these immigrants placed marijuana among the drugs to be regulated by California’s 1913 legislation governing the manner in which pharamacists could dispense poisons, including narcotics. While I initially accepted at face value Gieringer’s attribution of California’s law to anti-Indian, anti-Mexican immigrant prejudice, I have come to question that attribution — too many of the states known to have begun regulation of marijuana by means of their pure food laws had no contact with such immigrants. I can’t branch out to correct that misperception as well as those directed toward Mormonism, but somebody should.
Gieringer believes that the 1913 legislators intended to include marijuana among the controlled substances, but that through clerical or other error the word was omitted from the section of California’s 1913 Poison Act listing the actual drugs to be regulated. Marijuana was named in the following section governing paraphernalia, however:
Penal Code of the State of California 
Sec. 8a. The possession of a pipe or pipes used for smoking opium (commonly known as opium pipes) or the usual attachment or attachments thereto, or other contrivances used for smoking opium, or extracts, tinctures or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco weed, their preparations or compounds containing more than four grains to each fluid or avoirdupois ounce (except corn remedies containing not more than fifteen grains of the extract or fluid extract of hemp to the ounce, mixed with not less than five times its weight of salicylic acid combined with collodion), is hereby made a misdemerit. (emphasis added)
Utah passed its own omnibus pharmaceutical law soon after, in 1915. You’ll note, of course, that the section on paraphernalia below closely echoes California’s 1913 law. I do not know whether Utah based its law entirely on California’s, or whether both California and Utah were working from the model legislation proposed by the American Pharmaceutical Association. I suspect the latter, because Utah included marijuana in the list of regulated substances without repeating California’s omission.
[Note: I didn’t have ready access to the volume of 1915 legislation; 1917 is as close as I could come. The 1917 volume cites the 1915 legislation without intervening amendments; it is possible, however, that the numbering of title, chapter and section may not be quite the same in 1915 as in 1917. [Update: I now have the text from the 1915 legislation first published with the state's Compiled Laws on 14 January 1916 -- wording is identical to that quoted here, but its citation is Chapter 66, sections 8, 8a and 8b.]
Compiled Laws of the State of Utah .
Title 83. Pharmacy, Poisons and Narcotics.
Chapter 2. Poisons and Narcotic Drugs.
4432. Possession and use of narcotic drugs. Dispensing at retail and wholesale. Prescription by physicians, dentists, and veterinarians. Exceptions. It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to sell, furnish, or give away, or offer to sell, furnish, or give away, or to have in possession, any cocaine, opium, morphine, codeine, heroin, peyote (mescal button), alpha eucaine, beta eucaine, nova caine, flowering tops and leaves, extracts, tinctures, and other narcotic preparations of hemp or loco weed (cannabis sativa, Indian hemp), or chloral hydrate, or any of the salts, derivatives, or compounds of the foregoing substances, or any preparation or compound containing any of the foregoing substances, or their salts, derivatives, or compounds, excepting upon the written order or prescription of a physician, dentist, or veterinary surgeon licensed to practice in this state, which order or prescription shall be dated and shall contain the name of the person for whom prescribed, written in by the person writing said prescription; or if ordered by a veterinary surgeon it shall state the kind of animal for which ordered and shall be signed by the person giving the prescription or order; provided, however, that this exception shall not apply to anhalonium or peyote, the use whereof in any form whatsoever being hereby positively prohibited; and it is hereby further provided, that it shall be unlawful for any person, association, or corporation to carry or cause to be carried into or within this state any of said anhalonium or peyote, or any compound, manufacture, derivative or preparation thereof. … [followed by very long sections dealing with the forms of written prescriptions, transportation and delivery regulations, the process for tracking purchasers, prohibitions against providing the listed substances to addicts except in the course of treatment to lessen addiction, etc.]
4433. Possession of certain pipes and preparations unlawful. Penalty. The possession of a pipe or pipes, or other contrivances used for smoking opium (commonly known as opium pipes) or the usual attachment or attachments thereof, or extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations or compounds (except corn remedies containing not more than fifteen grains of the extract or fluid extract of hemp to the ounce, mixed with not less than five times its weight of salicylic acid combined with collodion), is hereby made a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punishable by the penalties prescribed in §4431.
(The reference to corn medication, by the way, is an odd little exception based on a very popular treatment in that generation. In 1881 the Deseret News gives the recipe from an exchange paper — not a local recipe — as
Salicylic acid, 30 parts; extract of cannabis indica, 5 parts; collodion, 240 parts. To be applied by means of a camel’s hair pencil.)
There is no hint whatsoever that Utah’s law – which, you now see, did not specially target marijuana, and did not even show any particular awareness of marijuana, but merely incorporated the language used by other entities to name marijuana among a whole host of regulated drugs – was spurred by religious concerns. There is no discussion of marijuana, no complaint about its use, no report of arrest for intoxicated behavior other than alcohol or Chinese opium use, no marijuana-related editorials, in Utah’s newspapers before the passage of the 1915 law. The Journal History (which is in effect a glorified scrapbook tracking Mormon history on a day-to-day basis) gives no hint that marijuana is being used by Mormons – in fact, the sole entry in its index for marijuana (or any of its variant names) is one from 1927, when Utah’s drug laws were being revised: a Deseret News editorial called for the strengthening of the law, reporting that some very recent drug prosecutions had been dismissed due to loopholes in the law. (An appeal of such a Utah case in State v. Navaro, 26 P.(2d) 955, illustrates such a loophole: The defendant had been charged with and convicted of “possession of marijuana” when the statute criminalized only possession of the “flowering tops and leaves” of the plant. The Utah Supreme Court upheld conviction.) There is no discussion of narcotic use of any kind, much less of marijuana, in the conference talks of 1910-1915. Perhaps most tellingly, there is no indication that the church or the state tried to curtail tobacco use or trade by legislation at that time, despite the very large body of documentation concerning Mormon opposition to tobacco.
So … with all due respect to that body of august scholars associated with the Mormon National Tabernacle in Washington, and with sympathy to all the tender feelings of thousands of pro-marijuana bloggers, I must submit my conclusion: Your tale of church-imposed state legislation to curtail the rampant drug use of Mormon polygamists is, I am forced to say, a pipe dream, a wisp of smoke, a lie with no basis in fact.
Help yourself to the Doritos. I know you need the comfort.