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October 8, 1937 - First-Ever Federal Marijuana Convictions in the US

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

This Day in Cannabis History:

It was 84 years ago today that the first federal convictions for marijuana in the United States were handed down in Colorado.

As Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, anti-drug zealot Harry J. Anslinger made it his mission to criminalize cannabis. After years of propaganda designed to stir up racist hysteria against Mexicans and "negro" jazz musicians, Anslinger finally succeeded in convincing Congress to outlaw the herb; a version of the legislation he’d drafted was signed into law on August 2 and went into effect as the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 on October 1. Though it didn’t technically outlaw cannabis, it allowed those possessing or selling it without the proper tax stamps (which would be impossible to obtain without incriminating one's self) to be arrested and jailed.

On October 4—just three days after it went into effect—a 23-year-old Mexican man in Denver named Moses Baca became the first person ever charged with marijuana possession under the new law. Police reportedly found a quarter ounce of reefer in one of his dresser drawers while arresting him at his boarding house on a “Drunk & Disturbance” charge the previous morning.

According to an article in the Denver Post, Baca reportedly cited marijuana as the reason for him beating his wife:

“Under its influence [Baca] said, he became a wild beast, and two weeks ago tried to murder his wife, the mother of his three children.”

Many years later, however, it was learned that Baca had been known to drink Sterno (yes, the canned fuel) to get stoned, which was far likelier the cause of his alleged hallucinations and violence.

The very next day after Baca's arrest (October 5), another man was also charged under the new law in Denver—this time, for allegedly selling three "marihuana cigarettes" to some random guy he met on the street. A former bootlegger who didn't even smoke weed, Samuel R. Caldwell (a 57-year-old white guy from Indiana) had evidently just started selling weed a few months prior. Following his arrest, police discovered another four pounds of weed hidden in his hotel room.

Samuel R. Caldwell's mugshot
Samuel R. Caldwell's mugshot

Their grand jury indictments were handed down on October 7th...but it was on this day—October 8th, 1937—that both men were brought into court and plead guilty. Moses Baca was sentenced to 18 months in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Directly after Baca's hearing, the same judge sentenced Caldwell to four years (also in Leavenworth). Though the proximity of their two cases led to the public perception that it was Caldwell who sold Baca the marijuana, that claim was eventually disproven.

Oct 8, 1937 edition of the Denver Post (notes by Uncle Mike).
Oct 8, 1937 edition of the Denver Post (notes by Uncle Mike).

Remarkably, the Drug Czar himself attended the sentencing—traveling two days by train just to make an appearance and grandstand on the issue. “These men have shown the way to other district attorneys thruout [sic] the nation,” Anslinger told the Denver Post. “Marijuana has become our greatest problem."

For more on this topic, check out the related articles featured below.


Editors note: World of Cannabis acknowledges Colorado cannabis activist/historian Uncle Mike for his great investigative work in uncovering many of these lost historical facts, with co-conspirators in research Julian D. Alexander & Gregory Daurer.

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