Why is Marijuana Illegal Now When it was Legal For a Long Time?
Most of us are familiar with the term reefer madness. We use it to describe weed haters. People who don’t know what they’re talking about. People who resort to scare tactics, fear mongering and brainwashing to push their agenda. If there’s one thing the history of the United States has taught us, it’s that when the American way of life is threatened, wars are generated to balance the scales.
The origin of the term reefer madness begins during the time when a conservative, Bunny Bread America was beginning to become frightened. See, in the 20’s and 30’s cannabis was the jazz world’s drug of choice. Many musicians used it for inspiration and accepted it as gifts from well-wishers. Entire bodies of songs were written around smoking pot. It could even be argued that it was black New Orleans musicians who invented jazz with the help of Cannabis. Satchmo, otherwise known as trumpeting legend Louis Armstrong, and his fellow enthusiasts called themselves the Vipers. A Viper was a term for a marijuana-smoking musician, and the aficionado’s were so stoked on getting stoned that they developed an entire lingo unable to be translated by the white populace that governed the country. It was all part of a language that originated mostly from the life of these travelling jazz musicians who moved quickly from one place to the next and used smoking to help them cope with the hardships of the road as well as the discrimination of a fearful population along the way. Touring jazz musicians brought so much cannabis up north that it quickly gained an appreciation and spread, like, well, weed. Jazz halls were filled with those high on the scourge and dancing like lunatics. Viper lingo made its way into the lyrics of several popular songs, like Don Redman’s 1931 “Chant of the Weed,” and Cab Calloway’s 1932 song, “Reefer Man”
It was upon this premise that Harry Anslinger, the father of the pot prohibition, (may he forever burn in hell), began to sling his alarmist rhetoric by claiming that cannabis was a satanic scourge that produced music in worship of the darkside.
But Who Was Harry Anslinger?
Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania to Swiss German parents in 1892, Harry Anslinger began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the eighth grade. After rising through the ranks he began investigating wrongful death claims where his work method was quickly characterized by being strictly by the book and having a strong nose for fraud. It may have been this attitude that landed him a position chasing rum runners through the Bahamas until his 1930 appointment as head of the newly minted Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an entity established under the Presidency of J. Edgar Hoover.
During the early days of his career Anslinger seemed little concerned about marijuana.. At the time it was considered a benign drug. It was included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1851. (The Pharmacopoeia being a then book assembled to identify mostly botanical drugs in medical use.) The book dictates the exact formula, parts of the plant, and the exact method of preparation of base drugs for pharmaceutical use. Between 1850 and 1937, marijuana was widely used in American medical practice for a wide range of ailments. In 1851 Marijuana is admitted as as a recognized medicine in the 3rd edition of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia under the name of Extractum Cannabis or Extract of Hemp and listed until 1942. At the end of the 20th century more than 20 prescription medicines containing cannabis were sold in U.S. pharmacies. The National Formulary and United States Dispensatory, also included treatises on marijuana and cited recommendations on its use for numerous illnesses. In 1851 the United States Dispensatory reported:
“Extract of hemp is a powerful narcotic [here meaning sleep-producing drug], causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucinations, and, in its subsequent action, drowsiness and stupor, with little effect upon the circulation. It is asserted also to act as a decided aphrodisiac, to increase the appetite, and occasionally to induce the cataleptic state. In morbid states of the system, it has been found to cause sleep, to allay spasm, to compose nervous disquietude, and to relieve pain. In these respects it resembles opium; but it differs from that narcotic in not diminishing the appetite, checking the secretions, or constipating the bowels. It is much less certain in its effects, but may sometimes be preferably employed, when opium is contraindicated by its nauseating or constipating effects, or its disposition to produce headache, and to check the bronchial secretion. The complaints in which it has been specially recommended are neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium tremens, insanity, and uterine hemorrhage.”
But if This is True, Why all the Weed hate?
The answer to this is simple really.
In his book titled, Chasing the Screams: The first and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari explains to his readers this:
“Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. ‘It sounded,’ his internal memos said, ‘like the jungles in the dead of night.’”
When old Harry’s new job at the helm of the Federal Narcotics Bureau was threatened with, namely, a lack of things to do, he decided to go after what he felt was the biggest threat to his beloved country. Darkies. Approaching an audience that counted as mostly as white protestant, he enslaved the masses with the usual white-supremacist trope about how how all the countries precious fair-skinned women were in danger. In a 1937 article titled “Marijuana, Assassin of the Youth” he wrote this: “Not long ago the body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk after a plunge from a Chicago apartment window. Everyone called it suicide, but actually it was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marijuana, and to history as hashish.”
Harry’s tactics as such were prolific and he traded on the idea of fear. He went through great lengths to scare the shit out of people. Like in the instance of Victor Licata. Licata used an ax to murder his entire family in 1933. It was a horrific event that Anslinger in turn capitalized upon, convincing the media to peddle the idea that Licata had been driven insane by smoking marijuana, even though there was no evidence to support this. The ax-murderer was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and his family’s well-documented history of mental illness was made known to the public, but the damage had already been done.
The true nature of the war Anslinger was waging can be seen in his vehement oppression of African-American singer Billie Holiday when he learned that rising star was addicted to heroin. He went after her. Planted drugs on her. Drug her name through the mud. Had her thrown in prison. She was stripped of her performer’s license and effectively barred from legally performing in any jazz club in the entire US.
When he found out actress Judy Garland was an addict he called her into his office and, like a good buddy, advised that she take longer vacations.
The Long Term Effect
The results of Anslinger’s tactics have had lasting effects. From headlines through the ages that read, “Mexicans Grow Weed and School Students Smoke It, Police Chief Says,” and “KILLS SIX IN A HOSPITAL. Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife.” To Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman,who infamously told Harper’s magazine in 1994, “You want to know what this was really all about? 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 or black, but by getting the public to associate 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.”
But these days things things are different. The world is more progressive right?
It is important to note that, currently, blacks and minorities are still arrested at a higher rate than whites for minor, marijuana related crimes. The NAACP reports that African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but that the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites. They also report that African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses.
It needs to be understood, that when it comes to the true nature of the war on drugs, it relates to a dark history rooted deep in our nation’s racist past
Understanding the past means changing the future. This being understood, we must never forget.
The fight for the legalization of cannabis entails more than a nation’s god-given right to get high, it embodies the freedom of a people who have only ever known oppression.