Harry Anslinger: The Godfather of Cannabis Prohibition

By David Jenison

Probably no one did more to outlaw cannabis in the United States than Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Ignoring the protests of key individuals in the American Medical Association (AMA), Anslinger fed the media a barrage of propaganda for decades that demonized the plant in the minds of countless Americans.

Born in 1892, Anslinger started out as an investigator for the Pennsylvania Railroad and rose to become the Assistant Commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prohibition in 1929. He married the niece of Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and one of the wealthiest people in the country, and in 1930 Mellon appointed Anslinger as Commissioner of the Treasury Department’s new Bureau of Narcotics.

Anslinger appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee on April 27, 1937, as Congress deliberated on whether to pass the Marijuana Tax Act. He testified, “Ten years ago we only heard about [marijuana] throughout the Southwest. It is only in the last few years that it has become a national menace … Since the economic depression the number of marijuana smokers has increased by vagrant youths coming into contact with older psychopaths.”

He explained that part of its appeal was its price.

“To be a morphine or heroin addict it would cost you from $5 to $6 a day to maintain your supply. But if you want to smoke a cigarette you pay 10 cents… it is low enough in price for school children to buy it.”

The committee chairman, Robert Lee Doughton, fast-tracked the proposed legislation into law, and cannabis prohibitionists now had a tool to start throwing more people in prison.

Anslinger ended his 32-year tenure as the nation’s first Drug Czar in 1962. During his reign, the prohibitionist popularized reefer madness films, the gateway drug theory, stigmas and stereotypes, the cannabis addiction myth and even the word “marijuana” itself. He also helped overcrowd the prisons with nonviolent cannabis offenders costing the U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.

In 1966, four years after Anslinger’s tenure ended, 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.”

Anti-Cannabis Propaganda

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.”

The Anslinger Gore Files

As part of his effort to propagandize the so-called evils of cannabis, Narcotics Bureau chief Harry Anslinger collected crime stories that he could tie to cannabis use in his “Gore Files.” The Bureau collected case after grisly case of rape, murder, suicide and molestation that Anslinger & Co. tried to pin on cannabis.

Having files that reportedly showcased the homicidal roots of the drug, Anslinger went on to breathlessly relate tragedy after cannabis-inspired tragedy: the young girl who leaped from a window to her death after smoking, the young gang inspired to commit 38 holdups on “tea,” the janitors who peddled reefers to children. “In Alamosa, Colorado, a degenerate brutally attacked a young girl while under the influence of the drug. In Chicago, two marijuana-smoking boys murdered a policeman… An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, his mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze.”

The examples are many. A man attempted to shoot his wife after smoking cannabis, but killed her grandmother instead, and then committed suicide. Another man, eventually sentenced to death, was driven to assault a 10-year-old girl due to the power of the plant. One of the more famous cases involved an axe murderer who butchered his entire family, prompting the Tampa Morning Tribune headline “Stop This Murderous Smoke” in 1933. According to Anslinger, “He had become crazed from smoking marijuana.”

The Bureau chief’s most famous article, though, was the 1937 propaganda piece “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” which was eventually made into a feature film. “A young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk,” he wrote, “[and] the killer was… marijuana.” By his description, you’d think a helicopter dropped a massive hash brick on her head. He also wrote, “How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries, and deeds of maniacal insanity [cannabis] causes each year, especially among the young, can be only conjectured. The sweeping march of its addiction has been so insidious that, in numerous communities, it thrives almost unmolested, largely because of official ignorance of its effects.” Anslinger even claimed, “Homer wrote [in the Odyssey] that it made men forget their homes and turned them into swine.”

The self-perceived Greek lit scholar also got into the etymology game suggesting that cannabis is such a violent and aggressive drug that it is responsible for the word “assassin.” Anslinger wrote, “In the year 1090, there was founded in Persia the religious and military order of the Assassins whose history is one of cruelty, barbarity, and murder, and for good reason. The members were confirmed users of hashish, or marijuana, and it is from the Arabic ‘hashshashin’ that we have the English word ‘assassin.’ Even the term ‘running amok’ relates to the drug, for the expression has been used to describe natives of the Malay Peninsula who, under the influence of hashish, engage in violent and bloody deeds."

By those etymological standards, one might suggest the medical term Asperger’s comes from the name Anslinger.

Utilizing his Gore Files and the yellow press, Anslinger helped get the Marihuana Tax Act passed in 1937, and the cannabis-related arrests started the very next day. Interestingly, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decided to conduct his own study on cannabis, and the researchers concluded, “Marijuana did not lead to violent, antisocial behavior, or uncontrollable sexual urges. Smoking marijuana did not alter a person’s basic personality structure… [and] does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.”

