Was Harry Anslinger a Racist?

By David Jenison

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.

The Anslinger Gore Files

Harry Anslinger: The Godfather of Cannabis Prohibition

Anti-Cannabis Propaganda

Nixon vs. Shafer Commission

The Substance Schedules

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

The Prohibitionist "Prisoner" Theory

Nixon vs. Lennon

Prohibition’s Racist Roots

Cannabis and the CSA

Scheduling Conflicts

To the States!

Protect the Children

Cannabis vs. Heroin

The Boggs Act & Mandatory Minimums