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Prohibition ’37: The IRS Agent Job Creation Act

The hearing at which marijuana prohibition was discussed by Congress in 1937, continued from last week's AVA. The witness,

Joseph B. Hertzfeld of the Philadelphia Seed Co., testified that “Hempseed is very beneficial because it adds the proper oil to the mixture and promotes the growth of feathers, and it is also a general vitalizer.” But he would willingly accede to a Treasury Department demand “to have the seed sterilized so that it cannot be grown and thus cause any harm.”

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CROWTHER: Would the sterilization prevent the germination remove such of the drug as exists in the hull or the outside cover of the seed?

HERTZFELD: I cannot answer that. We have seen evidence by eminent authorities that there is not any of the drug in the seed.

CROWTHER: Someone testified that there are some particles of the resin on the outside of shell of the seed.

HERTZFELD: (indicating exhibit) The type of seed that we use is this seed here. That is this brown seed dried and matured.

DOUGHTON: Is there any of the residue on that seed when it comes into your possession?

HERTZFELD: No, that is gone. When this seed is matured and dry we grind the shell off in the threshing operation. I had occasion to write to the Bureau of Plant Industry in the Department of Agriculture about this in 1935, and under date of October 4 I had a communication from FD Richey in which he said, “The female inflorescence of the plant possesses physiological properties that are the basis of abuse as a potent drug. The seed is considered to be devoid of such properties.” It has been used for various purposes for years, and I have never heard of any ill effects. On the contrary, it seems to be extremely beneficial.

NARRATOR: Is the momentum about to change?

HERTZFELD: We would like to have the privilege of having the use of that seed until it is definitely proven that the sterilized hempseed should not be used.

THE NARRATOR shakes his head in dismay.

DISNEY: As I stated a while ago, out in our country marijuana is known as an ordinary weed that grows in back yards, and in any place where plants will grow. It is not the ordinary field hemp that is used for fibers?

HESTER It is the ordinary field hemp growing wild, or at least without the extensive cultivation necessary to provide good fiber. The committee may have been confused because we have used the term marijuana in this bill.

NARRATOR Yes. Why did you, Mr. Treasury man?

HESTER: The reason for that is this. This is the hemp drug, commonly known in Mexico and in the United States as marijuana. It is just a colloquial term in Mexico, as I understand it, and means the flowered tops and leaves of the hemp plant, which may be eaten or smoked. We could not make Cannabis Sativa, the hemp plant, the subject of the taxes contained in this bill, because it was not intended to tax the whole plant, but merely the parts of the plant which contain the drug. The parts of the plant which contain the drug are commonly known as marijuana, so the taxes were imposed on “marijuana.”

In addition I might say that some people say that the marijuana seed should be called fruit, because botanically speaking it is a fruit, not a seed. However, it is known commercially and commonly as a seed.

DISNEY: I notice that in section 1, at the beginning of the bill, in subdivision c it says that the producer is one who... “fails to destroy marijuana within 10 days after notice that such marijuana is growing upon land under his control.” To what extent do you expect to go along that line, where it is an ordinary weed?

HESTER: The person on whose land the plant was growing wild would be notified by the Treasury Department, and if he did not destroy the weed, he would become a producer under the bill, and subject to the tax. He would not be committing a crime if he failed to cut it and would merely have to pay a tax.

LEWIS: Suppose he is not raising it for the market.

HESTER: He would be a producer under the bill. That is the only way it can be handled, I believe. Since this plant will grow wild, a person might evade the occupational tax on producers by stating to the internal revenue agent that the plant was growing wild.

NARRATOR (as if asking Hester): How many IRS agents would it take to survey every acre of every farmer's land?

DOUGHTON: I have had considerable experience in trying to destroy weeds, and it requires a lot of expense. Who would defray the expense required in fighting and destroying that weed?

HESTER: He does not have to destroy it if he does not want to; but if he does not, he pays a small occupational tax.

LEWIS: How much?

HESTER: Twenty-five dollars a year.