An outraged Anslinger countered by promoting his own studies, like the 1945 Army medical study with a test group of 34 blacks and one white man. Newsweek quoted the doctors as saying that, after smoking marijuana, “The soldiers felt and acted like enemy aliens toward society.”

Over the years, Anslinger’s warnings that marijuana led to violent crime and sexual deviancy began to lose their impact, so he began to rely more heavily on the “gateway” theory. Originally, when asked before Congress in 1937 if pot smokers progressed into heroin or cocaine, he replied, “No, sir; I have not heard of a case of that kind. I think it is an entirely different class.” But by 1951, he was telling congressional committees, “Over 50 percent of those young [heroin] addicts started on marijuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin; they took the needle when the thrill of marijuana was gone."

The Bureau of Narcotics eventually became the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and even though Anslinger left the prohibition business in the early 1960s, the agency continued to fill the Gore Files with outrageous cannabis-related horror stories well in the 1970s.

Was Harry Anslinger a Racist?

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men… [and] the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” said Harry Anslinger, according to legend, during a Narcotics Bureau conference. He also supposedly said, “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.”

Several other racist, inflammatory quotes have also been attributed to America’s first Drug Czar, but it seems no one can point to a definitive and reliable source that backs up these claims. Sure, quotes made 80 years ago are hard to track, and bureaucrats typically say things in private that they never would on the record. Artwork associated with Anslinger’s crusade certainly had racist overtones often showing “a helpless, white female being seduced or overpowered by a Satan-like figure, often dark skinned” (University of Kansas professor Barney Warf in the 2014 study “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis”), but the extremely racist quotes—and countless others we could recite—might just be anti-prohibition propaganda hurled back at Anslinger. Without proper sourcing, it is not fair to attribute the quotes to the Drug Czar no matter how much he looks like James Bond supervillain Ernst Blofeld.

Still, in his prohibitionist campaign, the Drug Czar used an unknown Spanish slang term, “marihuana” (its spelling at the time), rather than the well-known name cannabis. He likely did this in part so people would not realize what he actually wanted to prohibit, but the primary reason might have been a play on the rising racial tensions in the country at the time. In the early 1900s, the Mexican Revolution ignited a surge of immigrants into the U.S., multiplying their numbers in a short time, and when the Great Depression hit, the immigrants often agreed to work for less money. Around the time of the Marihuana Tax Act hearings, the U.S. adopted a repatriation policy that sent about 400,000 immigrants back to Mexico against their will. In Texas, the Rangers sometimes used force.

In “High Points,” the aforementioned Barney Warf wrote, “Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers. Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana, property crimes, seducing children and engaging in murderous sprees." Later, the study added, “The discourses surrounding the war against marijuana reveal how particular gender and ethnic categories are selectively deployed in deliberately inaccurate ways, often invoking racist imagery.”

If Anslinger was not racist himself, he certainly did play the racist card. Interestingly, the use of the Spanish slang term even came up in the congressional hearings.

In the committee “debate” over the Tax Act, Dr. William Woodward with the legislative counsel representing the American Medical Association (AMA), complained, “We cannot understand yet, Mr. Chairman, why this bill should have been prepared in secret for two years without any intimation, even, to the [medical] profession, that it was being prepared.”

Dr. Woodward pointed out that the medical and hemp industries had been blindsided by the bill because it used the term marihuana in the title instead of cannabis.

“The term ‘marihuana’ is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of cannabis preparations for smoking,” the doctor explained. “It is not recognized in medicine, and hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department. Marihuana is not the correct term. It was the use of the term ‘marihuana’ rather than the use of the term ‘cannabis’ or the use of the term ‘Indian hemp’ that was responsible, as you realized probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hemp seed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day.”

The doctor’s pleas fell on deaf ears, the legislation passed and the resulting prohibition sent untold millions into the prison system for nonviolent cannabis offenses. Despite similar cannabis-consumption rates among whites, prohibition enforcers typically targeted minorities… as they still do today.

Was Harry Anslinger a Racist?

The Anslinger Gore Files

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

Anti-Cannabis Propaganda

Wacky Wiley

The Muckrakers!

Nixon vs. Shafer Commission

The Substance Schedules

Myth Busting: 420 Edition

The Prohibitionist "Prisoner" Theory

The Origin of "Marijuana"

Should Cannabis be Legal?

What is Hemp?

The Start of Cannabis Prohibition