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The criminalization of marijuana in Georgia began in the 1930s



GEORGIA – When opioids hit the U.S. in 1775, their use remained widely medical, aiding Civil War soldiers in dealing with intense pain. However, over more than 100 years, the recreational use of opium became popular. In 1914 the federal government passed the Harrison Act, prohibiting the production and sale of opiates and cocaine.

Massive raids of cocaine, heroin and opiate sellers provided an opening for a marijuana boom in the South.

It became common during the early 1900s to use marijuana for recreational purposes, and the Harrison Act did not cover its use.

Many U.S. citizens feared that the effects of marijuana bore similarities to cocaine. States surrounding Georgia established anti-marijuana laws early on, possibly pushing sellers into the state.

On July 1, 1930, President Herbert Hoover established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The bureau became one of the federal government’s many attempts to create a division before the nationwide criminalization of narcotics. Federal and state law enforcement attempted to end marijuana cigarette sales by targeting growers through tips from locals.

In August 1934, law enforcement confiscated approximately $2,000 worth of marijuana cigarettes (slightly more than $39,000 in today’s currency) from two hot tamale salesmen operating on Marietta Street in present-day downtown Atlanta. Based on a tip from Georgia resident J.D. Nobles, police raided the hot tamale stand and accompanying restaurant, finding marijuana plants growing in the establishment’s back yard.

Local law enforcement and a Federal Narcotics agent charged J.L. Criner and Louis Ambria. Despite there being no law against the production and sale of marijuana, local law enforcement felt they violated Georgia’s pharmacy laws because Criner and Ambus were not authorized to sell a “mind-altering” substance.

Following the news of J.D. Nobles tipping off authorities, Atlanta citizens attacked him for two consecutive days. Nobles’ account of citizens following him with what he described as a machine gun prompted Atlanta police to place him in protective custody until Criner and Ambria’s trials.

Although the arrests of the marijuana sellers occurred on the same day, their sentences differed significantly. Ambria’s charges were dropped, while Criner faced jail time.

In October of the same year, Criner was sentenced to 12 months on the chain gang.

“You are guilty of an offense of great seriousness,” Judge Wyatt, who sentenced Criner, said. “When you sell a man this stuff, you do him more harm than if you took a gun and shot him down.”

The Marietta Street raid prompted state senators to discuss implementing a felony charge if someone is caught growing and selling the narcotic.

Six months later, the Georgia House passed an anti-narcotics bill making the Harrison Act a state law and banning the use and sale of all habit-forming drugs, including marijuana, in Georgia. Any violations of this law could mean a felony charge with a maximum of 10 years in prison.

The new provisions granted local police departments access to resources from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to eradicate the production of marijuana in the state.

Following promptly, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibited the sale of marijuana nationally, excusing the narcotic’s medical uses.