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Oct. 2, 1937 - First Marijuana Seller Convicted under US Federal Law Is Arrested



Mug shot of Samuel R. Caldwell.
Source: NORML.org (accessed Feb. 21, 2012)

"On the day the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act was enacted -- Oct. 2, 1937 -- the FBI and Denver, Colo., police raided the Lexington Hotel and arrested Samuel R. Caldwell, 58, an unemployed labourer and Moses Baca, 26. On Oct. 5, Caldwell went into the history trivia books as the first marijuana seller convicted under U.S. federal law. His customer, Baca, was found guilty of possession...   

Caldwell was sentenced to four years of hard labour in Leavenworth Penitentiary, plus a $1,000 fine. Baca received 18 months incarceration. Both men served every day of their sentence. A year after Caldwell was released from prison, he died."       

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In October, 1937, in Denver, Colorado—now a state on the forefront of the medical marijuana movement—the first man ever arrested in America for selling cannabis was busted peddling three joints. 57-year-old Samuel R. Caldwell, an unemployed laborer and former whiskey-runner during Prohibition, was sentenced to four years hard-labor in Leavenworth Prison and fined a then staggering $1000. Rob Hill unravels the events, politics, players—and conspiracies—that surrounded this momentous but often forgotten debacle that helped shape anti-marijuana propaganda for the next half century. In the early-’30s the cell blocks at The United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth—then the largest maximum security federal prison in America, located in Leavenworth, Kansas— were arranged in a telephone pole format extending out from a main, dour, castle-like building. Designed by the legendary architectural fi rm of Eames and Young, the prison walls were 30-feet high and over 3,000 feet long, sprawling out over some 20-acres of bone-dry Midwestern plains. Its domed, or main building, was called “Big Top” and the smaller structure next door was called “Hot House” due to the poor ventilation—it functioned more like a concrete sweat lodge than a prison, its temperatures during the sweltering Kansas summers rising to over 125 degrees. It was around this time the famed and mysterious “No Human Contact” basement bunker was built, sending chills to even the hardest of convicts in Leavenworth, as temperatures were reportedly 150 degrees and higher in the new dungeon.

At the time, Leavenworth was home to such prisoners as the gangster John “Sonny” Franzese of the legendary and bloody New York Colombo crime family; George “Bugs” Moran, an Irish thug who battled Al Capone for control of Chicago’s criminal underground; Fritz Joubert Duquesne, the Nazi spy hand-picked by Hitler; and the ruthless killer George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who during the Depression may have killed more people than any other American. (More recently, the prison housed the NFL’s Michael Vick for his unlawful dog fighting venture.)

In a small cell along “Murder’s Row” was one Samuel R. Caldwell, a meek-looking fifty-something drifter, who held the distinction of the first American ever arrested for selling cannabis. On October 2, 1937, the unemployed and former whiskey moonshine distiller was busted by Denver police Bobbies and federal agents for selling “three cannabis cigarettes” to a man named Moses Baca, 26. (Caldwell claimed he obtained the cannabis from a wild growing marijuana orchard outside Kansas City.) Caldwell was sentenced to 4 years hard labor with no parole, and fi ned a then unheard amount of $1,000. His trial took all of two days.

Rumor has it that Caldwell, while in Leavenworth, worked in the barber shop and kept to himself—the first ever inter-prison murder had occurred few years earlier and had put everyone on high alert. And on August 12, 1938, less than 2 years into Caldwell’s sentence, the first double execution took place at Leavenworth, as felons Robert Suhay and Glenn Applegate were hanged. What’s more, the building now housed 500 of the baddest men 1930s American could offer, “the greatest concentration of thugs, murderers, degenerates, Communists, mobsters, bank robbers, and cop killers” and, of course, Samuel R. Caldwell, the dirt-poor marijuana cigarette peddler.

1937: On a brisk early fall day in downtown Denver, Colorado, a gaggle of policemen and federal narcotics officers stormed the Lothrop Hotel at 1755 Lawrence St., looking for room 109, the residence belonging to Samuel R. Caldwell, an unemployed laborer from Indiana now living in Denver. Caldwell was linked to a man arrested a few days before (Baca) for selling him a couple “marijuana cigarettes.” As they thrashed about his seedy room, overturning the bed, and drawers, they found what they were looking for: 4 pounds of marijuana. According to one of Caldwell’s friends, Alex Rahoutis, “he had only been selling cannabis for a few months to help pay the bills and that he [Caldwell] was a drinker and didn’t smoke weed.” In fact, Caldwell had quite a criminal record— with alcohol that is: He had been arrested a few times before, during Prohibition, for bootlegging homemade whiskey.

