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  • Alec Chenkus

The History of Cannabis Use: Harry Anslinger and Prohibition

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

While it would have seemed at the turn of the 20th century that cannabis would become a prominent and widely utilized medical treatment option, the tides of government opinion would create a paradigm shift in the social perception of cannabis in the United States and across the world.

The World Turns on Cannabis

It was in 1925 that this forced social perspective would culminate when the League of Nations endorsed and ratified the International Opium Convention. According to Michael Backes in The Cannabis Pharmacy, within the IOC included language "banning cannabis and its derivatives except for medical and scientific use." It is this specific form of cannabis prohibition that has continued to this day.

The United Kingdom followed this endorsement by banning cannabis in 1928, and by the mid-1930s cannabis had been banned in all 48 U.S. states - Hawaii and Alaska had not yet officially become recognized states at that time. Access to medical cannabis was virtually impossible at this time, despite the fact that cannabis remained listed as a medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

The federal government would continue to oppress cannabis in the United States until cannabis was effectively made illegal with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937; the name "marihuana" alone reveals the biased and, to be quite frank, racist feelings harbored by those pushing the agenda to ban cannabis.

This was a devastating blow to the medical community, exemplified by the American Medical Association's then-legislative counsel Dr. William C. Woodward's testimony during a hearing for the Marihuana Tax Act that was ultimately ignored:

...there are potentialities in the drug that should be left to develop the use of this drug as they see fit."

You may naturally find yourself asking, "why was this perception shift happening so suddenly and dramatically?" The answer to that question lies within the motives and vehement opposition of a man that would make it his sole mission to remove cannabis from the world; his name: Harry Anslinger.

Cannabis' Most Infamous Enemy

Many may hear the phrase, "the War on Drugs," and attribute this sentiment to the Nixon and Reagan administrations. However the catalyst for these calls came as a result of the failed prohibition of alcohol.

According to Laura Smith of Timeline, in the early 1920s Harry Anslinger began working for the government in Prohibition enforcement as this was the height of alcohol prohibition. He would rise through the ranks, known for his ruthless and unforgiving approach, eventually being appointed to head the freshly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics by President Hoover himself and quickly familiarizing himself with influential politicians, Washington insiders, and the pharmaceutical industry. His appointment did not go unopposed, as then-Senator Royal Copeland requested a delay as he held concerns about an individual with no medical background or training being named the narcotics commissioner, however he would ultimately end up supporting the appointment.

At the start of his tenure at the FBN, Anslinger was originally unopinionated and hardly concerned with cannabis, but, with the end of alcohol prohibition, his newly created agency would seemingly have little to no work left - and he might be out of a cushy, influential position.

According to Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Anslinger's office originally focused on cocaine and heroin which had a small number of respective users. Anslinger would make the fateful decision at that point to find his "golden ticket" by essentially manufacturing a drug war. He used his position to prop cannabis up as a dangerous substance, associating cannabis use and violence in order to criminalize cannabis. He was known as saying, "You smoke a joint and you're likely to kill your brother."

Anslinger gained support, not only by aggressively creating fabricated associations between cannabis use and violence, but by also associating the use of cannabis with toxic racist ideologies that were ripe for belief in the 1930s; Anslinger would conflate cannabis use stating, "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men," in addition to, "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." According to what Hari told CBS News,“The insanity of the racism is a thing to behold when you go into his archives.”

Anslinger found several cases where individuals had committed violent offenses while purportedly high on cannabis, presenting these cases to Congress. Anslinger highlighted a particular case after consulting with 30 doctors to confirm his claim that weed was linked to violent crime; only a sole doctor back Anslinger's claim, and with this single dissenting doctor's testimony Anslinger went around Washington peddling this "evidence." Furthermore, the press would take this sensationalized view and run with it.

Arrests of Doctors

Most insidiously, Anslinger would use his power of influence to threaten, intimidate, and abuse physicians across the country that did not agree that cannabis was not a dangerous narcotic. According to Jack Herer in The Emperor Wears No Clothes, "After the 1938-1944 New York City 'LaGuardia Marijuana Report' refuted his argument, by reporting that marijuana caused no violence at all and citing other positive results, Harry J. Anslinger, in public tirade after tirade, denounced Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York Academy of Medicine and the doctors who researched the report." Herer goes on to state:

"Anslinger proclaimed that these doctors would never again do marijuana experiments or research without his personal permission, or be sent to jail!"

And these weren't just empty threats, as Anslinger would exert his full influence over the federal government - even it was illegally - to halt virtually all medical research into cannabis. Furthermore, according to Herer, he would blackmail the AMA into denouncing the New York Academy of Medicine and its doctors for the research they had reported.

Up and through 1939, Anslinger's FBN was responsible for prosecuting over 3,000 individual physicians across the country "who prescribed narcotic drugs for what he, Anslinger, deemed illegal purposes." As a concession, the AMA conducted a biased research study that was designed to directly refute the findings of the Laguardia Report, and between 1939 and 1949 only three doctors would be prosecuted. The message: work with Anslinger, or go to jail.

Anslinger's Racist Ideologies Spread

Anslinger's racist, paranoid, and outright falsehoods relating to cannabis would become the FBN's dedicated work moving forward while using his position and network to sway the opinions of influential legislators that could help him enact his vision. As John C. McWilliams writes in his book, The Protectors, "Anslinger was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics."

Around this time, articles began appearing in the news parroting the "dangers of pot". According to Smith, "It was during this time that the term 'cannabis' was swapped out for 'marihuana' or 'marijuana,' hoping that the Spanish word would conjure anti-Mexican sentiment" - also referred to now as the "Reefer Madness Era." Shortly after this media campaign spread across the country, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed.

After his success at making cannabis illegal across the United States, Anslinger would spend the 1940s implementing his racist agenda by viciously targeting legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday up until the very day that she passed away, with her friends blaming the stress of Anslinger's campaign for her death. Nine years later, Anslinger would continue to target the jazz community. "Arrests involving a certain type of musician in marihuana cases are on the increase," he wrote in a draft letter to the president of the American Federation of Musicians, further clarifying, "I am not talking about the good musicians, but the Jazz type."

By the time of the 1950s Anslinger would have a decisive hand in all of the country's drug legislation. According to McWilliams, Anslinger was considered the preeminent expert on drugs in America. Anslinger's influence would stretch across the globe over time, as he would travel to different countries peddling his beliefs of cannabis as a dangerous narcotic threatening society. Anslinger would remain as the head of the FBN until the Kennedy administration, however, according to Smith, "his ideas were swiftly adopted by successive administrations - always disproportionately to the detriment of people of color."

And so, by the time we reached the mid-1900s, the perception of cannabis had devolved from being a safe and effective medical treatment option to a dangerous narcotic. While the AMA would continue to fight for cannabis to remain on the USP, 5 years after the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act cannabis was removed from the list where it would be left off for over the next 75 years. From World War 2 and through the 1960s, cannabis was only officially studied in the context of being a dangerous narcotic rather than a medicinal compound. This has led to the, for lack of a better word, criminal lack of medical cannabis research.

Thankfully, in 1964 the "modern" scientific era of cannabis research arrived with the discovery of cannabis' most well-known cannabinoid: THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol).


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