Credit: Universal Newsreel, National Archives-College Park

On July 15, 1957, officers from the Cook County Sheriff’s office, a squad of journalists, and three U.S. Marine sergeants arrived at the banks of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near Route 83, northeast of Lemont. The Marines were veterans of the Korean War, including one of nine survivors of a 32-man combat team.

Under the watch of Sheriff Joseph D. Lohman, the Marines used flamethrowers to torch a field of marijuana, some of which was growing over eight feet tall. “Marijuana is a weed and spreads like crabgrass once it goes to seed,” intoned the narrator of the Universal Newsreel that captured the event. The three Marines “live up to the Corps’s boast. They have the situation well at hand!”

Watching Sheriff Lohman perform for the newsreel camera, it might be easy to imagine him as a goofball machine hack. He was, in actuality, a nationally respected lecturer in sociology at the University of Chicago. Running as a Democrat in 1954, he didn’t campaign for sheriff as an antidrug warrior, but as a criminologist who could take on the problems of gambling and juvenile delinquency and professionally manage the county jail. Also in Lohman’s resume was his work with the United Nations, repatriating prisoners of war at the end of the Korean War.

His campaign survived a major hit after Governor William Stratton released a tape in which a speaker, who sounded a lot like Lohman, mused, “Did you ever know that police officers have a disproportionately high number of wives that were formerly prostitutes?” Lohman claimed that the tape—in which the speaker also suggested that “a prostitute who hasn’t really gone down the drain is one of the most sympathetic, understanding human beings that ever lived”—had somehow been spliced and manipulated in a “criminal hoax” and that the voice on the tape was not always his. After his election, the Tribune noted that Lohman’s principal duties involved managing “a big jail and a smallish police department.”

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In the year Lohman was elected, there were 312 charges involving the sale of marijuana in Chicago. In contrast, there were more than 21,000 arrests for possession of cannabis in 2011, the year before the City Council passed an ordinance giving the police the option of issuing tickets for petty marijuana possession, according to the Sun-Times. In a 1955 U.S. Senate hearing, Joseph J. Healy, head of the Narcotics Bureau of the Chicago Police Department, loosely estimated there were 1,400 to 1,500 marijuana smokers in Chicago.

Nonetheless, law enforcement in Chicago was concerned about the increasing consumption of marijuana. Both Healy and Albert E. Aman, district supervisor of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, admitted that they didn’t believe marijuana was addictive but expressed their belief that a large percentage of heroin addicts had “graduated” from cannabis use. Aman contended that “sex perversion and rape,” as well as other crimes, were commonly committed while under the influence of marijuana.

According to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration—the main supply of marijuana in Chicago came from Mexico. These imported strains were more potent than local ones. While authorities periodically came across the patches of marijuana cultivated in vacant lots, there was one corner of southwest Cook County that repeatedly came up in the press as a problem area. If you were to float down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal from Willow Springs to the Calumet Sag Channel, then sail east along the Cal Sag west to Worth in the 1950s, you would be passing along the Golden Crescent of illicit marijuana cultivation in Cook County. Far from the eyes of suburbanites, farmers, and police officers, this undeveloped, unincorporated space was partially accessible by car.

The Sanitary District—now called the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago—oversaw both waterways. As early as 1941, the Sanitary District employed crews to cut down marijuana growing along its land. It also experimented with fire, tractors, and herbicides to eradicate marijuana. Weed killers were applied by workers with hand-pump canisters and sprayers mounted on barges. On occasion, Sanitary District workers experienced sabotage: the lights of their trucks would be left on overnight to drain batteries and parts were removed from sprayers to make them inoperable.

After four weeks of undercover work involving deputies dressing as hobos, the Cook County Sheriff’s office arrested seven men in September 1949 for cultivating a 25-acre lot not far from the plot the Marines would torch in 1957. The accused men admitted that they sold joints for as much as 50 cents, roughly $5.35 when adjusted for inflation. Two years later, the Cook County Sheriff’s office supervised the cutting and burning of ten acres near Willow Springs—”[e]nough marijuana to supply half the south side,” in the words of the Tribune.

Only seven months after Lohman was elected, the Cook County Sheriff’s office announced that they had destroyed a four-mile strip of marijuana along the Cal Sag Channel. The space had been under surveillance for several months, but there was not enough manpower to case the entire area around the clock. Fearful that the crop would go to seed and spread in August, Lohman brought in Marines with flamethrowers to finish the job. The following year Lohman brought in a mobile land clearance saw and bulldozer to destroy another patch near the Cal Sag Channel.

In 1957, Lohman supervised a second torching of a marijuana field along the Sag Channel, this one running a mile long and 200 feet wide. Lohman gave fluctuating estimates of how many millions of dollars of marijuana he destroyed. But Lohman had ambitions beyond the Cook County Sheriff’s office. In 1958 he was elected state treasurer. His path to the governor’s office was blocked by Mayor Richard J. Daley, with whom he frequently clashed.

After Lohman’s departure, the Sanitary District continued its war on marijuana, albeit in a low-key fashion. In 1969, the State’s Attorney’s office destroyed a field growing near the confluence of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Cal Sag Channel. Harvesters had come from as far away as California and Washington, D.C., and included members of the Head Hunters Motorcycle gang. Times had changed from the afternoon in which Sheriff Lohman and the Marines had “the situation well in hand.”   v