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Harry Anslinger & American Cannabis Regulation | Cannabis History

Over the past few months, I have been attempting to better understand the long and often complicated relationship between cannabis and humanity in general. We’ve looked at the ancient applications of various types of cannabis, all the way up to the adoption of medicinal cannabis in western medicine practices – but there is one more chapter we have left to cover.

This may be a little presumptuous of me, but I’m gonna go ahead and say that there are a lot of variables when it comes to the experience you’ve had as a cannabis user in the United States. Age, race, class, sex, hell, even things as superficial as style choices, have all likely played a role in the way society, law enforcement and the legal system have viewed you as a cannabis user. In my experience, I pretty much get left alone. As a matter of fact, there are a handful of occasions where the privilege of how I am perceived by people has gotten me out of some situations that it probably shouldn’t have, and my cannabis use and advocacy is no exception. Because of this, I can only speak to the very minimal shaming I received from family or friends who disapproved, and only before medical cannabis was legalized in Arizona, which became a gateway towards approval for those who initially disagreed.

I was, at the time, as aware as I could be of my privilege as a cannabis user and was honestly always pretty confused about the why and the how of the general attitude about, let’s be real here, pot heads. This isn’t to say that we had it tough compared to the generations of stoners before us, but the more I learned about all of the good things and the very short list of “bad” things associated with cannabis use, the more I couldn’t wrap my head around the villainization of a plant. Seriously, you guys, a literal plant? I just didn’t get it.

Then I learned about Harry J. Anslinger, the father of America’s War on Drugs. Yippee.

Head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), from 1930 to 1962, it seems as though Anslinger could be credited with single handedly changing the way an entire country perceived not only cannabis, but drug use in general and the treatment of addicts and addiction; changes that have had decades long effects, undeniably disproportionately impacting people of color and immigrant communities.

The Rise of Anslinger

Harry J. Anslinger was born to Swiss German parents in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1892, the same year his father went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Harry followed suit at a young age, working at the railroad at 14 years old after morning sessions at school. Eventually, Harry worked his way up to an investigator at the Pennsylvania Railroad, and at 23 (in 1915) after performing a purportedly thorough investigation, he found an accident claim of $50,000 to be fraudulent and was promoted to captain of railroad police.

Now, I can’t find any details on what exactly Anslinger was doing between 1917 and 1928 beyond traveling the world for various police and military agencies combating international drug trafficking, which seems pretty vague and cryptic to me, but hey, what do I know. Well, I know that he is also often credited with shaping not only our own drug policies, but policies in nations that “had not debated the issues internally”. This is just my opinion but I’m gonna go ahead and say that based on our own War on Drugs and my opinions on how other countries – cough, Portugal, cough – are handling drug policies, maybe that wasn’t a great thing? Hindsight is 20/20 though, I guess.

Whatever Harry was doing, he made it back stateside in 1929 to work as an assistant commissioner in the US Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition. At this time, alcohol prohibition was in it’s metaphorical death throes. The agencies in charge of enforcing it were plagued with corruption and scandal, and the restructuring that followed paved the way for Anslinger’s rise in rank and political opinion – he was thought of as an “honest and incorruptible” man, with an eye for fraud. The demise of the Bureau of Prohibition brought about the dawn of the Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, now in charge of prohibition and narcotics regulation, and Anslinger was appointed the founding commissioner in 1930 at the age of 38.

Anslinger and American Cannabis Regulation

There are a couple of contextual things to consider when examining Anslinger and the origins of America’s drug war; what we know about the social and political climates of America at the time and what we know about what kind of person Harry J Anslinger was. We already know that the regulation of cannabis, both hemp and “Indian Hemp” (the colloquial term for higher THC cannabis at the time), had been happening on a state by state basis since the late 1800s, and by 1925 the United States was in support of the regulation of Indian Hemp as a drug at the International Opium Convention.

So what do we know about Harry J Anslinger as a person? What kind of guy was HJ?

He doesn’t seem like a very chill dude, to be honest, but I’m not a time traveller. All I can do is gather various accounts from across the internet and present them to you, albeit peppered with my own opinions. My opinion in this case is that Anslinger was a scared racist who’s inability to separate his fears and prejudices from reality combined with his political power and influence had lasting detrimental effects on our country. The unfortunate thing about this story, though, is that if Harry J Anslinger were just a scared racist fear monger we wouldn’t be talking about him.

As alcohol prohibition was dying, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) had to turn their attention elsewhere, and there just weren’t that many cocaine and heroin users at the time. It’s also important to remember that the government wasn’t approaching regulation from a place of morality or health concerns but from a place of lost tax revenue. This unregulated market was money the government was missing out on, and the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 – a federal law that regulated and taxed the production, importation and distribution of opium and coca products – just didn’t seem to be cutting it for Anslinger. Anslinger may have been a lot of terrible things, but I don’t think he was stupid. Ignorant, sure, but smart enough to realise that the boat he was on could start sinking at any moment, that it would go down fast and take him with it. Fortunately for him, his predisposition for racism at a time when America was in the thick of it gave him a tool to manipulate mass opinions to his own ends.

