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Anslinger seeds

Outlawing Marihuana

On August 12, 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created as an independent unit in the Treasury Department and Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the bureau’s first commissioner of narcotics by President Hoover.


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H. J. Anslinger and W. Oursler, The Murderers. The Story of the Narcotics Gangs ( New York: Farrar, Straus, 1961 ), p. 9.

Quoted in S. Meister, “Federal Narcotics Czar,” The Nation 190 (1960): 160.

D. T. Dickson, “Bureaucracy and Morality: An Organizational Perspective on a Moral Crusade,” Social Problems 16 (1968): 143–56.

U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, Traffic in Opium and Other Drugs ( Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934 ), p. 61.

Of the seventeen articles dealing with marihuana indexed in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature from July 1937 to July 1939, ten acknowledged the help of the Bureau of Narcotics in supplying information (H. Becker, Outsiders [New York: The Free Press: 1963], p. 141).

H. J. Anslinger and C. R. Cooper, “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth,” American Magazine 124 (1937): 19.

Anslinger and Oursler, Murderers,p. 10.

D. Musto, “The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” Archives of General Psychiatry 26 (1972): 105.

A. Lander, “The International Drug Control System,” in Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective ( Washington, D.C.: Washington, 1973 ), 3: 25.

Quoted in D. Musto, The American Disease ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973 ), p. 227.

Hearings before Committee on Ways and Means on H.R. 6385. House of Representatives, 75th Congress. 1st Session, 1937, p. 6.

E. Stanley, “Marihuana as a Developer of Criminals,” American Journal of Police Science 2 (1931): 252–61.

However, an 1895 text on pigeons states: “Hempseed, if sound and good, they are very fond of, and it is very beneficial at times, especially in cold weather, or given as a relish and not as regular food. It is, in fact, a stimulant, and to be so regarded. If a bird appear low-spirited, nothing will cheer it up more than a little good hempseed mixed with some dry raw rice” (quoted in W. M. Levi, The Pigeon [Sumter, S.: Levi Publishing Co., 1957] p. 450). Another text written in 1914 notes: “Hemp, sometimes recommended, is of use only as a pick-me-up in the case of a bird that happens to be out of sorts…” (quoted in Levi, The Pigeon,450). In 1912, Dr. Victor Robinson wrote about cannabis seeds: “Some birds consume them to excess which should lead us to suspect that these seeds tho they cannot intoxicate us, have a narcotic effect on the feathered creatures, making them dream of a happy birdland where there are no gilded cages, and where the men are gunless and the women hatless” (V. Robinson, “An Essay on Hasheesh; Including Observations and Experiments,” Medical Review of Reviews 18 [1912]: 162). In 1957, W. M. Levi, who during 1917–8 had been a first lieutenant in charge of the Pigeon Section, U.S. Signal Corps, and president of the Palmetto Pigeon Plant from 1923 to 1956, also referred to the effects of hemp seeds on pigeons: “In addition to the actual physical effect produced upon the bird’s body, its feeding has a decided beneficial psychological effect upon the bird’s happiness. Pigeons fed sparingly with a little hemp in the middle of the day during the moulting season take a new interest in life which is almost inconceivable” (Levi, The Pigeon,p. 499).

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G. R. McCormack, “Marihuana,” Hygeia 15 (1937): 898–9.

Musto, American Disease,p. 228.

U.S., Congress, House, Congressional Record, 81st Cong., 1st sess., 1937, p. 5575.

Harry Anslinger: Sewing The Seeds of Prohibition

Ever wonder how the war on Marijuana first began and why? With Pot Prohibition finally on the edge of falling into the pages of history books, there are still many who have no idea how it all started, and more importantly WHO started it. Let’s go back to history and get to know a man named, Harry Anslinger, and his antagonistic role.

The roots of the movement were largely political and racial and had their beginnings in complex geopolitical events that resulted in two world wars and then the Cold one.