The judge who was assigned to Caldwell’s case, John Foster Symes, was deeply offended by Mr. Caldwell’s actions. After sentencing him to four year’s hard labor, he said: “I consider marijuana the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or codeine. Under its

influence men become beasts. Marijuana destroys life itself.

I have no sympathy with those who sell this weed. The government is going to enforce this new law to the letter. ”Newspaper headlines across the country blazed with salacious headlines: POLICE BLAME MARIJUANA FOR MAJORITY OF MURDERS AND SEX OUTRAGES; MARIJUANA PEDDLER GIVEN FOUR YEARS IN PEN AND $1000 FINE; GOVERNMENT KILLS THE EVIL WEED AT ITS ROOT. Curiously enough, it was the papers owned by then publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst, and articles written by Henry Anslinger, that carried the most pulpy and fear-mongering stories.

Henry Jacob Anslinger was born in 1892, the son of a Swiss-immigrant barber father and German mother, in Pennsylvania. When he was 12-years-old he witnessed an event that would shape his life forever: He was awakened by the harrowing screams of a morphine addict in the apartment below that were silenced hours later after a family member was sent to the pharmacist to supply the addict with more morphine. He was appalled that the drug was so powerful and readily available.

After toiling in the railroad business for a while as a young adult, Anslinger went back to school and, upon graduating, landed a job in the United States Bureau of Prohibition, and moved to Washington, DC. As the war of Prohibition raged—with politicians, cops and lawyers routinely bought off by the underground alcohol cartels—Anslinger quickly gained a reputation as an honest and tough-minded lawman, and in 1930 was appointed the Commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (F.B.N.). Although mild restrictions for marijuana started in the District of Columbia in 1906, the laws were largely not enforced, as the main concern related primarily to the fear that “weed” use would spread as a substitute for opiates among “whites.” And up until 1934, Anslinger showed little interest in demonizing marijuana, or its users and sellers— spending much of his time battling the opium and heroin trade. That all changed 4 years into his tenure as the push to outlaw cannabis—and industrial hemp—zealously became his main focus. Why marijuana and industrial hemp? And why now? Hemp had been grown and cultivated in America since our forefathers wrote the Constitution, making everything from rope to paper to clothing. It was versatile, easy to grow, and plentiful. Many believe that Anslinger had monetary and political gains at stake. His friendship with newspaper baron, William Randolph Hearst, who stood to lose a lot of money if hemp paper mills proliferated, and Anslinger’s alleged investments in the petrochemical giant DuPont, whose new product rayon was a direct competitor to industrial hemp, had critics of his whispering. Others feel that he believed a tax on marijuana could be easier to regulate if it included hemp, which could mean millions for the government. Either way, the anti-cannabis propaganda that was unleashed on America was fierce, unforgiving and, looking back, almost entirely yellow-journalism fueled hyperbole, often times racial.

Sometimes, even, Anslinger would write editorials himself demonizing the weed. In an edition of the popular magazine The American Magazine, he wrote, without corroboration: “An entire family was murdered by a marijuana addict in Florida. With an axe, he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and sister. He had no recollection of committing the heinous crime.” In another article, he wrote: “Colored students at the University of Minnesota were smoking marijuana with a few white coeds… the two negroes kidnapped a girl under the influence of hemp…after she was rescued by policemen she was found to be suffering from syphilis.” It’s no surprise, then, that Anslinger was on a train heading to Denver when Caldwell and Baca were arrested. Upon arriving in Denver, he, depending on what newspaper you believe, quipped sensationally about the Mexican-American Baca, “…there seems to be some gunplay involved in his marijuana arrest.” (To this day, there were never any facts that a gun was involved in either Boca or Caldwell’s arrest.)

Appearing incognito in court, sitting alone In the back, Anslinger finally met reporters on the steps after the case. The Denver Post quoted him saying, “Marijuana has become our greatest problem. Its sale and use has found its way into at least twenty-fi ve states.

Until the new law [The Marihuana Tax Act] went into effect we of the narcotic division were powerless.” The Marihuana Tax Act (then spelled with an “h” not a “j”) officially went into effect on Friday, October 1st, just a few days before Caldwell was arrested. (There is some debate whether Caldwell was arrested on October 2nd or on October 6th or 8th. It was reported differently in various newswires and papers.) The Act did not itself criminalize the possession or usage of hemp, marijuana, or cannabis, but levied a tax equaling roughly one-dollar on anyone who dealt commercially in cannabis, hemp, or marijuana.

