Who among us hasn’t had a laugh at the marijuana prohibition disasterpiece Reefer Madness
? It seems absolutely ridiculous by the standards of what we know today. But we’re actually laughing through our pain because those absurd notions are still dictating our federal marijuana laws. When you ponder why marijuana was made illegal in the first place, you may be quick to place the blame on simple public ignorance or a conservative sign-of-the-times. But there’s actually a fine line between foolishness and stupidity. While the early days of marijuana prohibition were undeniably foolish in their selfishness and short-sightedness, they were put into motion with cunning and strategy, not simple stupidity. Today, we can safely say we’ve sacrificed decades of important research into a medical herb, not to mention lives lost to that same lack of research, for laws seeded in one man’s desire to keep his job and a system of poverty that sought a scapegoat and was granted one through media-hyped xenophobia.
Mexican Immigrants and Their Magic Cigarettes
Journalist Johann Hari contributed an illuminating piece to the Huffington Post
adapted from his New York Times bestseller Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
in which he recounts Harry Anslinger’s rise to the head of the Department of Prohibition and how that seeded the draconian federal cannabis laws in effect to this very day. But while Anslinger’s role in prohibition is prominent and colorfully repulsive, it wasn’t the sole factor for marijuana prohibition or even the catalyst. In the late 19th
and early 20th
century, your local neighborhood drug store could provide you with bottled cannabis extract. Keep in mind this was the same time when Coca Cola was made with real cocaine so while marijuana may be harmless, especially when stacked against cocaine, America’s narcotic terror had yet to settle in. But following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, immigrants began an exodus into the United States where they summarily scratched their heads at the vials of Parke, Davis & Co. Cannabis Fluid Extract No. 598 and asked, “Why the hell aren’t you smoking this stuff?”
Of course, America wasn’t the land of racial acceptance it is today (insert uncomfortable grimace here) so when droves of tan-skinned Spanish speaking strangers showed up with their magic cigarettes, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. High on the “success” of alcohol prohibition and smelling that the air was ripe with good ol’ fashioned xenophobia, members of the always classy temperance movement decided to take advantage of the situation by sensationalizing violent crime and pinning it on the…you guessed it…Mexican immigrants. And why were the Mexicans so brutally savage? Because those cigarettes they smoke drove them insane, of course! Excuse my sarcasm here, but it’s really quite impossible to tell this story any other way.
Media-Projected Demon Weed
The U.S. had only 48 states at this point, but well over half had put some form of marijuana ban in place by 1925. At this point, the U.S. media who it turns out have always excelled at making a bad situation worse, decided to jump into the fray, selling newspapers with sensationalist tales of “demon weed.” To be fair, the temperance leagues and media weren’t solely attacking cannabis but they were doing something equally ridiculous and sickeningly familiar; treating cannabis as a threat on par with cocaine and opiates. Newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst began demanding annuals devoted to exploiting the anti-narcotic mania boosted off the success of Narcotic Education Week, a program publicized by the Anti-Saloon league’s most popular paid speaker, former war hero Richmond P. Hobson. This coverage was tainted with a self-congratulatory racism, as drug addiction was almost viewed as a foreign virus air born on the breath of Mexican immigrants. The economic strain of the Great Depression further fueled racist perspectives and the media was right there to fan the flames.
The Rise of Anslinger and Marijuana Prohibition
It was around this point that Anslinger was promoted to the head of the Department of Prohibition. While Hearst and his underlings had already made a nice warm nest from which Anslinger could launch his war on drugs, the new department head was far more focused on his job of enforcing alcohol prohibition with no time to devote to a crusade against narcotics. In fact, when prodded on cannabis prohibition, Anslinger dismissed marijuana as harmless, going so far as to describe the violent tales attributed to the plant as “absurd fallacy.” Possibly more true to Anslinger’s character, he also pointed out that policing laws prohibiting marijuana would just be too much work for his department. But 3 years later, when the crippled awkward Goliath that was alcohol prohibition came crashing down with the most awkward of thuds, Anslinger found himself heading a department with no purpose. Some people in his position might start updating their resumes but, never the quitter, he did what any good person in a position of power would do and lied his ass off to the great detriment of the entire country.
Anslinger became the authority on the psychosexual insanity that gripped the casual marijuana smoker. He carefully compiled what he called his “gore file”; a compilation of violent crime’s greatest hits all attributed to marijuana, less from any evidence and more from…ummm…well, why not? His attacks on cannabis were passionate and colorful. Who could forget his 1937 contribution to American Magazine
titled “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth” or his famous quote, “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster of marijuana, he would drop dead of fright.” Not to be pedantic but 1.) Frankenstein’s monster is already dead and 2.) Frankenstein’s monster was also terrified of fire, a highly important tool of man not unlike…wait for it…marijuana.
The Power of “Science”
So, the American public just took this guy’s word for it? Shame on them, right? Actually, Anslinger came backed with the support of the scientific community…or at least a scientific community of one. In an attempt to validate his department’s existence, he wrote to 30 relevant scientists to ask if their research indicated that cannabis was in any way dangerous and whether they believed marijuana should be prohibited. Twenty-nine scientists said “no” but 30th
time’s a charm, right? The one scientist in 30 that actually believed cannabis was hazardous became Anslinger’s voice of the scientific community. Of course, researchers didn’t simply accept this. During his 32-year reign as the head of the Narcotics Bureau, several scientists approached Anslinger about the inaccuracies of his statements. Each was met with varying degrees of aggression and a refusal to fund any scientific research into marijuana. In 1944, he received word that the New York Academy of Medicine along with then current mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had prepared a report that proved marijuana wasn’t dangerous but rather lightly intoxicating. Anslinger took the offensive, funding a discrediting piece in the American Journal of Psychiatry
that appeared right before the New York report was to be made public.
And Why Not Throw in an Axe Murder?
Amidst this, Anslinger paraded the case of his prize marijuana maniac, 20-year-old axe murderer Victor Licata. Sure, he wasn’t Mexican but Anslinger had to take what he could get. Licata was presented by the press to the public as the “axe-murdering marijuana addict” after he killed his parents and three siblings. The Floridian youth was Anslinger’s ace card; the ultimate response to the nay-sayers that dared defy his steel perspective on cannabis use. Licata was the face of the citizen possessed by devil weed; a zombie farmer in Satan’s personal garden. The details were so grisly that any questions were lost in the sea of red horror engulfing the periphery of the tragic accounts. However, several years later, following Licata’s suicide at the Florida State Hospital for the Insane, researchers dug up Licata’s psychiatric evaluations but could not find a single remark about marijuana use. Rather, it seemed there had been several unsuccessful attempts to confine Licata prior to the murders due to incidents that indicated the young man was mentally ill. So, even the foundation of Anslinger’s platform turned out to be a simple scarecrow with a flimsy twig of a backbone, a whole lot of straw, and not a single bud of marijuana.
We can shake our heads in disgust or laugh at the absurdity but rage is probably the most reasonable reaction to a man padding out his job security with the lives of his country. Let’s face it; children have died, innocent people are serving life sentences, and billions of dollars have been wasted just so Anslinger wouldn’t have to go on a job hunt. Was marijuana prohibition all his fault? No, Hearst’s media empire, the hopelessly pointless temperance movement, and general racism all contributed their fair share. But possibly the most insane part of this story is the fact that we’re still living under federal laws established by one doctor’s unpopular opinion, an axe murderer who probably never touched a joint, and a man who didn’t want to give up that cushy chair at the head of the Department of Prohibition. I’ve got to hand it to you, Harry Anslinger, I love my job but I’d never kill anyone for it.