Why is marijuana illegal? How the 1933 Ybor City ax murders bolstered case to criminalize cannabis
YBOR CITY, Fla. - Decades before the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, government officials, law enforcement, and private industry were waging war against a drug they said was becoming a scourge on productive American society. In the mid-1930s, immigrants fleeing Central America after the Mexican Revolution brought cannabis with them to the U.S.
Leading up to the 1936 film "Reefer Madness," cannabis was being considered the drug of choice for Black and brown people, and those in power successfully popularized the drug’s Anglicized name, marijuana.
A year later, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 imposed strict sanctions and regulations on cannabis, effectively making most of its use in the United States illegal.
But before "Reefer Madness" and before the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act and before the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, the gruesome 1933 ax murders of five family members in their Ybor City home helped set the stage for the federal criminalization of all cannabinoids in the U.S.
Licata family ax murders - 89 years later
Today, the house at 1707 Fifth Avenue looks like most of the bungalows lining residential streets in downtown Tampa. Its colorful exterior is welcoming, and the gentle clings of a wind chime harmonize with the crows of roosters who call the historic district home.
It’s hard to believe that this cheerful, yet unassuming home was the site of a heinous crime.
The Licata home in Ybor City.
In 1933 the home belonged to the Licata family. Their patriarch, Michael Licata, owned the Eagle barber shop. He and his wife, Rosalie raised their children at 1707 5th Ave.; a daughter named Providence, and sons Victor, Philip and Joe.
Their fourth son, Anthony Licata, was away at Stetson University.
According to newspaper reports, the family recognized increasingly strange behaviors in their 21-year-old son, Victor, over the course of a few months.
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He was undergoing treatment with a psychiatrist, but relatives said the Licata family lived in fear, terrified Victor would do something violent -- either to them or himself.
Joe Howden, a writer, artist and Ybor City historian who researched the Licata family, once owned the home at 1707 5th Ave.
Howden said Victor was known to be a "problem" child. He believes Victor Licata may have suffered from schizophrenia, a mental illness that typically presents itself in the late teens and early 20s.
According to Howden, before the murders, the Tampa Police Department had been called to the Licata home twice due to issues with Victor. Howden says TPD and an area judge wanted Victor to be institutionalized, but his parents pleaded to take their son under their care.
The ‘Dream Slayer’
On October 16, 1933, Howden says Victor hung out with the boys on the "honey wagon," a sewage collection vehicle that emptied residential outhouses. According to Howden’s research, Victor was known to sip moonshine while the "honey wagon" crew did their work.
Victor returned home and went to bed around midnight, on October 17.
According to Howden, Victor awoke from a nightmare. He dreamed his parents chopped off his arms and replaced them with hooks. Investigators at the time believed Victor was so disturbed by the vision, he jumped out of bed, grabbed an ax that was kept near the fireplace and slaughtered his family.
Victor killed his father first.
Michael Licata had reportedly been sleeping in a front bedroom, so he could protect the rest of the family in case Victor turned violent, but Michael wasn’t able to save them on that fateful night.
After using the ax to kill his father, Victor reportedly went through the house and bludgeoned his mother, two brothers, and sister, who was engaged to be married.
This diagram depicts the inside of the Licata home. Image is courtesy of the Tampa Morning Tribune via Hillsborough County Public Libraries.
Later that day, a neighbor called the police for a welfare check on the Licata family. By this time, the normally bustling household seemed eerily quiet.
The neighbor reportedly told police they heard strange noises around 2 a.m.
According to a report in the Tampa Morning Tribune, officers entered the home through a bathroom window.
According to the paper, motorcycle policeman W.B. Bell, policeman L.V. Stewart and deputy Ben Watkins found Victor Licata, dressed in his Sunday church clothes, crouched in a chair in the bathroom, dazed and wild-eyed.
The bodies of Victor Licata’s father, mother, sister and two brothers were found in their beds. All were dead except for 14-year-old Philip Licata, who was rushed to the hospital. He died later that day.
The Tampa Morning Tribune from Oct. 18, 1933. Image is courtesy of the Tampa Morning Tribune via Hillsborough County Public Libraries.
Officer Bell was quoted in the paper as saying, "We found the boy seated in the bathroom with the door closed. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Victor?’ He only looked at me, wildly. Made no effort to answer. Then when we had found all the bodies and the crowd began to jam into the house, threatening violence, we rushed him out the back way and into a car. On the way to the jail, we made repeated efforts to question him. Finally, I said, ‘Did you kill your family, Victor?’ He stared. Then he said, ‘did I do that?’ Other than that, we got nothing from him."
Licata was arrested and taken to the county jail. Meanwhile, a crowd gathered at the Licata family bungalow, shouting "get him!" and "kill him!"
