No individual is more responsible for the madness of cannabis prohibition than Harry Anslinger. Early in his government career, he worked to keep alcohol off the streets. But when alcohol prohibition ended, Anslinger needed a new boogeyman.
Harry Anslinger’s tenure as the head of The Federal Bureau of Narcotics is almost entirely responsible for the perception of weed around the world. But he wasn’t the first to regulate the plant. Californian lawmakers had that idea in 1913. Similarly to modern times, the opioid and pharmaceutical industries lobbied for these early restrictions.
Over the next two decades, other states would follow suit. By 1927, 17 states had varied levels of the prohibition on cannabis. States moved to make cannabis illegal for many reasons. Aside from the pharmaceutical lobby, America was still dealing with consequences of the Civil war. And in 1910, nearly 900,000 Mexicans emigrated to the States as refugees of the Mexican Revolution headed by Francisco “Pancho” Villa. As Mexican nationals emigrated to towns like Laredo and El Paso many brought with them a tradition of smoking weed.
It’s possible some cannabis prohibition spread across the United States because of a legitimate urge to regulate what might have been a dangerous chemical, but it’s unlikely. Pharmaceutical companies were just as interested then in protecting their opiate trade as they are now. And the racial oppression of people of color wasn’t subtext of the law; it was explicit.
These early prohibition laws ranged from moderate to draconian. But in 1930, when Anslinger finally made an appearance on a national stage, he single-handedly turned the crazy up to 11.
Anslinger made it his mission to outlaw cannabis nationally and draw connections between cannabis use and crime. To accomplish this, he told horror stories about people who smoked marijuana and murdered their family with an ax. He told a story of two Mexicans who sedated a 14-year-old girl with marijuana, raped her, and left her with syphilis.
These stories, like almost everything else Anslinger had to say on the subject of cannabis, were categorically false. But, these falsehoods and salacious exaggerations were effective.
Anslinger’s success came in building a narrative. His talent as a propagandist united a white, economically anxious majority against non-whites and narcotics. He used to the word marijuana because it sounded exotic and new. To define weed, State governments used terms like cannabis, hemp, even locoweed. ‘Marijuana’ was a rarely used word that had only appeared in the late 19th century.
With Anslinger’s guidance, ‘marijuana’ became a slur. A foreign word for a foreign drug that “good citizens” would stay clear of. With The Marihuana Tax Act Of 1937, his word became law. And, America’s growing dominance the world meant that this esoteric word was explicitly chosen to stir racial resentment in the United States became codified and outlawed all over the world as part of international treaties.
The cohesion around a mission to outlaw marijuana is inextricably linked to race. That’s why it’s time to just drop its use altogether.
It’s not as though people today who call weed ‘marijuana’ are racist. But, that word is a celebration of prohibition, and a gross reminder racial prejudice. Plus, it’s victory for Harry Anslinger.
Anslinger had enough victories. His obtuse, racist philosophy shaped American law enforcement for three decades. He introduced some of the most destructive policies in generations, like mandatory minimum sentencing, all to great applause.
It’s not much, but we should take this from him. Governments should go back to calling it cannabis, and we should call it whatever we like. But Harry Anslinger deserves no lasting impact. As legalization slowly eviscerates his life’s work, it’s our responsibility to expunge his influence on culture too.