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Prohibition ’37: Vinson For The Prosecution

Vinson & McCormack
Vinson & McCormack

Continued from last week’s AVA, the Congressional hearing at which marijuana prohibition was debated. The witness, Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association, expressed opposition to the pending bill. He was relentlessly attacked by Fred Vinson of Kentucky (who would go on to become Secretary of the Treasury under Truman and then Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court) and John McCormack of Massachusetts (who would become the House Majority Leader in 1940 and eventually Speaker of the House). 

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We of the medical profession are interested, as are all citizens, in the prevalence or the growth of any narcotic habit. We are interested particularly in this bill because it proposes to tax physicians who desire to use cannabis. And it taxes the pharmacists and the manufacturing pharmacists and others who supply them. I think I may safely say that the American Medical Association would enter no objection at all to the inclusion of Cannabis Indica or the various types of Cannabis, in the Harrison Narcotic Act. Under that act we are already paying a slight tax, such a tax as is sufficient merely to give the government jurisdiction. We have certain order forms that we have to fill out to get the drug. We are required to comply with certain conditions in giving prescriptions for any of the narcotic drugs. And if cannabis should be included in the drugs so named, I feel quite sure in saying that there would be no objection.

If this proposed bill is constitutional, there can be no reason why its provisions should not be incorporated in the Harrison Narcotic Act. If it is not constitutional, obviously it should not be enacted.

VINSON (in prosecutor mode): Doctor, what is your connection with the American Medical Association?

WOODWARD: I am the director of the bureau of legal medicine and legislation and act as legislative counsel. I have been a member of the association since 1892 or 1893. I should explain, perhaps, that I am a doctor, licensed to practice medicine. I am also a member of the bar, a lawyer.

VINSON: You and your association favored the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act?

WOODWARD: I will not say we favored it. We felt it was an experiment.

VINSON: What was the position of the American Medical Association at the time the Harrison Narcotic Bill was being considered?

WOODWARD: So far as my recollection serves me, they were in favor of state legislation.

VINSON: And that is the position you take today, is it not, in regard to marijuana?

WOODWARD: That the most effective way is adequacy of state legislation plus federal aid. Cooperation between the federal government and the states with respect to the transportation of marijuana in interstate commerce and foreign commerce through the mails.

VINSON: Now I understand that you have received no instruction and had no specific authority from the American Medical Association to state their position in respect to this bill but that you felt safe in submitting their position; is that right?

NARRATOR: Evidently Anslinger had an ally or allies at the AMA who were challenging Dr. Woodward’s right to speak for the group.

WOODWARD: The policy of the American Medical Association is determinable by our house of delegates or our board of trustees when it comes to legislation of this sort. The house of delegates not being available from which to receive instructions, and the board of trustees not being available, I received instructions from the executive committee of the board of trustees to appear here and oppose this bill.

VINSON: Let us see. You have a house of delegates?

WOODWARD: Yes, sir.

VINSON: Is that a popular body in the association?


VINSON: They have not acted, have they?

WOODWARD: They meet once a year and have had not a chance.

VINSON: And what was the other group that had not acted?

WOODWARD: The board of trustees.

VINSON: How are they selected?

WOODWARD: They are elected by the house of delegates. That is the governing body in the interim between the annual meetings.

VINSON: And this other group, the executive council?

WOODWARD: The executive committee of the board of trustees.

VINSON: They are a smaller number?

WOODWARD: They are three or five men that get together during the intervals. They can do it more conveniently than nine men can from all over the country.

VINSON: When did they get together?

WOODWARD: It must have been the 19th or 20th of April.

VINSON: After the introduction of this bill?


VINSON: They got together and advised you of their position?

WOODWARD: They did.

VINSON: And that followed, in a general way, the attitude of the American Medical Association in respect to the Harrison Narcotic Act?]


VINSON: You seem to take issue with the gentlemen representing the Treasury on the legal proposition; but I did not hear you say anything about the analogy of this act to the firearms case.

WOODWARD: What I had in mind was an analogy of this act to the old Child Labor Tax Act. The Court said in that case, “There comes a time in the extension of the penalizing features of the so-called tax when it loses its character as such and becomes a mere penalty with the characteristics of regulation and punishment.”

VINSON: When that same argument was directed at the Harrison narcotic statute, that argument fell, did it not?

NARRATOR: Vinson had been a prosecutor before his election to Congress. He still had his chops.

WOODWARD: Fell by a divided court.

VINSON: I say it fell.

WOODWARD: It fell, yes.

VINSON: While it was a divided court, it fell.


VINSON: How long has it been that the American Medical Association has been critical of the Federal Government in the matter of enacting legislation looking toward the control of the marijuana habit?

