Fear, Fake News, and the Racist Roots of Cannabis Prohibition

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

The American cannabis controversy has been an ongoing drama since before the 1930’s when bombastic Harry J. Anslinger (May 20, 1892 – November 14, 1975), the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, promoted misinformation and racist dog whistle politics to convince an ill-informed general population that cannabis was at the root of immorality and would lead to America’s downfall. His outrageous assertions were overt, vitriolic messages of hatred toward the Mexican and African-American populations; however, they effectively created a political, legal, and moral quagmire that exists in America many decades later. Wildly exaggerated, unsubstantiated claims promoted by Anslinger made cannabis a tangible symbol for American race/class friction.

In 1930, Anslinger headed the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a small branch of the Treasury Department replacing the defunct Department of Prohibition (alcohol). The line of thinking was this: If the anti-substance fervor of Prohibition would not stick for alcohol, something else needed to go down; therefore, that redundant campaign attached its muscle to fighting Indian hemp, a substance that had long been on the scene in America. According to David Musto, sentiment about cannabis prior to 1937 was not so frenzied: “(T)he drug trades did not see any reason why a substance used chiefly in corn plasters, veterinary medicine, and other non-intoxicating forms of medicaments should be so severely restricted in its use and sale. Not even the reformers claimed in the pre-World War I hearings and debates over a federal antinarcotic act, that cannabis was a problem of any major significance in the United States.” What occurred to inflame rhetoric about cannabis use in the years leading to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937? To a large extent, Anslinger’s persistent, unsubstantiated claims created a myth about potential harmful social effects of cannabis, which the general public embraced due to racial fear and economic insecurity.

Timing is everything; during the Great Depression, the Anglo American middle class was feeling desperate about job losses. Anslinger saw an opportunity to fuel fears by blaming the bad hombres whom he claimed were gnawing away at the moral fiber of white America. Economic concerns dovetailed with racist sentiments, which led to a swelling xenophobic social movement. There were groups such as “Allied Patriotic Societies,” “Key Men of America,” and the “American Coalition” whose motto "Keep America American" sounds eerily familiar to President Donald Trump’s own battle cry. Like the current administration, Anslinger and his ilk did not have to be honest or accurate, just loud and persistent, to capitalize on the anxiety of citizens who felt forgotten. His hate-mongering touched a nerve with populist white Americans, a quarter of whom were unemployed and without job prospects in 1932. The despairing Anglo-American middle class needed a scapegoat to assuage their pain, so they bought what Anslinger was selling.

Anslinger was a determined propagandist who relied on emotional rather than intellectual appeal to push his agenda. He underscored his convoluted argument about the threat of Mexican immigrants and migrant workers by referring to cannabis as marihauna, the Spanish term, thereby assigning blame to that culture for the evils he claimed were being created. His smear campaign connected cannabis to crazed Mexican rapists and murderers who were purportedly roaming Main Street, USA. Citing murder, suicide, rape, crime, Anslinger claimed, “The cigarettes may have been sold by a hot tamale vendor or by a street peddler, or in a dance hall or over a lunch counter, or even from sources much nearer to the customer. The police of a Midwestern city recently accused a school janitor of having conspired with four other men, not only to peddle cigarettes to children, but even to furnish apartments where smoking parties might be held.”  His vague, shady arguments purposely increased racial distrust among many white Americans.

Anslinger also aimed his deliberate, fear-based tactics toward African Americans using obviously improbable statistics: “(T)he increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people” and “the Negro population . . . accounts for 10 percent of the total population, but 60 percent of the addicts.” In fact, he argued marihauna use was so insidious, it would turn white women into raging nymphomaniacs seeking men of color, a popular racist trigger employed in the preposterous imagery of 1930’s propaganda. His fallacious argument emphasized who was using it, creating hateful stereotypes and caricatures of non-white marginalized groups.  

Anslinger went on to promote the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which stopped the use of cannabis as a recreational drug and ruined U.S. hemp commercial production. More importantly, it continues to influence cannabis regulation now. In fact, contemporary medical researchers have difficulty since the schedule one narcotic classification ascribed to cannabis has made cannabis research and testing nearly impossible. Anslinger’s efforts even went so far as to get cannabis eliminated from the Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America.

Anslinger’s bigoted arguments were rhetorical nightmares, using every fallacy appealing to the emotions of the lowest common denominator. Exploiting national pain caused by economic catastrophe and blaming minorities, his efforts led to adoption of protectionist policy in America. Anslinger’s alternative facts sowed the seeds of misinformation and unfounded bias against cannabis that thrive today.


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About Author

J.C. Enney, PhD

Dr. J.C. Enney is a retired English professor.