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1900s to 1930s: Beginnings of “The War” on Drugs
Before “the War on Drugs” began, many substances we now consider illicit were widely available in the United States. In Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs, author Johann Hari explains:
“You could go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine. The most popular cough mixtures in the United States contained opiates, a new soft drink called Coca-Cola was made from the same plant as snortable cocaine, and over in Britain, the classiest department stores sold heroin tins for society women” (p. 9).
This information is confirmed in multiple sources; according to Jarvis, Rassmussen, and Winters (2017):
“In the 1850s, medicinal preparations became available in American pharmacies. Over the next 3 decades, recreational use of cannabis flourished in oriental-style hashish establishments. It was during this time that cannabis was labeled as both a poison and narcotic.
In 1906, the Pure Drug and Food Act was passed requiring that certain drugs, including cannabis, be accurately labeled, and states began to restrict the sale of cannabis.”
From its inception, the so-called “War on Drugs” in the United States has been a fear-based propaganda-producing movement designed to silence portions of the population that caused trouble for politicians clinging to a tenuous grasp on power.
In 1930, Harry Ainslinger was chosen to head the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics, formerly the Bureau of (alcohol) Prohibition. Ainslinger, whose professional career would be characterized by paranoia, threats, and vengeance, and who would eventually be hospitalized for a mental breakdown, was dogmatic in his assertion that drugs were a criminal blight that must be eradicated. After he resigned in 1962, his bureau would be exposed as corrupt, and as being possibly the largest source of heroin in the United States, but Ainslinger’s refusal to accept the facts made him one of the most influential players in what would become a global “War on Drugs.” From the start, he knew he needed to create a bigger enemy if he wanted his department to succeed.
“From the moment he took charge of the bureau, Harry was aware of the weakness of his new position. A war on narcotics alone—cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914—wasn’t enough. They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn’t keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs. He needed more.
…Harry had long dismissed cannabis as a nuisance that would only distract him from the drugs he really wanted to fight. He insisted it was not addictive, and stated “there is probably no more absurd fallacy” than the claim that it caused violent crime.
But almost overnight, he began to argue the opposite position. Why? He believed the two most-feared groups in the United States—Mexican immigrants and African Americans—were taking the drug much more than white people, and he presented the House Committee on Appropriations with a nightmarish vision of where this could lead. He had been told, he said, of “colored students at the University of Minn[esota] partying with female students (white) and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.” This was the first hint of much more to come.
He wrote to thirty scientific experts asking a series of questions about marijuana. Twenty-nine of them wrote back saying it would be wrong to ban it, and that it was being widely misrepresented in the press. Anslinger decided to ignore them and quoted instead the one expert who believed it was a great evil that had to be eradicated.
On this basis, Harry warned the public about what happens when you smoke this weed. First, you will fall into “a delirious rage.” Then you will be gripped by “dreams . . . of an erotic character.” Then you will “lose the power of connected thought.” Finally, you will reach the inevitable end point: “Insanity.” You could easily get stoned and go out and kill a person, and it would all be over before you even realized you had left your room, he said, because marijuana “turns man into a wild beast.” Indeed, “if the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster Marijuana, he would drop dead of fright.”
A doctor called Michael V. Ball got in touch with Harry to counter this view, saying he had used hemp extract as a medical student and it only made him sleepy. He suspected that the claims circulating about the drug couldn’t possibly be true. Maybe, he said, cannabis does drive people crazy in a tiny number of cases, but his hunch was that anybody reacting that way probably had an underlying mental health problem already. He implored Anslinger to fund proper lab studies so they could find out the truth.
Anslinger wrote back firmly. “The marihuana evil can no longer be temporized with,” he explained, and he would fund no independent science, then or ever.
For years, doctors kept approaching him with evidence that he was wrong, and he began to snap, telling them they were “treading on dangerous ground” and should watch their mouths. Instead, he wrote to police officers across the country commanding them to find him cases where marijuana had caused people to kill—and the stories started to roll in.
The defining case for Harry, and for America, was of a young man named Victor Lacata. He was a twenty-one-year-old Florida boy known in his neighborhood as “a sane, rather quiet young man” until—the story went—the day he smoked cannabis. He then entered a “marihuana dream” in which he believed he was being attacked by men who would cut off his arms, so he struck back, seizing an axe and hacking his mother, father, two brothers, and sister to pieces.
The press, at Harry’s prompting, made Lacata’s story famous. If your son smoked marijuana, people came to believe, he, too, could hack you to pieces. Anslinger was not the originator of these arguments—they had actually been widespread in Mexico in the late nineteenth century, where it was pervasively believed that marijuana made you “loco.” Nor was he the only one pushing them in the United States—the press loved these stories, especially the mass media owned by William Randolph Hearst. But for the first time, Anslinger gave them the backing of a government department that would broadcast them to the nation at full volume, with an official government stamp saying they were true. From the clouds of cannabis smoke, he warned, there were Victor Lacatas rising all around us. The warnings worked. People began to clamor for the Bureau of Narcotics to be given more money to save them from this terrifying threat. Harry’s problem—the fragility of his new empire—was starting to ease.