WOODWARD: It is not a habit that is connected with the medical profession, and the medical profession knows very little of it.

VINSON: I did not ask you that, doctor.

WOODWARD: It arises outside of the medical profession, and the American Medical Association has no more evidence concerning the extent of the marijuana habit than this committee has.

VINSON: My question was this. Has the American Medical Association taken cognizance of the marijuana habit and the need for its control?

WOODWARD: Only in connection with the development of a uniform State narcotics act.

VINSON: Let us see, doctor... I hand you here the first editorial in the issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association dated January 23, 1937, and it is headed “Opium Traffic in the United States.” I want to read an editorial that you did not call our attention to: “Closely allied with the opium traffic is the present situation with regard to Indian hemp, or marijuana. There is as yet no federal legislation penalizing traffic in this drug, and Federal efforts are at present largely confined to restriction of imports and cooperation with those states or local bodies which have effective regulations.” It just seems to me that that is something of a criticism that the federal government as yet has passed no legislation penalizing the traffic in this drug.

WOODARD: Mr. Vinson, if you will read that as a whole, you will find that it is substantially a review of a report made by the Commissioner of Narcotics, and mirrors the facts and opinions that were embodied in his report.

VINSON: Do you not think that an editorial appearing in a great periodical such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, which does not attribute its conclusions to Mr. Anslinger's report, is entitled to consideration?

WOODWARD: It is a discussion of the opium traffic in the United States and the footnote reference is as follows: “Anslinger, HJ Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous drugs for the Year Ended December 31, 1935, US Treasury Department, Bureau Narcotics.”

VINSON: What does that footnote refer to? I did not expect this of you. That footnote refers to a certain report?


VINSON: A report that was made by Mr. Anslinger?


VINSON: The rest of that editorial is not a quotation from Mr. Anslinger's report. They are giving a history, a picture of the opium traffic; is not that correct? That is, the opium and other narcotics traffic.

WOODWARD: They are mirroring the picture of the opium traffic given by Mr. Anslinger, as you must realize if you see the figures that are embodied in the statement. We certainly could not get those figures otherwise than from Mr. Anslinger's report.

VINSON: I ask you here whether this is the language of the editor who wrote the editorial, or whether it is the language of the Anslinger report. “Closely allied with the opium traffic is the present situation with regard to Indian hemp, or marijuana.”

WOODWARD: I do not know whether that is a substantially direct quotation from Mr. Anslinger's report or whether those are the words of the editor based on the report.

VINSON: To the ordinary person who would read this editorial, either a doctor or a layman, this editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, January 23, 1937, would there be anything to even squint at that being other than an editorial comment?

NARRATOR: Joe McCarthy had nothing on Fred Vinson. William Woodward had a backbone.

WOODWARD: In answer to that I can say that no person of judgment reading that editorial would attribute it to any source other than Commissioner Anslinger's report.

McCORMACK: Editorial comment, of course, determines the policy of a magazine or newspaper?

WOODWARD: Not at all.

McCORMACK: The editorial page is where I always look to find out the policy of the paper.

WOODWARD: The polices of the AMA are made by the house of delegates, and under our bylaws, no one is authorized to express an opinion on behalf of the AMA, except the house of delegates, other than the board of trustees, in the interval between annual meetings, may they find it necessary to do so.

McCORMACK: Did the house of delegates tell the editor what he should write?

WOODWARD: Certainly not.

McCORMACK: Assuming that what you say is correct, would the average reader not infer that the editorial policy of the paper accepts the report of Commissioner Anslinger as the basis of their editorial?

WOODWARD: As the basis of the editorial. They are informative editorials.

NARRATOR: What we nowadays call “op-eds.”

WOODWARD: The average one is an informative editorial rather than one that determines the policy or indicates even the policy of the association. The editor would not dare to express the policy of the AMA in the editorial columns of the Journal in any way contrary to the policy as determined by the house of delegates.

THOMPSON: Doctor, is it not a fact that Dr. Fishbein is the editor of the American Medical Journal?


THOMPSON: And does not the American public generally regard Dr. Fishbein as representing the views

WOODWARD: I can hardly say what the American public—

THOMPSON: It seems that way out in my country at least. When he speaks, people think that the American Medical Association expresses itself through Dr. Fishbein.

VINSON: Doctor, you say that the medical profession have not seen that there is an increased number of addicts to marijuana. The very last sentence in this same editorial conveys to me that not only is the menace recognized, but there is lack of control. Quote: “The two problems of greatest menace seem to be the rise in the use of Indian hemp, with inadequate control laws, and the oversupply of narcotic drugs available in the Far East, which threatens to inundate the western world.”


WOODWARD: I think we agree that based on Commissioner Anslinger's statement, that does seem to be the case.

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