The 80-Year Anniversary of Harry Anslinger's Huge Lie to Congress

By David Jenison on April 27, 2017

Harry Anslinger, the former Assistant Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition, became the founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics despite criticism that he lacked a medical and/or scientific background. As alcohol prohibition wound down, Anslinger immediately set his sights on cannabis, which he described as worse than narcotics. Eighty years ago today—with the headlines dominated by the start of social security that day and the fascist bombing of Guernica the day before—Anslinger testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in support of the Marihuana Tax Act, which was a fancy term for cannabis prohibition. 

"Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Ways and Means Committee," said Anslinger at the hearing, "this traffic in marihuana is increasing to such an extent that it has come to the be cause for the greatest national concern. This drug is as old as civilization itself. Homer wrote about, as a drug that made men forget their homes, and that turned them into swine. In Persia, a thousand years before Christ, there was a religious and military order founded which was called the Assassins and they derived their name from the drug called hashish which is now known in this country as marihuana. They were noted for their acts of cruelty, and the word 'assassin' very aptly describes the drug."

Anslinger's propaganda machine was far more blatant in spreading lies to the public, but his congressional testimony was still filled with false information and assertions. He called the resin "dangerous," claimed 14 percent of Egypt were cannabis addicts and said the "staminate leaves are about as harmless as a rattlesnake." In making his argument that cannabis is worse than any narcotic, Anslinger testified, "Here we have drug that is not like opium. Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde. This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured."

Why the sudden urgency to prohibit cannabis? "Ten years ago we only heard about it throughout the Southwest. It is only in the last few years that it has become a national menace. It has grown like wildfire."

What about the pharmacies dispensing it as medicine? Anslinger quoted a "hospital pharmacist at Tunis" named Dr. J. Bouquet: "To sum up, Indian hemp, like many other medicaments, has enjoyed for a time a vogue which is not justified by the results obtained. Therapeutics would not lose much if it were removed from the list of medicaments. That comes from the greatest authority on cannabis in the world today."

Dr. Bouquet's actual quote—"the results obtained from their use in therapeutics do not seem to show that they are indispensable"—was really more of a historical inference that medical cannabis had become less popular. But it's not like committee chair Robert Lee Doughton—a.k.a., Farmer Bob, a wealthy banker and industrial farmer born to a Confederate Captain and named after General Robert E. Lee—really cared. He, too, wanted prohibition.  

Asked about the effects of cannabis, Anslinger stated, "Some individuals have a complete loss of sense of time or a sense of value. They lose their sense of place. They have an increased feeling of physical strength and power. Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes…. It is dangerous to the mind and body, and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions."

New York Republican Daniel Reed added that addiction would "make a rabbit fight a bulldog," which prompted Anslinger to reference the untrue cannabis stories he regularly fed the yellow press. 

"Here is a gang of seven young men, all seven of them, young men under 21 years of age. They terrorized central Ohio for more than two months, and they were responsible for 38 stick-ups. They all boast they did those crimes while under the influence of marihuana…. One of them said if he had killed somebody on the spot, he would not have known it. In Florida a 21-year-old boy under the influence of this drug killed his parents and his brothers and sisters. The evidence showed that he had smoked marihuana. In Chicago recently two boys murdered a policeman while under the influence of marihuana. Not long ago we found a 15-year-old boy going insane because, the doctor told the enforcement officers, he thought the boy was smoking marihuana cigarettes. They traced the sale to some man who had been growing marihuana and selling it to these boys all under 15 years of age, on a playground there…. Colorado seems to have had a lot of cases of violence recently. In Alamosa County, and in Huerfano County, the sheriff was killed as the result of the action of a man under the influence of marihuana. Recently in Baltimore a young man was sent to the electric chair for having raped a girl while under the influence of marihuana."

Anslinger's anti-cannabis propaganda was such that some criminal defendants started using cannabis as a defense, claiming it caused temporary insanity, which he also addressed.

"We have several cases of that kind. There was one town in Ohio where a young man went into a hotel and held up the clerk and killed him, and his defense was that he had been affected by the use of marihuana."

"In my home town just recently two boys were sent to the penitentiary for life for killing a man, and their defense was built upon the fact that they had used a drug," added Ohio Republican Thomas Jenkins. "I do not believe it was this drug."

"There have been a number of cases in Ohio recently," Anslinger responded. 

A 1931 prison report is then referenced that claimed "125 of 450 prisoners were found to be marihuana addicts, and slightly less than one-half of the murderers were marihuana addicts," which Anslinger described as "one of the finest reports that has been written on marihuana." He later added, "Since the economic depression the number of marihuana smokers has increased by vagrant youths coming into contact with older psychopaths."

A week later, Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association (AMA) testified before the same committee and blasted the whole charade. He even criticized the committee for attributing an anti-cannabis quote to the AMA, when it was actually the AMA reporting on a statement by Anslinger that the health organization did not support. Dr. Woodward also criticized the use of the then-unknown term "marihuana" and the secrecy of the legislative process, essentially accusing the committee of trying to sneak prohibition into law.

"We cannot understand yet, Mr. Chairman, why this bill should have been prepared in secret for two years without any intimation, even, to the profession, that it was being prepared," the doctor stated. 

The AMA encouraged the committee to reject cannabis prohibition, but Farmer Bob introduced the bill into the House one week later, President Roosevelt signed it into law on August 2, and the law took effect October 1, 1937. An out-of-work farmer named Samuel Caldwell became its first victim. A judge, who said cannabis is "the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine," sentenced the 58-year-old farmer to four years hard labor for selling a few joints. 

In 1966, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in The Atlantic, “A marvelous project for a sociologist, and one which I am sure will be in preparation before my generation grows old, will be a close examination of the actual history and tactics of the Narcotics Bureau and its former chief Power, Harry J. Anslinger, in planting the seed of the marijuana ‘menace’ in the public mind and carefully nurturing its growth over the last few decades until the unsuspecting public was forced to accept an outright lie.”

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