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Public Enemy No. 1

Racism and the war on drugs


Updated January 29, 2019 07:00 AM EST

Editor's note: This story was originally published Sept. 14, 2018. We're bringing it back today on the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition.

WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — At the start of the 20th century, most drugs that are illegal today were actually legal in the United States. Marijuana was sold in drug stores and doctors even recommended it as medical treatment.

Everything changed in 1930 after a series of anti-marijuana campaigns were launched in newspapers and entertainment media portraying cannabis smokers as rapists, addicts and monsters. According to Brian Trembath, a historian at the Denver Colorado Public Library, the cultural shift in Americans' attitude toward marijuana coincided with the rise in Mexican immigrants fleeing to the U.S after the revolution of 1910.

"Hispanic immigrants weren't even on the radar of most East Coast people at the time. He was kind of 'the guy' because they had access to it and smoked it," he said.

Marihuana newspaper clips

The man who declared war on cannabis and won

Harry Anslinger was the commissioner of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics from its inception in 1930 until his retirement in 1963. As the government's chief law enforcement officer in the war on drugs, Anslinger strategically used propaganda to capitalize on economic tension between immigrant communities and the white population at the height of the Great Depression.

His tactics included racist accusations linking marijuana to Mexican immigrants, jazz music, and stories of urban black men who enticed young white women to become sex-crazed and instantly addicted to weed.

In 1936, Anslinger released an official statement claiming 50 percent of violent crimes nationwide were committed in districts occupied by "Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans and Negroes" and could be traced to the use of marijuana.

Marihuana ads

Anslinger never referred to marijuana as cannabis and even replaced the letter J with H in an effort to emphasize its connection to Mexico.

In the book "Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational and Scientific," Martin A. Lee explains, "Very few Americans knew that marijuana, the weed that some blacks and Chicanos were smoking, was merely a weaker version of the concentrated cannabis medicines that everyone had been taking since childhood."

The rise of 'Reefer Madness'

The 1936 propaganda film "Reefer Madness" was originally conceived as a morality tale to warn parents against the dangers of cannabis. It was re-cut into an exploitation film, a lurid melodrama about a group of dope-smoking teens who descend into a hell of murder, suicide, and madness brought on by the infernal herb.

"You know, I remember seeing that movie a long time ago and I think it certainly speaks to the fact that people were not really familiar with marijuana," said Trembath. "It was so underground at the time. I think for for Caucasians, I don't think most of them had been exposed to it at all. I think that's why they were able to push that story because people just weren't familiar with it."

Marijuana ads

In July 1937, Anslinger wrote an article for The American Magazine entitled "Marihuana, Assassin of Youth."

"How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries, and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year, especially among the young, can be only conjectured," Anslinger wrote. "The sweeping march of its addiction has been so insidious that, in numerous communities, it thrives almost unmolested, largely because of official ignorance of its effects."

Marihuana propoganda

Anslinger's mission was finally complete in 1970 when marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it had high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use. The classification remains today despite scientific evidence of marijuana's medical benefits.


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