First targeted after WWI to undermine both India and Turkey’s agricultural products, both stigma and then formal prosecution for cultivation, possession and use of the drug were cynical tools wielded by people who sought to establish a “New World Order” for the last century.

In the United States, the main ringleader, for many decades, of this movement to ban the use of cannabis for any purpose, was a man by the name of Harry Anslinger.

Harry Anslinger: An Ardent Evangelist & Racist

Harry Anslinger was the nation’s first drug czar, appointed by President Hoover in the depths of the Depression. Described as a cross between Willliam Jennings Bryan and Reverend Jerry Falwell, he was first an ardent backer of alcohol prohibition who found himself out of a job after alcohol was re-legalized in the 1930’s.

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His profile of the average toker of the time was that “most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Using the mass media of the time, including the media empire of William Randolph Hurst of “Citizen Kane” fame, Harry Anslinger made marijuana prohibition his personal war on what he saw as the moral degeneracy of his day. This included not only extreme racist beliefs but also a personal antipathy to jazz.

From his powerful political pulpit, Anslinger was also perhaps the most influential person in the movement to ban all forms of cannabis and hemp production and use in the United States for a period of 30 years.

He was the first Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, and then the chief U.S. delegate to the international drug agencies until 1970.

As a result, his policies fundamentally shaped some of the worst and most repressive anti-cannabis policies both in the United States and globally.

A Drug War To Stamp Out Competition

Harry Anslinger also had other motives as his campaign rolled forward. Ostensibly his punitive policies had what seemed to be a laudable goal – preventing children from getting their hands on drugs. Yet he also opposed realistic drug education, including for teenagers, on the grounds that an understanding of the effects of cannabis, in particular, was the same thing as encouraging youth to try it for themselves.

From his powerful post in Washington, he elicited a powerful group of supporters – mostly politicians, who cast themselves as “ drug war warriors.”

In reality, however, what Anslinger and his supporters sought to achieve was not only social control but the creation of a safe haven for two emerging industries at the time which saw cannabis and hemp as direct threats to their commercial interests.

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The first was eliminating the idea of marijuana as an effective natural medicine at a time when the corporate pharmaceutical industry was just realizing the impact of penicillin and other drugs.

However, the war did not stop here. Anslinger’s campaign was also targeted at banning the production of commercial hemp (introduced, albeit briefly by President Roosevelt to help struggling farmers in the South).

The reason? Hemp fiber was a considerable competition to the synthetics industry, at the time also gaining power in the United States.

Punishing Patients

One of the most long-standing impacts of Anslinger, beyond just harshly penalizing those who used pot as well as other narcotics, was the federal government’s punishment of patients who used narcotics it deemed “ unsuitable for medical purposes.”

Perhaps Anslinger’s most famous victim was the jazz singer Billie Holiday, who was singled out by Anslinger because of her race, gender and profession. He is credited for ruining her career. As Holiday wrote in her biography, Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market…then sent them to jail .”

In effect, Holiday’s words, written about the refusal of authorities to get her treatment for a heroin addiction, became accurate reflections of what the federal government ended up doing to marijuana patients as the war against marijuana became more pronounced after Holiday’s death.

A Tortured Legacy

As the war on marijuana finally comes to a close, legalization reformers are in fact merely undoing the decades of active campaigning and propaganda first propagated by the work and crusade of one man.

And as marijuana, for both medical and recreational use, becomes legal in more and more states and countries, it is safe to say that there are few legacies more worth undoing.

Do you know other personalities responsible in pot prohibition?

Share what you know in the comments below!

Marguerite is an American expat. She has worked in digitalization of two industries (film and finance) for over 25 years as well as a professional journalist and writer. She lives in Frankfurt where she is also just finishing her Executive MBA at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, working as a freelancer and writing a medical marijuana/FinTech business plan. She published her first ebook on the pace of marijuana reform last year.