REED: I know something about farming. I know that we have tried on our farms to keep out certain weeds, but we could not do it because the expense is too great. You will have a revolution on your hands if, as you say, this plant grows generally throughout the country and you try to charge the farmers a tax of twenty-five dollars, as you said.

HESTER: Suppose the poppy from which you extract opium grew wild. You would have exactly the same situation. That is the only way in which it can be controlled.

REED: Take for instance, wild carrots. I defy any farmer to eliminate them unless and until he summer-fallows the ground.

HESTER (defiant): Do you think farmers would not be willing to cooperate with the government in stamping out this marijuana by paying a small tax?

REED (realistic, assertive): Do you imagine that all through our country where a farmer has, say 25 acres, they are going to pay an occupational tax of $25 dollars?

HESTER (unctuous in retreat): You gentlemen in Congress, of course, can fix the occupational tax at any amount that you see fit. That is merely a suggestion.

DISNEY: I would like to know this: When I see these weeds growing as they do in our part of the country, I imagine there is enough marijuana growing in one back yard to enable a man to get on several hilarious drunks. I would like to know what happens when that weed is growing there.

HESTER: Our government has to notify you under the bill.

DISNEY: I am trying to think of it and get some information in a practical way. Of course I am in favor of the main purpose of the bill — to stamp out the use of the drug.

REED: I would like to go the limit to accomplish that purpose also. But you have a very serious problem here if this grows wild as many weeds do.

HESTER: Here is the situation. Most of you gentlemen are lawyers, and you know you have to have an occupational tax to have a revenue bill. You would have to impose some kind of an occupational tax on a farmer. What the amount of the tax will be is entirely a matter for the committee to decide. We only require them to notify the government.

NARRATOR: Big brother only wants to watch.

REED: I can see a lot of trouble unless this is properly worked out, because if you are going to start on a program of exterminating some weed, a weed that grows generally throughout the United States, you are undertaking a program that will be difficult and expensive.

HESTER: In 1914 the Harrison Narcotic Act provided for doing the same thing, which included the word “producer,” and the only thing is that it so happens poppies cannot be grown in the United States... It does not seem to me to be an undue hardship to put a small occupational tax on a person who has this growing wild on his land. The government could get no information whatsoever from him otherwise. It is the only way the government could get any information as to where this is growing wild.

REED: But the next step is to destroy the weed?

HESTER: Not necessarily to destroy it, but so that the Government will know where it is. There is no provision in the bill that requires them to destroy it. It says to the farmer, if you do not destroy it within 10 days, you will have to qualify as a producer and pay a small occupational tax.

REED: What is the government going to do then — put a man there to watch it?


REED: How will it stamp it out?

HESTER: If the farmer does not want to pay the small occupational tax, he will have to destroy it himself, or congress will have to make an appropriation for the Department of Agriculture which will permit them to send people throughout the country to stamp it out.

REED: You are looking at it from the Government-bureau point of view, and I am looking at it from the practical farmer's side, with this weed spreading all over creation. If this weed has spread so that it has become a menace, the farmer will have to hire men to go through his meadows and cut out this weed, and the expense will be greater than you realize. Does this hemp spread as other weeds do?

HESTER: Dr. Dewey is the botanist.

DEWEY: I think it can be killed easily. It is, in fact, a plant growing only from seeds, and can be exterminated once and for all by merely cutting it down before it goes to seed.

FULLER: If the seed is on the ground it may be covered up and may keep covered up for years.

DEWEY: Ordinarily one cutting would eliminate it. There might be some seeds that would remain the next year. I have seen it growing year after year in the same place when it was not cut because no stock would eat it. Of course, it is all introduced from the type that is distributed from the birds, and the birdseed does come up year after year from self-sown seed, but the type that is grown for fiber production does not —

HESTER: Under this bill, if you grow this wild, it is the duty of the government to notify you; and if you do not destroy it within a certain length of time after you are notified, then you are required to qualify as a producer and pay some small occupational tax. And the only reason for that is that that is the only way the Government can acquire information and where it is going wild.

