Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt - who was born 135 years ago today - is an enigmatic figure in cannabis culture. His arguments in support of repealing alcohol prohibition in America - which he accomplished in 1933 - can be applied to support cannabis legalization. But at the same time, he's the president who signed marijuana prohibition into law in 1937. So at first glance, he's both a hero and a villain in the legalization movement.
But the whole story is much more complicated than that. Here's an overview of Roosevelt's complex position on prohibition.
A 'Damp' Candidate
While campaigning for president in 1932, Roosevelt pledged to repeal alcohol prohibition. It was a defining moment in his evolving political career.
Although he himself drank, Roosevelt was hesitant to cast his lot in with "wet politicians" who wanted to repeal the federal ban on alcohol in the late 1920s. FDR's hesitance was pragmatic rather than personal: siding with the wets could alienate dry voters. So when he ran for governor of New York in 1928, he campaigned as a "damp candidate" - someone who supported the rights of individual states to decide the legality of liquor.
Sound familiar? The "let states decide the issue" has become a position adopted toward cannabis by politicians like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and even Donald Trump. So candidates today are still following in Roosevelt's footsteps when it comes to marijuana.
When public opinion soured to prohibition, Roosevelt championed repeal during his first run for the presidency. But even then, his stance was guarded. When addressing prohibition in a famous campaign speech from 1932, he argued that "the intemperate use of intoxicants has no place in this new mechanized civilization of ours." He added, "we may differ as to method, [but] we all agree that temperance is one of the cardinal virtues."
So Roosevelt agreed that drunkenness was a social evil, but he also said that federal prohibition was a complete disaster.
"[T]he methods adopted since the World War with the purpose of achieving a greater temperance by the forcing of Prohibition have been accompanied in most parts of the country by complete and tragic failure. I need not point out to you that general encouragement of lawlessness has resulted; that corruption, hypocrisy, crime and disorder have emerged, and that instead of restricting, we have extended the spread of intemperance."
So trying to suppress drinking only led to widespread alcohol consumption. FDR argued that the experiment failed because temperance was an issue for the church and the home, not the federal government to sort out. By interfering with morality, the feds essentially encouraged criminality and supported illegal enterprises that didn't return one cent to the government in taxes.
"The only business of the country that was not helping to support the Government was in a real sense being supported by the Government," he said. "This was the business that was the direct product of [alcohol prohibition] — a business which is lucrative, vicious and corrupting in its influence on the enforcement agencies of Government."
In other words, prohibition wasn't just bad social policy. It was bad business. So instead of meddling in the American people's liquor cabinets, FDR argued that the states should be allowed to decide what was legal for residents to consume.
"The experience of nearly one hundred and fifty years under the Constitution has shown us that the proper means of regulation is through the States, with control by the Federal Government limited to that which is necessary to protect the States in the exercise of their legitimate powers."
If you take all of those above quotes and swap out "prohibition" with "the War on Drugs," you can use FDR's arguments to tear apart the rationale for cannabis prohibition -- an even more disastrous enterprise that fuels organized crime, costs billions of dollars and inflates America's prison population -- which are disproportionately comprised of racial minorities. And for all that, the drug war hasn't curbed cannabis use -- recreational or medicinal. Sounds like the sort of broken system that Roosevelt would campaign against.
Yet cannabis is illegal thanks in large part to FDR. His administration promoted The Marijuana Tax Act, which essentially prohibited the use, production and sale of marijuana as well as hemp nationwide when Roosevelt signed it into law in 1937.
So much for the rights of states.
Hemp for Victory
But Roosevelt the pragmatist reared his head again in 1941, when he signed an executive order legalizing hemp production for the war effort. Basically, hemp could be used to make rope, oil and other essential World War II materials. And his administration was so desperate for it, that they even released the short film "Hemp for Victory" (1942), which encouraged farmers to grow the essential crop.
So Roosevelt's America gave us both the pro-cannabis "Hemp for Victory" as well as the anti-marijuana movie "Reefer Madness" (1936). And that contrast might be the perfect way to sum up the FDR's contradictory words, beliefs and actions when it came to the prohibition of social vices.