The Trump administration has been outspoken about its antipathy towards cannabis. Surrogates have made appearances on news programs claiming that cannabis, even for medicinal purposes, carries great risk. They claim that it’s a gateway drug, that it carries substantial health risks, even from acute use, and any medicinal benefits are largely unfounded. These accusations are inaccurate. Cannabis’ medicinal benefits have been known for millennia across different cultures and for decades in the academic scientific community. Report after report reveals a particularly high safety profile, especially in the light of the many adverse side effects of traditional medications. Still, the conditions underlying most of the adverse effects of cannabis use are now better understood than ever, allowing for its safe use in a medical context across a variety of patient populations for a spectrum of disorders. This fear that they spew is not new. In fact, its origins are largely well-understood and can be traced back to a single individual whose impact is clearly felt even today.
That man is Harry Anslinger.
When people are about to lose their jobs, they get desperate. If they feel their value is diminishing, they create need. As was the case with Harry Anslinger, the most important player in the war against marijuana that shaped culture, incarcerated millions, fostered ineffective and harmful drug-related public policy, and blocked countless patients from accessing optimal medical care.
In 1934, Anslinger found himself in charge of a floundering Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Having taken over as director of the nascent FBN during prohibition, Anslinger took a hardline approach to liquor possession. But with the end of prohibition on Christmas of 1933, coupled with reduced tax revenue during the Great Depression, there was little justification for maintaining the bureau that was now in dire financial straits.
Before the repeal of prohibition, Anslinger and the FBN almost entirely ignored cannabis. They had their hands full enforcing liquor prohibition and tackling heroin and cocaine. Plus, cannabis was quite ubiquitous and only outlawed in half of the states across the country. But without liquor to go after, Anslinger turned his sites on cannabis.
He began by trying to convince congress of the new menace gripping the country that could only be combated by a well-funded FBN. At this point, most Americans knew of marijuana by its plant classification term, Cannabis, short for Cannabis sativa (genus: Cannabis; species: sativa). And many Americans had been using cannabis both recreationally, as humans have for millennia, and medicinally. When Anslinger went to congress, he used the relatively new term, commonly used among Mexican immigrants, “marihuana” (note: marijuana wasn’t spelled with a J until the 1960’s). He figured that if he could make the drug seem Mexican, it would be considered more dangerous. His strategy worked.
The confabulations spewed by Anslinger about this relatively unknown “marijuana” drug frightened Americans. Anslinger quickly gained support, perhaps none more important than from newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s newspapers were supported by advertisements from DuPont, the chemical company that developed a number of synthetic fibers as early as 1924, including nylon which they developed in 1935, of which hemp was a formidable natural competitor. Hearst had a penchant for sensationalism and hysteria (from which yellow journalism was born). Using this “journalistic strategy”, he started a smear campaign against Mexican migrants and other oppressed minorities including Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, and African Americans. Hearst linked marijuana use to violent crimes, and soon the term “marihuana” became associated with evil.
To gain even more public support among white Americans for banning marijuana, Anslinger played into the hands of racial purists, exclaiming that marijuana makes Mexicans and African American men lust after white women. As Martin Lee describes in his book, Smoke Signals, this was a blatant reminder to women, who had recently won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment a decade and a half earlier, that they still needed white men’s protection.
Like Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany, Anslinger appreciated the power of propaganda. He fed anti-marijuana movie scripts to Hollywood. Perhaps the most famous, Tell Your Children, better known as Refer Madness, was released in 1936 and depicts the morphing of a marijuana addict into an insane killer. While at the time it was a box-office flop, it symbolized the collaboration between the government, Hollywood, and the media in the war against cannabis.
In 1937, Congressman Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced what’s now known as the “Marihuana Tax Act”, which set to prohibit marijuana use through an unreasonably high tax on the drug. During the hearings, William Woodward of the American Medical Association (AMA) provided the lone voice of dissent, claiming that Anslinger’s assertion that cannabis was a dangerous drug with no medicinal value was unfounded. He further contended that the majority of AMA doctors were unaware that the cannabis with which they’d been successfully treating patients was the same as the “killer weed from Mexico”.
AMA doctors weren’t the only ones confused about the marijuana and cannabis connection. Some members of congress weren’t even sure what they were voting for. For example, the Texas congressman and House Majority Leader, Sam Rayburn said, “It has something to do with a thing called marijuana. I think it is a narcotic of some kind.” The complete omission of any scientific discussion relating to cannabis’ medicinal value and safety profile was indicative of Anslinger’s intention to obscure the truth behind the drug he was trying to prohibit.
And in the end, Anslinger’s efforts were successful. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act by a voice vote, and it was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the fall of 1937. As Martin Lee stated, “Yellow journalism, racial bias, and political opportunism had triumphed over medical science and common sense.”
Note: Cannabis’ fraught history in the United States and across the world doesn’t end in 1937. I will continue to post on the history of cannabis, but if you have any specific elements you’d like me to focus on, please reach out through my contact page! You can also tweet at me @neurokaplan.
Further reading: I highly recommend Martin Lee’s book, Smoke Signals, which is the most comprehensive and entertaining historical perspective of cannabis I’ve come across.