A clip from the October 28, 1936 Boston Globe.

“Next to obscene pictures, probably no vice is so absolutely destructive of manhood as the ‘dope vice,'” said the New England Watch and Ward Society’s 1912 report. “It is believed that hundreds of young men and women of our city have become victims of these dread habits.”

The report celebrated the passage of the first law in the country to outlaw the possession of cannabis, along with a myriad of other mind-altering substances, just three years after the organization declared war on the “dope vice.”

The New England Watch and Ward Society was at the forefront of the city’s fight against “obscene” books and plays, as well as vice in general, from the late 1800s into the 1950s before the organization changed its name and refocused its mission to criminal rehabilitation.

The New England Watch and Ward Society, which lifted its name from the first law enforcement group in the country, which Massachusetts created in 1699, was created immediately after a public meeting in Boston with Anthony Comstock. Comstock, infamously lead a national campaign to censor “obscene material” from the postal service, eventually ascending to the position of United States Postal Inspector.

Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and had come to Boston in 1878 with the intent of inspiring the creation of a Massachusetts chapter for his organization. The Watch and Ward society decided to remain independent from Comstock’s group, while taking up similar efforts to stop the sale of certain books, performances of certain plays while also breaking up gambling dens in the city.

Three decades later, Jason Franklin Chase took over the secretary position from one of the group’s founders and reinvigorated the group, according to Banned in Boston, by Neil Miller.

“The Watch and Ward had been languishing during Henry Chase’s last years,” wrote Miller. “But a year after J. Frank Chase [no relation] took over, the society’s successful prosecutions for gambling increased almost fourfold over the previous year (from twenty-one to seventy-nine) and those for obscene pictures were up a similar amount (from ten to thirty-eight) These were all-time highs for the Watch and Ward.”

The Puritan fight

In a 1925 article for American Mercury titled “Keeping the Puritans Pure,” author A.L.S. Wood attempted to lampoon Chase and his organization.

“The Rev. Mr. Chase is of good height, thick-set and obviously healthy. His round head sports a not luxuriant crop of tousled white hair; his grizzled moustache of walrus design masks a virtuous mouth; his eyes, even when open, hide behind the glaze of glasses,” wrote Wood.

Along with the already-established targets, Chase brought in a new interest in combating drug use.

“Next to obscene pictures the vices of the habit-producing drugs seem to be the most demoralizing in their effects, stultifying both body and soul,” said the 1910 report. “As this is a new field of endeavor, we have had to learn how to work effectively.”

At the onset, the organization’s anti-drug focus was on cocaine, opium and morphine. In its 1910 annual report, the organization claimed that morphine was being sold by unscrupulous pharmacists with mislabeled products, opium was being trafficked by Chinese immigrants, while spending most of the written section describing the effects of cocaine.

A clip from the March 9, 1890 Boston Globe.

“Mentally it deranges all sane action. It exalts the ego; begets grandiose illusions of importance and position and wealth. It brings on a period of horrible delusions, of dire fears which are accompanied with tremblings painful to witness. The victim is extremely irascible, impatient of questioning and generally ugly,” said the report. “Morally its effects are most disastrous. All the finer qualities of life are submerged in the animal qualities. Truth, honor, purity and modesty disappear. It is not a mere chance that desperate criminals are amongst its habitual users.”

The first Massachusetts cannabis regulations

The earliest regulations for cannabis in the state were often part of larger efforts to curb the use of controlled substances, such as in 1907, when the state passed mandatory labeling law for all patent medicines, according to a reporter from the Boston Daily Globe on March 5, 1907.

“The state passed a new bill that required labeling for patent medicine and patent food indicating the amount of any in an assortment of controlled substances that included alcohol, morphine, codeine, opium, heroin, chloroform, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, acetanilid, or any derivative or preparation of any of said substances,” said the article, which was written in a time when author bylines were a lot less common in newspapers than they are now.

Labeling aside, the state would outlaw possession of cannabis for most people four years later, following a successful lobbying campaign from the Watch and Ward Society.

“Altogether the most momentous fact in this field of the twelve months just passed is the increased activity of the police department in enforcing the hypnotic drug laws secured by this Society,” said the organization’s 1912 report. “In 1907 the records of the police department show 1 prosecution; in 1908, 8 prosecutions; in 1911, 190 prosecutions.”

Drug search warrants

The report notes within two years of declaring war on drugs, they were able to successfully get the state legislature to pass “An Act Relative to the Issuance of Search Warrants for Hypnotic Drugs and the Arrest of Those Present.”

This 1911 state law allowed police to carry out search warrants based on credible reports of possession of “opium, morphine, heroin, codeine, cannabis indica, cannabis sativa or any other hypnotic drug or any salt, compound or preparation of said substances.”

The law carved out an exception for pharmacists, drug manufacturers, and medical professionals as the only ones allowed to possess the drugs.

“Whoever is so present where any of the aforesaid drugs is found shall be punished by a fine of not more than fifty dollars or by imprisonment in the house of correction for three months,” said the law.

A write up of the group’s first report to reference drug abuse appeared in the Jan. 17, 1910 edition of the Boston Herald, which included Chase’s estimate that roughly 0.5% of Boston’s entire population was addicted to drugs that they were buying from unregulated pharmacists. Chase also argued for tougher punishments for illegal lodging houses, where he said white slavery was rampant as a result of drug abuse.

“[Chase] says that legislation should be secured to give jail sentences for the sale of drugs by pharmacists violating the laws,” said the article. “He also charges that the law giving the keeper of lodging or boarding houses a lien upon the effects of the lodger for debts aids the white slave traffic.”

Following Chase’s success in the Massachusetts legislature, he brought the state’s 1911 law to Maine, where cannabis was also outlawed by 1913. Wyoming and Indiana would also outlaw cannabis in that year, followed by a steady increase of state-wide prohibitions in subsequent years until the 1937 Marihuana Act took cannabis prohibition nationwide. 

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...