Like I said earlier, it’s important to consider context in these situations, not to excuse Anslinger’s behavior but rather to understand how his tactics were able to effect real world policy change. Here’s where things get tricky, though, because why would I expect explaining the evolution of American cannabis regulations would be easy? There is plenty of evidence that connects Anslinger to the criminalization of cannabis, but the way we got there is a little more complicated than “big jerk hates weed and makes it illegal.”

The Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act

Prior to Anslinger’s appointment as commissioner of the FBN in 1930, a committee of commissioners had been working on drafts of the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act for about five years. While the Harrison Act of 1914 was in effect, it’s primary purpose was revenue production via taxation. At the time, states essentially had no authority to exercise police power when it came to seizing narcotics or punishing lawbreakers and the Uniform State Narcotic Act aimed to change that. The idea was to have uniform laws across the states that would effectively regulate the sale and use of narcotic drugs.

Prior to Anslinger’s involvement in the drafting of the act, there was already some back and forth regarding cannabis. The first draft – submitted to the chairman but never presented at the committee meeting – contained the following definitions of cannabis:

“Cannabis indica” or “cannabis sativa” shall include any compound, manufacture, salt, derivative or preparation thereof and any synthetic substitute for any of them identical in chemical composition.“Habit forming drugs” shall mean coca leaves, opium, “cannabis indica” or “cannabis sativa”.

Later drafts removed cannabis from the definition of “habit forming drugs”, but now included supplemental provisions for dealing with cannabis. Interestingly, the chairman of the committee wanted further research done because at the time, no one had been appointed as commissioner of the FBN for him to consult. If what he wanted was accurate research, Anslinger was unfortunately not his guy. The fifth and final draft of the Act was adopted by the National Conference of Commissioners in 1932, in which the cannabis provisions were supplemental to the rest of the act. They made it easy for states, though; if they wanted to regulate the sale and possession of cannabis, all they had to do was add it to the definition of “narcotic drugs” and all of the provisions that applied to opiates and cocaine now applied to cannabis as well.

While this was happening, Anslinger had begun his propaganda campaign against cannabis, With the support of major newspapers and radio time, Anslinger birthed the age of “reefer madness”, filling the mass media with largely fabricated or insanely sensationalized stories of “reefer” fueled axe murder and used racist themes to enforce his ideas about cannabis, all while ignoring professional opinions to the contrary. Anslinger is largely responsible for the colloquial term for cannabis becoming “marijuana” on a wider scale and it was, unfortunately, in an effort to conflate his idea of maddening, violent cannabis use with an already present fear of Mexican immigrants. He targeted jazz musicians, most famously Billie Holiday, to an almost delusional degree. Seriously, if you want to spend an entire day being angry, just spend a minute reading some of the racist things he’s said. Contemporary conservative politicians once called for his resignation because he was so racist – in the 1930s.

Anslinger had latched on to cannabis early in his career, so this was all happening during the drafting of the Uniform State Narcotic act, it’s finalization and its subsequent presentation to various states, which began in 1933. Initially, only 9 states signed on. By 1935, Anslinger’s nationwide campaign of young people using cannabis and doing things that were socially reprehensible, reckless or downright violent scared the remaining states into signing on.

Harry J Anslinger’s vilification of cannabis continued until the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 that effectively criminalized cannabis in the United States, and beyond. Think about it. Perhaps in the almost 100 years since Anslinger took office as commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics the stigma has changed, but it’s undeniable that stigmas, as well as enforcement of drug laws, have continued to disproportionately affect black, brown and immigrant communities.

Some credit the end of Anslinger’s career to an insubordination controversy after he refused to back down from attempts to halt the American Bar Association (ABA) and American Medical Association (AMA) Joint Report on Narcotic Addiction that, big surprise, disagreed with pretty much everything he had been pushing as fact. In addition, he was also hospitalized for a mental break characterized by severe paranoia and delusions. I mention this only because it’s unclear as to when this occurred and for how long, and it may have played a part in the initial demise of his career. Anslinger was reappointed to his position as commissioner of the FBN in 1961 by JFK but resigned in 1962 after the death of his wife.

Harry J Anslinger died in 1975, at the age of 83, addicted to morphine prescribed for his heart angina and leaving behind a legacy of hate and misinformation that has tainted America’s drug policy for decades to follow.


Laura Mastropietro

Kelly Mahoney worked at a medical cannabis Co-op with her mother, Laura Mastropietro, dealing mainly with helping new patients acquire their medical cards and helping them find the best strains and methods. Diagnosed at a young age with spinal muscular atrophy, she was also a medical cannabis patient and still advocates for the incredible benefits, and downright fun, of cannabis. She now lives in a prohibition state as a cat mom and gamer wife.



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