A crowd shouting 'get him' and 'kill him' gathered outside the Licata home as news of the murders spread throughout Ybor City. Image is courtesy of the Tampa Morning Tribune via Hillsborough County Public Libraries.
According to a report in the Tampa Morning Tribune, Victor Licata did not have any blood on his clothing, indicating that he changed his clothes.
This led to rumors and conspiracy theories that the Licata's may have been killed by the mafia, who some speculated had Victor set up to take the blame.
Despite the clean clothes, many reports show Victor was stained with blood underneath.
Drug addiction or insanity?
The Tampa Morning Tribune reported that city detective chief W.D. Bush said during an investigation before the crime, he learned that Victor Licata had been addicted to smoking marijuana cigarettes for more than six months.
Bush said the addiction may have unbalanced Victor’s mind, at least temporarily.
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The newspaper article said Frank Caston, a state drug and narcotic inspector who said he helped Bush in the investigation, made a similar statement.
Caston added that he was already prepared to charge Victor Licata for purchasing marijuana before he heard about the slayings.
Howden, however, says his research indicates Victor Licata was given a marijuana test upon his arrest and no marijuana was found in his system.
Side-by-side images of Victor Licata courtesy of the Tampa Morning Tribune via Hillsborough County Public Libraries.
An article appeared in the Tampa Morning Tribune three days after the slayings that reported State Attorney Rex Farrior intended to seek a murder indictment against Victor Licata.
Farrior was quoted as saying, "From the testimony I have, there is no indication that Victor Licata was insane three days before the slayings. There is evidence he was addicted to marijuana cigarettes and reason to believe he was under hallucination at the time of the slayings. It may be possible he was subject to hallucinations from the doped cigarettes on previous occasions, but the testimony shows he was not insane, but was in possession of normal faculties on Friday night."
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Despite the slaying of five loved ones, Howden says almost every member of the Licata extended family attended the trial and begged the judge not to give Victor the death penalty.
A psychiatrist argued that Victor was subject to hereditary insanity, arguing to the judge that four other members of the Licata family: an uncle, a brother who was killed by Victor Licata, and two cousins were found to be insane.
Howden says that Victor’s parents were also first cousins, which was a common marriage arrangement for generations of the Licata family.
The Licata family mausoleum.
According to an article in the Tampa Morning Tribune, a few weeks after Victor’s murder trial concluded, a judge declared him criminally insane and ordered the sheriff to turn Victor over to a psychiatrist who would take him to the state hospital in Chattahoochee.
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After the order was issued, Farrior said he would not take the case before a grand jury for investigation but would allow Victor Licata to be taken to Chattahoochee as long as the expenses of his transportation to the Florida Panhandle and his hospital care were paid for by his estate.
Farrior added that the slayer was entitled to half of the estate of his mother and father.
The judge ordered that Victor Licata was not to be released from the facility, but Victor had other plans.
Escape from a mental institution
On October 14, 1945, Victor Licata and four other patients escaped from the State Insane Hospital in Chattahoochee after sawing through bars covering a window, according to the Tampa Morning Tribune.
The other four were quickly captured, but Victor Licata was on the run for five years.
Rumors of Victor’s whereabouts during that time are speculative, at best.
But on August 15, 1950, Victor Licata reportedly walked into his cousin’s restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana.
His cousin was scared and called police who arrested the escaped mental patient and sent him to Raiford, a state prison in north Florida.
Five years after escaping from the state hospital in Chattahoochee, Victor Licata was captured in New Orleans. Image is courtesy of the Tampa Morning Tribune via Hillsborough County Public Libraries.
Technically, he was a patient of the state hospital, but was being held at Raiford for "safekeeping" after his escape.
Four months after being captured, Victor Licata died by suicide, hanging himself with a bedsheet in his prison cell.
The "Gore Files"
As the Licata family nightmare unfolded, Harry Anslinger was in his third year on the job after being named the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
He was appointed by his uncle-in-law, Andrew Mellon and quickly developed a relationship with William Randolph Hearst, who created the nation's largest newspaper chain and media company, Hearst Communications.
Anslinger was also leading the charge to criminalize marijuana.
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According to reports, Anslinger learned about Victor Licata in 1937, the same year of the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act.
Anslinger used the Licata case to demonize the drug and vilify all who used it.
Anslinger promoted anti-marijuana storylines in newspapers to propel negative public sentiment.
He called them the "Gore Files": a collection of quotes from policemen depicting marijuana users as addicts and villains.
(Original Caption) Washington, DC.: Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger as he told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee here today that there are about 60,000 narcotics addicts in the nation or one in every 3,000 persons. At the same time, Ansling
Anslinger started developing case files to prove marijuana made people crazy. In 1937, he went before Congress and presented 200 cases, with his lead case being the Licata ax murders.
