These days it is easy to take for granted how the relative acceptance by mainstream America. In popular culture, academia, and business, cannabis is gaining acceptance and credibility at a rapid pace. This was not always the case. The majority of America’s 20th-century history with cannabis was consumed by anti-cannabis propaganda, the effects of which continue to reverberate in how Americans act and react to cannabis.
Harry Anslinger & Reefer Madness
In the 1930s, cannabis was a substance mostly thought to be consumed by Mexican immigrants, jazz musicians, and other city dwellers outside of the mainstream. As such, it was not thought to be a harmful substance to the general population.
Then, Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the newly-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), needed a drug scare to bring money into the coffers of his fledgling agency. What followed was almost a decade of propaganda, captured famously in the now-classic anti-cannabis propaganda film Reefer Madness, that served to propagate the government’s message that cannabis use would lead to insanity or sexual promiscuity.
After the reefer madness angle appeared to run its course, the government switched its focus to the idea that the use of cannabis could lead to the use of other, harder drugs. This point of view, while being roundly criticized in the present day, also managed to gain traction at its inception and continues to attract followers.
“It’s a gateway theory thing,” Harry Shapiro, an author of multiple drug-related books, told Herb. “It’s a gateway to more dangerous drugs. Which there’s never been any evidence for whatsoever. But that one has kind of manifested itself over the years.”
Cannabis propaganda received a shift in focus during the ascendancy of Richard Nixon. According to a 1994 interview in Harper’s Magazine with one of Nixon’s key advisers, John Ehrlichman, Nixon shifted the focus of anti-cannabis propaganda to target minorities and anti-war activists. This, said Ehrlichman, was designed to bolster Nixon’s political standing:
“‘You want to know what this was really all about?’ he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war-y or black, but by getting the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.’”
Times have thankfully changed since the days of government scare-mongering on the issue of cannabis. Public support on the issue has moved swiftly in the direction of legalization: In a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago, 61% of American adults supported the legalization of cannabis.
The issue has also been embraced by state governments. Cannabis legalization bills across the country are advancing; Vermont, in particular, looks set to pass the first legislative legalization of cannabis in the country’s history. And the federal government has spoken openly of the likelihood that cannabis will be reclassified under federal law.
The changes in public opinion suggest that time has run out on the effectiveness of anti-cannabis propaganda.
“I think that the straightforward reefer madness narrative about cannabis has kind of had its day,” says Shapiro. “[I]n terms of what people believe about cannabis- considering, over the years, you’ve had crack, you’ve had crystal meth- I think cannabis has probably dropped right down the table of drugs to be afraid of.”
As the trend lines suggest, public acceptance of cannabis has rendered many, if not most, of the cannabis scare tactics moot. But don’t think that means we won’t be tuning in to watch and enjoy Reefer Madness every now and then.
What do you think we can do together to fight all this past stigma? Let us know on social media or in the comments below.