by Moshe Y Bernstein

Films like Reefer Madness and Devil’s Harvest were part of a fear-mongering campaign to publicly stigmatise cannabis.

The answer to the question implicit in the title depends upon whom you ask. If you ask opponents of cannabis law reform, they will tell you that cannabis is illegal, because it is dangerous and addictive. Alternatively, they will say that cannabis triggers mental illness or violent crime. Some will affirm that cannabis is merely a gateway drug that, while in itself benign, will lead its users to sample other illicit drugs which—unlike cannabis—are genuinely addictive and dangerous.

However, the short and true answer to the question suggested in the title is simply: politics.

From the latter half of the nineteenth century until its prohibition in 1937, cannabis tinctures were readily available without prescription both as medicaments and stimulants in pharmacies and grocery stores.

Harry J Anslinger was appointed founding commissioner of the United States Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, initially charged with enforcing the prohibition of alcohol. Once alcohol again became legal in 1933, Anslinger, in order to justify his bloated budget and expanded department, shifted his attention to drugs, with particular focus on an insidious ‘foreign’ drug he claimed was answerable for a wave of murder and mayhem: ‘marihuana’.

Capitalising on both the yellow journalism of his day and public sentiment in US border states against increasing immigration, Anslinger alleged that under the influence of the insidious ‘marihuana’, ‘Hispanics and Negros’ were committing wanton acts of violence. His fearmongering campaign mendaciously asserted that cannabis use triggered madness and aggression, assertions that every credible study of cannabis has since refuted. The now laughable film “Reefer Madness” (viewable on YouTube) is a prime example of Anslinger’s bogus crusade.

More than forty years prior to the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively prohibited cannabis, the first credible, comprehensive, scientific study on the effects of the plant was issued in 1894. Entitled The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, it was authorized by the British House of Commons out of concern over the widespread consumption of ganja in India. Regarding apprehensions that cannabis consumption was fuelling physical and mental illness, the Commission concluded:

In respect to the alleged mental effects of the drugs, the Commission have come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp drugs produces no injurious effects on the mind. It may indeed be accepted that in the case of specially marked neurotic diathesis, even the moderate use may produce mental injury. For the slightest mental stimulation or excitement may have that effect in such a case. But putting aside these quite exceptional cases, the moderate use of these drugs produces no mental injury.

The report concluded that moderate use of cannabis posed no harm whatsoever, and even the impact of excessive use affected only the consumer of cannabis rather than society at large:

Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by the excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable. It has been the most striking feature in this inquiry to find how little the effects of hemp drugs have obtruded themselves on observation. The large number of witnesses of all classes who professed never to have seen these effects, the vague statements made by many who professed to have observed them, the very few witnesses who could so recall a case as to give any definite account of it, and the manner in which a large proportion of these cases broke down on the first attempt to examine them, are facts which combine to show most clearly how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs."

Harry Anslinger refused to acknowledge the prior conclusions of the Hemp Report; he instead sent his narcotics agents to New York City, where cannabis had become increasingly popular among Harlem’s jazz aficionados. These agents harassed, intimidated, and arrested several jazz musicians, among them Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Mezz Mezzrow. Anslinger made no attempt to hide his bigotry and his disdain for jazz culture:

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 marihuana use. This marihuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York at the time, was disturbed by Anslinger’s oppressive tactics and racist campaigns. Furthermore, Anslinger’s harassment of Harlem’s musical denizens threatened the city’s prosperous tourism industry.

While previously serving in Congress, La Guardia had heard an Army Board of Inquiry discussing the use of cannabis by soldiers stationed in Panama. He was impressed at that time with its report stressing the harmlessness of cannabis and the negligibility of adverse effects in terms of delinquency issues.

In 1939, two years after the ratification of the Marihuana Tax Act, in response to Anslinger’s intrusive manoeuvres in Harlem, La Guardia appointed the New York Academy of Medicine to conduct an in-depth study on cannabis. Five years later, in 1944 this comprehensive study undertaken by eminent medical professionals, reached thirteen significant conclusions:

  1. Marihuana is used extensively in the Borough of Manhattan but the problem is not as acute as it is reported to be in other sections of the United States.
  2. The introduction of marihuana into this area is recent as compared to other localities.
  3. The cost of marihuana is low and therefore within the purchasing power of most persons.
  4. The distribution and use of marihuana is centered in Harlem.
  5. The majority of marihuana smokers are Blacks and Latin-Americans.
  6. The consensus among marihuana smokers is that the use of the drug creates a definite feeling of adequacy.
  7. The practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.
  8. The sale and distribution of marihuana is not under the control of any single organized group.
  9. The use of marihuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marihuana smoking.
  10. Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.
  11. Marihuana smoking is not widespread among school children.
  12. Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marihuana.
  13. The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.

Anslinger was angered at the La Guardia Committee Report and labelled it “unscientific”. He forbade any more experimental studies on cannabis without his personal consent. Furthermore, he commissioned his own study employing corrupt officials from the American Medical Association to forge conclusions reiterating the government’s position.

Between 1944 and 1945, the study commissioned by Anslinger and conducted by the AMA to disprove the suppositions of the LaGuardia Report utilised an experimental group of thirty-four African Americans and one Caucasian. Echoing Amsliner’s bigotry, the AMA report concluded that 

… those who smoked marijuana, became disrespectful of white soldiers and officers during military segregation".

Harry Anslinger remained as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for thirty-two years. In 1962, President John F Kennedy appointed him U.S. Representative to the United Nations Narcotics Commission, where during his two-year tenure he used his political clout to influence the international treaties which currently govern the world’s drug laws.

Only in 1972, nearly three decades later and eight years after his retirement, the AMA admitted that the report commissioned by Harry Anslinger had been largely fabricated.

In that same time period, during the administration of US President Richard Nixon, the prohibition against cannabis would be upgraded from the taxation regulation initiated by Anslinger to a criminal felony offence. With the historic blunder known as the “War on Drugs” (see Part 2), cannabis would soon be branded as the treacherous foe to be eradicated from the public sphere. The effect of that blunder would be precisely the opposite. 

Profile of Harry J Anslinger, America’s first ‘drug czar’