Howden, however, says 197 out of the 200 cases were proven not to have involved marijuana. The Licata case was one of three that were inconclusive.
"This one man worked, in effect, to change America’s view on marijuana and he used Victor Licata to do it," Howden said.
Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first time the United States government regulated the drug and set a precedent that marijuana was a danger to society, later leading to its full criminalization.
The Marijuana Act itself did not prohibit cannabis. Instead, it imposed taxes, regulations and restrictions on the commerce of cannabis from the top-to-bottom.
A festivalgoer smokes marijuana at Lollapalooza on July 29, 2021, at Grant Park in Chicago. The Illinois House approved a bill that prohibits firing workers for trace amounts of marijuana in their systems, but employers remain very leery about it. (E
U.S. Customs and Broder Protection states, in principle, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 stopped only the use of the plant as a recreational drug. In practice, though, industrial hemp was caught up in anti-dope legislation, making hemp importation and commercial production in this country less economical.
By 1970, marijuana was classified and restricted on par with narcotics and new, tighter laws were enacted.
Was Anslinger against marijuana because of the impact the drug had on the mind or was he really against hemp?
One theory of why Anslinger was vehemently against marijuana actually had to do with the hemp plant and the threat it could pose to his friends in the chemical and paper industries because it was cheap to produce.
Anslinger had married the reported "favorite" niece of Andrew Mellon and was rubbing elbows with the DuPont and Hearst families in the 1930s.
American publisher and newspaper proprietor William Randolph Hearst (1863 - 1951). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
According to the National Institutes of Health, William Randolph Hearst "controlled a journalism empire unheard of at the time and dwarfing any modern media conglomerate."
According to reports, Hearst formed an alliance with DuPont, a petrochemical company that could turn wood fibers into paper through a sulfur-based chemical process.
Reports state that Hearst began an influential newspaper campaign to turn Americans away from supporting the hemp industry after he learned how the crop could threaten his investment.
Hearst portrayed hemp as an extremely dangerous and evil drug, weaving his agenda into the news in a way that appealed to the racial fears of the time.
Fruiting stalks of hemp on a hemp plantation by Rafael Dulon, head of Hemp Farm GmbH. (Photo: Bernd Wüstneck/dpa (Photo by Bernd Wüstneck/picture alliance via Getty Images)
In 1923, a Hearst paper report stated, "Marihuana is a shortcut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse for horrid specters."
Five years later, in 1928, according to the NIH, a Hearst paper reported that "marijuana was known in India as the ‘murder drug.’ It was common for a man to ‘catch up a knife and run through the streets, hacking and killing everyone he [encountered].’"
According to reports, the DuPont family also wanted to crush the cannabis industry with The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 to protect their industrial interests because every part of the hemp plant could be used for materialistic products.
Racism and Prejudice
Marijuana came into the United States through the Mexican border around 1900 and became popular among many artists and musicians who were almost all minorities.
According to the NIH, Anslinger did not hide his prejudice, with comments such as, "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others."
The NIH states Anslinger helped popularize the use of the term "marijuana" instead of the more common "cannabis," to tie the drug to anti-Mexican prejudice.
Reports state that Anslinger targeted jazz singer Billie Holiday because she struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and her anti-racism song, "Strange Fruit".
NEW YORK - DECEMBER 1957: Singer Billie Holiday records her penultimate album 'Lady in Satin at the Columbia Records studio in December 1957 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
According to biography.com’s piece on Billie Holiday, Anslinger worked in conjunction with Holiday’s husband to set her up. She was arrested, put on trial and convicted. After she was released from prison, her license to perform at her cabarets was revoked, but she was undeterred and continued to perform "Strange Fruit."
Holiday was hospitalized after collapsing in 1959. She was suffering from liver disease and going through heroin withdrawal because she was not given the drug in the hospital, according to biography.com. She was eventually given methadone to help her recover, and that’s when Ansliger struck again.
He had her arrested on her hospital bed and instructed that her methadone be cut off after 10 days. She died on July 17, 1959.
Marijuana in America today
It’s been 89 years since the brutal Licata ax murders. Twenty states, not including Florida, have legalized marijuana and 38 states, including Florida, allow for medical marijuana.
Recently, President Joe Biden announced that he planned to pardon of all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. He also urged all governors to do the same with regard to state offenses and asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.
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Biden state that while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates.
"Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs," Biden said.
Was Licata insane or was he high on marijuana when he bludgeoned his family? Perhaps he was both, but nearly 90 years after five family members were brutally murdered with an ax, the federal marijuana laws that the crime helped shape may be coming to an end.