The failure of alcohol prohibition frustrated Narcotics Bureau chief Harry Anslinger, but he saw his chance to make his mark by eradicating heroin, opium, cocaine and cannabis. For most of U.S. history, the public and doctors viewed cannabis as medicine, so to institute the plant’s prohibition, he launched a propaganda campaign that was about as factual as a Dr. Seuss book.
“Much of the irrational juvenile violence and killing that has written a new chapter of shame and tragedy is traceable directly to this hemp intoxication,” wrote Anslinger in his book The Murderers: The Story of the Narcotic Gangs.
The Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act was passed in 1934 in an effort to unify different state drug laws, and Anslinger wanted cannabis included in the Act alongside opiates and cocaine. But the AMA, the National Association of Retail Druggists and many pharmaceutical companies lobbied against the inclusion of cannabis, as they wanted to prescribe it as they saw fit, and the final draft of the Act left it up to each state to decide whether they wanted to regulate the plant.
So Anslinger devoted himself to the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act, which would restrict possession of cannabis to those who paid a tax for authorized medical or industrial use. Anyone who didn’t pay the tax could face a penalty of up to $2,000 and five years in prison.
To build his case, Anslinger went on a propaganda offensive, telling “the story of this evil weed of the fields and river beds and roadsides” in magazines, on the radio and in public forums. He was aided by “yellow journalism” mogul William Randolph Hearst, who sold newspapers by hysterically trumpeting a different national threat every week, from marijuana to immigrants to Communism. In Hearst’s Washington Herald, Anslinger proclaimed on April 12, 1937, “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana, he would drop dead of fright." Anslinger claimed that cannabis made people “fly into a delirious rage” and “commit violent crimes.” In testimony before a congressional committee, he even claimed that cannabis was more deadly than opium, the poppy plant from which we get heroin and painkillers. “Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde,” said Anslinger. “[Cannabis] is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”
In 1970, the Journal of Social History took an extensive look at Anslinger with “The Federal Prohibition of Marihuana.” In the study, author Michael Schaller wrote, “When called upon to explain [the cannabis] problem to Congress, the Bureau relied on unsupported accounts it had supplied to magazines and newspapers. By reading its own releases into the record as outside proof, the Bureau had in fact created evidence to prove its point.” The study further noted that some examples “consisted of several accused criminals who had pleaded marihuana use as grounds for temporary insanity.”