LEWIS: Does it seem to you gentlemen who have studied the subject with a view to eliminating the evil that the growth of this plant must be completely eliminated?

HESTER: It will have to be under control in order to prevent evasion of the producer's tax.

DINGELL: Mr. Hester, do you not believe that the average farmer would be willing to use a mowing machine or a scythe if he thought that in that way or any way at all after a year or two years he could exterminate and kill the weed which kills people?

HESTER: I would be amazed if they would not.

DOUGHTON: You must know how difficult this work of extermination would be. On some farms you could not use mowing machines for any such purpose because of the roughness of the ground and rocks. It would be an almost impossible undertaking to remove these weeds to the extent of exterminating them.

DEWEY: I was in the Department of Agriculture from 1890 to 1935. During the first 10 years my work was chiefly on weeds and how to kill them. The last 30 years I had charge of the work with fibre-producing plants like hemp. This work required travel in all parts of the country, and I learned to look for weeds from the car windows or where I found them.

Thousands of letters came to me asking about weeds and, so far as I can recall, there were only four asking about hemp as a weed, and in these instances it was not a troublesome weed but merely a new plant that looked like a weed to the farmer who asked the question. Although I was looking for weeds and all plants that might be troublesome as weeds, I never found the hemp plant to be really a troublesome weed.

Hemp is an annual plant, growing only from the seeds. It does not have a perennial root or roots stalks like Canada thistle or Johnson grass and therefore, it may be easily exterminated by cutting it before the seeds are produced.

When it grows as a weed, it does not produce many seeds, and it does not spread rapidly as do wild carrots, which Mr. Reed mentioned, and other really troublesome weeds. It grows as a weed along roadsides, railways, in waste lands, on overflowed lands along rivers and where seed from bird cages has been thrown out in backyards. This weed type often reseeds itself and persists in the same place year after year. Stock do not eat the plant. As a weed, the plants are usually only a few in a place, or at most a few square rods.

The largest plant of hemp known to me as a weed was in waste land along the railway between St. Paul and Minneapolis. I watched this plant every year or two for a period of at least 10 or 15 years and it did not increase materially in size.

NARRATOR: The next speaker according to the Congressional Record, was Congressman Crowther, and his comments seem a little... disjointed.

CROWTHER: Has there been any increase in the use of this marijuana drug during the last year or two, in cigarettes or otherwise?

HESTER: I will have to refer that question to Commissioner Anslinger.

ANSLINGER: There has been.

CROWTHER: According to a brief that has been submitted, as a rule the addict passes into a dreamy state, in which judgment is lost, the imagination runs rampant; he is subject to bizarre ideas, lacking in continuity, and losing all sense of the measurement of time and space. I was wondering if there was a very marked increase in the smoking of this drug in cigarettes last year, following the period of September and October.

ANSLINGER: It has been on the increase.

CROWTHER: Has it increased lately?

ANSLINGER: There has been a decided increase in the number of seizures, or the number of seizures in 1936 over the number in 1935.

NARRATOR: Of course the number of seizures could have gone up because the Treasury Department authorized more raids. Or because all those under-utilitized Prohibition agents needed to justify their employment.

VINSON: Would you say that a prolonged period of suffering over a period of several years would have anything to do with the forming of the habit?

ANSLINGER: No, sir! I might say with respect to the question of the farmers destroying the weeds that we have found a number of instances where the weed was growing on property, and when we have called it to the attention of the property owners, we have found that they have not only gladly cooperated in destroying the weed but they have destroyed them by burning with a view to getting rid of them entirely. We have never found a case where a property owner has not cooperated with us in getting rid of this destructive weed.

NARRATOR: Which makes you wonder why they were pushing so hard for this prohibitive tax. Before adjournment Hester added a big “if” to the concession the birdseed producers thought they had won by promising to sterilize their product.

HESTER: If at some later date it develops from experience or chemical analysis that marijuana is still in the seeds after sterilization, and that they are being smoked throughout the country, we might have to come before the committee again and propose an amendment which would strike out this language.

CHAIRMAN: We thank you for your statement.

End of Act Two.

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