As Cannabis Cactus proudly continues to cover the progress and innovations made in the green industry today, I find that it is also important to understand how the prohibition of marijuana became so extreme in the first place. When I began to delve into the culture and history more in my youth, I remember the 1936 movie “Reefer Madness” as the quintessential cautionary tale that gripped older generations. At first, I just thought that this highly fictionalized movie was funny and laughed to myself wondering if people actually believed in such a farce. But as I have grown older and have seen so many lives negatively affected by this plant’s prohibition, looking back at this propaganda, it doesn’t have the same comedic effect.
When digging into the history of lies and misinformation about marijuana that was spread throughout the 20th century, it doesn’t take long to find one name that stands out; Harry J. Anslinger. Harry’s early career focused on the laws of prohibition that began in 1920 banning the sale and production of alcohol. What became known as the “noble experiment” in hindsight failed miserably as evidenced in the dramatic growth of the illegal liquor trade. By the late 1920’s, it was obvious that existing drug regulations needed change, which is when a newly established Bureau of Narcotics began and when Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the first lead role in the summer of 1930. But Harry faced a major problem once in charge of this tiny, new department that was once the Department of Prohibition. And if that department could be abolished, he saw the writing on the wall that if he didn’t find a new enemy to go after, the Bureau of Narcotics would soon follow suit.
It was around this time that the term “cannabis” was being replaced for “marihuana” as Harry Anslinger and other anti-drug fanatics were hoping that the Spanish word would stir up resentment for Mexicans coming across the border. Many Americans already had fears of this new immigrant community and “marihuana” was the perfect culprit to vilify an already despised minority group. Anslinger’s game plan to outlaw drugs included speeches across the country to many of the same civic and religious groups who had supported alcohol’s prohibition. He also spread articles in the press and more serious journals taking advantage of the mass media owned by William Randolph Hearst, in order to broadcast his wild narratives and false statistics about this relatively unknown drug. In one essay, he gave readers a made-up story about marijuana’s entry into American society, “Marijuana was introduced into the United States from Mexico, and swept across America with incredible speed. It began with the whispering of vendors in the Southwest that marijuana would perform miracles for those who smoked it… They were not told that addicts may often develop delirious rage during which they are temporarily and violently insane.” And then he goes on to list brutal crimes that were committed from people under the spell of this scary weed from Mexico.
Harry Anslinger was such a staunch moral reformer that he knowingly lied to conceal the truth. But his crusade against marijuana was as much a war on drugs as much as it was a war against culture. He believed that popular jazz musicians, mainly black, would use marijuana to corrupt the youth and went on to spread his bogus message to terrifying lengths. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he was quoted as saying. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” As Harry wrote internal memos to his new Bureau warning about this music that “sounded like the jungles in the dead of night,” he was reassuring congressmen that his crackdown would not affect “the good musicians, but only the jazz type.” Sadly, Anslinger’s game plan to ban marijuana was working as he used a cast of complicit politicians while playing into the racist fear of what the drug could do if it fell into the wrong hands.
The advice that Harry Anslinger would give to his agents on drug raids was to always “shoot first.” He said that “doctors cannot treat addicts even if they wish to,” instead calling for “tough judges not afraid to throw killer-pushers into prison and throw away the key.” To say that Anslinger’s attitude was “by any means necessary” and that he believed that “the end justified the means” almost seems like an understatement; he was ruthless. But as we shift back to using this miraculous plant as the medicine and the huge asset that it is in the 21st century, what did Harry Anslinger really accomplish? His attempt at dismissing the twenty-nine out of thirty scientific experts back in the 1930’s who wrote back to him that “it would be wrong to ban it, and that it was being widely misrepresented in the press,” ultimately failed. True, he stayed in power until 1962 and shaped drug policy more than anyone during the 20th century. But to imagine him turning on the radio to an r&b and hip-hop station today, driving past the long lines at a dispensary… I hope we can all at least smile at that thought together!
Ryan Fitzgerald, originally from Milwaukee, WI, is a student of history, a lover of music, competitive games, and a cannabis enthusiast. He writes about cannabis history, culture and current events.