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.
The failure of alcohol prohibition frustrated Anslinger, and he saw his chance to make his mark by eradicating heroin, opium, cocaine and cannabis. “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,” he wrote 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 collected crime stories that he could tie to cannabis use in his “Gore Files,” which he used to write his 1937 article “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth.” It ran in both The American Magazine and Reader’s Digest, and inspired a Reefer Madness-like film that same year.
“In the year 1090,” Anslinger wrote, “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.’”
Having established the homicidal roots of the drug, Anslinger went on to breathlesslyrelate 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 ax he had killed his father, his mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze.”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.”
“And they have parties in different parts of the country that they call ‘reefer parties,” Representative John W. McCormack chimed in.
Anslinger maintained that while opium was a necessary tool for doctors, cannabis was not. “Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde. This drug [cannabis] is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”
Anslinger presented his case to Congress, but Dr. William C. Woodward, the legislative counsel representing the AMA, begged to differ. “Most physicians would want to preserve the right to use it [cannabis], probably,” Woodward testified on May 4, 1937. “To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.”
Woodward complained that, “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.”
He pointed out that the medical and hemp industries had been blindsided by the bill because it used the term marijuana in the title instead of cannabis. “The term ‘marijuana’ 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. It is not recognized in medicine, and hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department. Marijuana is not the correct term. It was the use of the term ‘marijuana’ 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.”
He then proceeded to pick apart Anslinger’s rhetoric. “We are told the use of marijuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marijuana habit… You have been told that schoolchildren are great users of marijuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau… [But] in all that you have had here thus far, no mention has been made of any excessive use of the drug by any doctor or its excessive distribution by any pharmacist.” And he pointed out, “Newspaper exploitation of the habit has done more to increase it than anything else.”
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.”
Nevertheless, the bill passed on June 14 and was signed by President Roosevelt on August 2. But another person who opposed its passage was New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and two years later, he commissioned his own study of cannabis by the New York Academy of Medicine. Released in 1944, the report stated, “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."
Anslinger ended his 32-year tenure as the nation’s first drug czar in 1962. Four years later, 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.”
Andrew Grant Jackson is the author of 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers and Where’s Ringo?