The anti-marihuana law of 1937 was largely the federal government’s response to political pressure from enforcement agencies and other alarmed groups who feared the use and spread of marihuana by “Mexicans.” Recent evidence also suggests that the F.B.N. resisted the enforcement burden of the anti-marihuana law until mounting pressure on the Treasury Department led to a departmental decision, in 1935, to appease this fear.

According to historian, writer (author of The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control), M.D., and professor at Yale, David

F. Musto, who has studied marijuana and its history in America for most of his adult life, the social reformers successfully initiated federal restrictions on cannabis, along with alcohol, opiates, cocaine, and chloral hydrate in the first decade of this century. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required that any quantity of cannabis, as well as several other dangerous substances, be clearly marked on the label of any drug or food sold to the public. Early drafts of federal antinarcotic legislation, which finally emerged as the Harrison Act in 1914, also repeatedly listed the drug along with opiates and cocaine.

Cannabis—and hemp—didn’t survive The legislative gauntlet, most likely because of the pharmaceutical industry’s opposition.

At that time, and for at least a decade longer, the drug trades did not see any reason why a substance used chiefly in corn plasters, veterinary medicine, and other non-intoxicating forms of medicaments should be so severely restricted in its use and sale. Even the reformers claimed, in the pre-World War I hearings and debates over a federal antinarcotic act, that cannabis was a problem of any major significance in the United States.

But some influential people did.

Dr. Hamilton Wright, a State Department official who from 1908 to 1914 coordinated the domestic and international aspects of the federal antinarcotic campaign, wanted cannabis to be included in drug abuse legislation chiefly because of his belief in a hydraulic model of drug appetites. He reasoned, “Along with numerous other experts, that if one dangerous drug was effectively prohibited, the addict’s depraved desires would switch to another substance more easily available…cannabis should be prohibited in anticipation of the habitual user’s shift from opiates and cocaine to hashish.” In certain areas of the United States, however, the fear of “marihuana” was becoming even more intense. According to Musto’s research, these areas mostly coincided with concentrations of Mexican immigrants who tended to use “marihuana” as a drug of “entertainment” or “relaxation.” During the decade Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, rapidly increased into the regions from Louisiana to California and up to Colorado and Utah. Mexicans were useful in the United States as farm laborers, and as the economic boom continued they received inducements to travel to the Midwest and the North where jobs in factories and sugar beet fi elds were available.

Musto found that although employers welcomed them in the 1920s, Mexicans were also feared as a locus of crime and deviant social behavior. By the mid-1920s, horrible crimes were attributed to marijuana and its Mexican purveyors. Legal and medical officers in New Orleans began studies on the evil weed, and within a few years published articles claiming that many of the region’s crimes could be traced to it. Musto writes: “And when the great Depression settled over America, the Mexicans, who had been welcomed by at least a fraction of the communities in which they lived, became an unwelcome surplus in regions devastated by unemployment. Considered a dangerous minority which should be induced to return to Mexico by whatever means seemed appropriate, they dwelt in isolated living groups. Southwest police and prosecuting attorneys likewise raised a continual protest to the federal government about the Mexicans use of the ‘weed.’” Then a curious thing happened: In February 1937, The National Firearms Act was introduced. According to Musto, “The National Firearms attacked machine guns by saying you could not sell or loan somebody a machine gun, until you had first purchased a machine gun transfer stamp. And the government did not make any machine gun transfer stamps. So this was their way of trying to control machine guns.” It was upheld by the Supreme Court, and within a month, the treasury was in to Congress saying they wanted a marijuana tax stamp act, in which you could not give, barter or sell marijuana unless you had a marijuana tax stamp. The fear-mongering was taking shape and Anslinger was the body who was to blow the spores of anti marijuana propaganda far and wide—using any means necessary.

Technically, in the end, Caldwell—and Baca— were arrested for not having obtained and paid for the one-dollar stamp that allowed them to distribute or buy cannabis legally.

But where would one obtain such a stamp in 1937? That’s never been clarified. In fact, it was not until 1969’s Leary v. United States that part of the so-called Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional since “a person seeking the stamp would have to incriminate him/herself in the process.” But it was too little, too late, for Samuel

R. Caldwell. He served his four years in prison and used his life savings to pay the fi ne. He died alone, in Colorado, shortly after being released and has all but been forgotten in the annals of history. (For the record, Baca did everyday of his 18 months in jail but then disappeared and no record has been found of what became of him.)

But there is a delicious irony in all of this that, perhaps, has Caldwell chuckling in his grave. As of the printing of this magazine, 14 states have legalized medical marijuana: Alaska, California, Washington, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and, yes, Colorado. In fact, there are over 50 dispensaries in Denver, alone.

Including a few within blocks of 1755 Lawrence Street.

Edited by grassmatch
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