The Prescience of William C. Woodward

Throughout the ages, physicians have looked to their best and brightest for professional guidance. So, if you’re a physician unsure about cannabis legalization, please consider this:

William Creighton Woodward, M.D., LL.M., LL.D., was a physician, attorney, educator and public health advocate with a distinguished career spanning fifty years. As the Legal Counsel for the American Medical Association, his medical-legal perspective on cannabis in the 1930s was wise and prophetic, although his ideas and suggestions were ridiculed and ultimately rejected by our nation’s lawmakers. Seventy-eight years later, our experience with marijuana prohibition has vindicated his courageous decision to stand up for science and reason. In the 1937 hearings for the Marihuana Tax Act, Dr. Woodward defended the AMA’s position that cannabis should be regulated but not prohibited. In his lengthy testimony, he refuted the hyperbolic claims put forward by the proponents of marijuana prohibition, offering a prescient view of how our society should handle drug addiction in general, and marijuana in particular. There is much we can learn from this early, learned proponent of an evidence-based national cannabis policy, and extracts of his testimony are included below.

Brief Biography:

  • 1867: Born in Washington, D.C.
  • 1889: M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine
  • 1894-1918: Health Officer, Washington, D.C.
  • 1900: LL.D. from Georgetown University Law School
  • 1918-1922: Commissioner of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 1922-1939: Legal Counsel for the American Medical Association
  • 1949: Died in Washington, D.C.

Academic Appointments:

  • Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and State Medicine, Georgetown University School of Medicine
  • Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, George Washington University, Department of Medicine
  • Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, Howard University School of Medicine
  • Instructor/Lecturer: School of Public Health, Harvard University and M.I.T.
  • Faculty, Loyola University School of Law
  • Professorial Lecturer in Medical Jurisprudence, Rush Medical College, University of Chicago

Selected Positions in Professional Societies:

  • Director, Bureau of Legal Medicine and Legislation, American Medical Association
  • Secretary, Board of Medical Supervisors of Washington, D.C.
  • Founding member, Health Administration Section of the American Public Health Association
  • President, American Public Health Association

Selected accomplishments:

  • 1908: Annual Report as health officer called attention to disproportionately high mortality rates of African-Americans in Washington, D.C.
  • 1914: As the Georgetown delegate to the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges, called for minimum college requirements for medical school applicants, as well as creation of a national central examining and licensing board for U.S. physicians
  • 1914: Assisted in drafting of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act that regulated opiates and cocaine
  • 1918-1920: Served as Boston’s Commissioner of Public Health during the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic
  • 1937: Testified at Marihuana Tax Act hearings as Legal Counsel for the AMA
  • 1938: Defended AMA against charges of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act

Excerpts from Dr. Woodward’s testimony to the Ways and Means Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, MAY 4, 1937: [from Taxation of Marihuana, hearings before the House Committee on Ways and Means, 75th Cong., lst Sess. (April 27-30 and May 4, 1937)]

There is nothing in the medicinal use of Cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. I use the word ‘Cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana’, because Cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products…. In other words, marihuana is not the correct term. It was the use of the term ‘marihuana’ rather than the use of the term ‘Cannabis’ or the use of the term ‘Indian hemp’ that was responsible, as you realized, probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hempseed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day. So, if you will permit me, I shall use the word ‘Cannabis’, and I should certainly suggest that if any legislation is enacted, the term used be ‘Cannabis’ and not the mongrel word ‘marihuana.’

I say the medicinal use of Cannabis has nothing to do with Cannabis or marihuana addiction. In all that you have heard here thus far, no mention has been made of any excessive use of the drug by any doctor or its excessive distribution by any pharmacist. And yet the burden of this bill is placed heavily on the doctors and pharmacists of the country; and I may say very heavily, most heavily, possibly of all, on the farmers of the country.

The Federal Government… would meet with the same difficulty that it met in prosecuting under the National Prohibition Act; the inadequacy of courts and the inadequacy of prosecuting attorneys, and I may say, the inadequacy of jails.

To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for Cannabis.

That there is a certain amount of narcotic addiction of an objectionable character no one will deny. The newspapers have called attention to it so prominently that there must be some grounds for these statements. It has surprised me, however, that the facts on which these statements have been based have not been brought before this committee by competent primary evidence. We are referred to newspaper publications concerning the prevalence of marihuana addiction. We are told that the use of marihuana causes crime.

But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marihuana habit. An informed inquiry shows that the Bureau of Prisons has no evidence on that point.

You have been told that school children are great users of marihuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit, among children.

Inquiry of the Children’s Bureau shows that they have had no occasion to investigate it and know nothing particularly of it.

Inquiry of the Office of Education— and they certainly should know something of the prevalence of the habit among the school children of the country, if there is a prevalent habit— indicates that they have had no occasion to investigate and know nothing of it.

Moreover, there is in the Treasury Department itself, the Public Health Service, with its Division of Mental Hygiene. The Division of Mental Hygiene was, in the first place, the Division of Narcotics. It was converted into the Division of Mental Hygiene, I think, about 1930. That particular Bureau has control at the present time of the narcotics farms that were created about 1929 or 1930 and came into operation a few years later. No one has been summoned from that Bureau to give evidence on that point.

Informal inquiry by me indicates that they have had no record of any marihuana or Cannabis addicts who have ever been committed to those farms.

Rep. Robert L. Doughton (D, NC), Chairman: If you want to advise us on legislation, you ought to come here with some constructive proposals, rather than criticism, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the Federal Government is trying to do. It has not only an unselfish motive in this, but they have a serious responsibility.

Dr. Woodward: We cannot understand yet, Mr. Chairman, why this bill should have been prepared in secret for two years without any intimation, even, to the profession, that it was being prepared.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D, MI): We know that it is a habit that is spreading, particularly among youngsters. We learn that from the pages of the newspapers. You say that Michigan has a law regulating it. We have a State law, but we do not seem to be able to get anywhere with it, because, as I have said, the habit is growing. The number of victims is increasing each year.

Dr. Woodward: There is no evidence of that.

Rep. John W. McCormack (D, MA): There is no question that the drug habit has been increasing rapidly in recent years.

Dr. Woodward: There is no evidence to show whether or not it has been.

Mr. McCormack: In your opinion, has it increased?

Dr. Woodward: I should say it has increased slightly. Newspaper exploitation of the habit has done more to increase it than anything else.

Mr. McCormack: It is likely to increase further unless some effort is made to suppress it.

Dr. Woodward: I do not know. The exploitation tempts young men and women to venture into the habit.

The Federal Government… would meet with the same difficulty that it met in prosecuting under the National Prohibition Act; the inadequacy of courts and the inadequacy of prosecuting attorneys, and I may say, the inadequacy of jails.

I think the proper preparation of an adequate course of instruction originating in the Treasury Department and distributed, it may be, through the Office of Education, would be an effective means of limiting dangers of narcotic addiction.

The trouble is that we are looking on narcotic addiction solely as a vice. It is a vice, but like all vices, it is based on human nature. The use of narcotics, as is trite at the present time in the medical profession, represents an effort on the part of the individual to adjust himself to some difficult situation in his life. He will take one thing to stimulate him and another to quiet him. His will is weakened in proportion as he relies on drugs of that sort. And until we develop young men and young women who are able to suffer a little and exercise a certain amount of control, even though it may be inconvenient and unpleasant to do so, we are going to have a considerable amount of addiction to narcotics and addiction to other drugs. So that we must deal with narcotic addiction as something more than a police measure.