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Colorado Cannabis History

The first state to legalize recreational cannabis was also the first state to imprison two people for its sale and possession.

On October 2, 1937, Samuel Caldwell opened his hotel room door to an audience of FBI Agents and Denver Police Officers. Caldwell, an 8th-grade educated petty criminal clad in farmer’s overalls (now enshrined as the ‘first pot POW’), had roughly four pounds of cannabis in his room. 

It’s said Caldwell attracted the eye of local authorities after selling two joints to 23-year-old Denver local, Moses Baca (more on that later). 

Caldwell was sentenced to four years hard labor at Leavenworth Penitentiary, and Baca, also arrested, found himself in a cell for 18 months. The fanfare surrounding Caldwell and Baca’s trials brought to Denver cannabis opponent (and known racist), Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As America’s leading anti-cannabis zealot, Anslinger couldn’t resist taking a front-row seat in the courtroom. 

The irony of Baca and Caldwell’s convictions isn’t lost on students of Colorado cannabis history. They were the first cannabis-related arrests in the same state that ended its prohibition 76 years later.

Lightshade Dispensary - Marijuana Joints

Moses Baca bought two joints from Samuel Caldwell. Or did he?

Claims that Moses Baca bought two joints from Samuel Caldwell are false. Here’s the real story: Baca’s arrest came three days before Caldwell’s – in Five Points – for a quarter ounce of weed hidden in his dresser drawer.  

“As the folk hero status of Caldwell and Baca grew with the cannabis reform movement, the two began being erroneously linked as buyer and seller of those first federal joints. Facts, as they say, should never get in the way of a good story.” — Daniel Glick, Leafly 

The cannabis folk hero status bestowed upon Caldwell and Baca in the decades since their arrests confused an already hazy history. Today Caldwell is deified on mugs and t-shirts, but let’s not forget that the now-lauded cannabis Prisoner of War was also a career criminal. 

(Caldwell wasn’t a cannabis consumer. Seeing a financial opportunity, he had only started selling weed a few months before its prohibition.)

And Baca, Caldwell’s 23-year-old “accomplice,” was a bystander in our nation’s racist campaign against “marihuana.” As a Mexican-American, Baca was a shiny poster-boy for cannabis prohibition. His arrest stoked the fears of Americans taken by the government’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. In 1937 Congress criminalized cannabis and not because they felt it was psychologically or physically harmful. Cannabis prohibition was an attempt to stem the tide of Mexican immigration and control the economic competition hemp posed to the timber and pharmaceutical industries. 

Still, Moses Baca wasn’t entirely innocent. Like Caldwell, Baca had a lengthy rap sheet; it was a “Drunk & Disturbance” charge that led Denver authorities to his door, and he had a strong reputation as an abusive husband. 

Baca’s violent past is too often overshadowed by his cannabis martyrdom. 

The facts of Caldwell’s and Baca’s arrests, and their popularity as cannabis folk heroes, belie a more profound history. One in which truth is obscured (on both sides) by agenda and stereotypes. 

Credit is due to “Uncle Mike” for uncovering the stories of Steven Caldwell and Moses Baca.

Most of what we know about Steven Caldwell and Moses Baca comes from the Colorado cannabis activist “Uncle Mike.” 

“Uncle Mike calls himself “just a redneck from Craig,” a rural Colorado town more well known for being a hardscrabble coal community than it is for breeding cannabis activists. After a lifetime of living in the underground, he still isn’t comfortable using his real name.”—Leafly 

After serving time for a cannabis-related offense, Uncle Mike hit the history books, uncovering the truth surrounding Caldwell and Baca. Mike sifted through years of dusty documents and jumbled news stories to assemble a coherent and truthful story. He collected his findings in a book: 

U.S. District Court, Denver, Colorado, Imposes First Federal Marihuana Law Penalties: Compilation of Publications, Interviews, Criminal Files, and Photographs of Moses Baca & Samuel Caldwell

Today we have Uncle Mike to thank for shedding light on this forgotten corner of cannabis history.