Many years later, the law professor John Kaplan went back to look into the medical files for Victor Lacata. The psychiatrists who examined him said he had long suffered from “acute and chronic” insanity. His family was full of people who suffered from similarly extreme mental health problems—three had been committed to insane asylums—and the local police had tried for a year before the killings to get Lacata committed to a mental hospital, but his parents insisted they wanted to look after him at home. The examining psychiatrists thought his cannabis use was so irrelevant that it wasn’t even mentioned in his files.
But Anslinger had his story now. He announced on a famous radio address: “Parents beware! Your children . . . are being introduced to a new danger in the form of a drugged cigarette, marijuana. Young [people] are slaves to this narcotic, continuing addiction until they deteriorate mentally, become insane, [and] turn to violent crime and murder.”
…He ramped up his campaign. The most frightening effect of marijuana, Harry warned, was on blacks. It made them forget the appropriate racial barriers—and unleashed their lust for white women. Of course, everyone spoke about race differently in the 1930s, but the intensity of Harry’s views shocked people even then, and when it was revealed he’d referred to a suspect in an official memo as a “n******,” Senator Joseph P. Guffey of Anslinger’s home state of Pennsylvania demanded his resignation. Later, when one of his very few black agents, William B. Davis, complained about being called a “n*****” by Harry’s men, Anslinger sacked him.
Harry soon started treating all his critics this way. When the American Medical Association issued a report debunking some of his more overheated claims, he announced that any of his agents caught with a copy would be immediately fired. Then, when he found out a professor named Alfred Lindesmith was arguing that addicts need to be treated with compassion and care, Harry instructed his men to falsely warn Lindesmith’s university that he was associated with a “criminal organization,” had him wiretapped, and sent a team to tell him to shut up. Harry couldn’t control the flow of drugs, but he was discovering he could control the flow of ideas—and it was not only scientists Harry believed he had to silence” (pp. 14-18).
Despite the fact that the government’s prohibition of alcohol was dramatically unsuccessful (consider all the mob movies and stories regarding bootleg alcohol), cannabis became the next target of prohibition — despite the fact that cannabis preparation were commonly used as medicine. In fact, the American Medical Association at the time fought against the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which made cannabis possession and distribution illegal. (This act would be deemed unconstitutional in 1970, but by then the propaganda and politics of cannabis prohibition had already drastically impacted the way cannabis was viewed in the United States and around the world.)
Ainslinger’s war was not fought evenly though; it was waged only against those he targeted, like legendary jazz musician Billie Holiday.
One day, Harry Anslinger was told that there were also white women, just as famous as Billie, who had drug problems—but he responded to them rather differently. He called Judy Garland, another heroin addict, in to see him. They had a friendly chat, in which he advised her to take longer vacations between pictures, and he wrote to her studio, assuring them she didn’t have a drug problem at all. When he discovered that a Washington society hostess he knew—“a beautiful, gracious lady,” he noted—had an illegal drug addiction, he explained he couldn’t possibly arrest her because “it would destroy . . . the unblemished reputation of one of the nation’s most honored families.” He helped her to wean herself off her addiction slowly, without the law becoming involved.
As I sat in his archives, reading over the piles of fading papers that survive from the launch of the drug war, there was one thing I found hardest to grasp at first.
The arguments we hear today for the drug war are that we must protect teenagers from drugs, and prevent addiction in general. We assume, looking back, that these were the reasons this war was launched in the first place. But they were not. They crop up only occasionally, as asides. The main reason given for banning drugs—the reason obsessing the men who launched this war—was that the blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people.
It took me a while to see that the contrast between the racism directed at Billie and the compassion offered to addicted white stars like Judy Garland was not some weird misfiring of the drug war—it was part of the point.
Harry told the public that “the increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people,” which he stressed was terrifying because already “the Negro population . . . accounts for 10 percent of the total population, but 60 percent of the addicts.” He could wage the drug war—he could do what he did—only because he was responding to a fear in the American people. You can be a great surfer, but you still need a great wave. Harry’s wave came in the form of a race panic” (p. 26).
As Hari discovered in his research, this targeting of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color was very deliberate.
“Many white Americans did not want to accept that black Americans might be rebelling because they had lives like Billie Holiday’s—locked into Pigtowns and banned from developing their talents. It was more comforting to believe that a white powder was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees once again.” (p.27)
Ainslinger did not do all these things in a vacuum; he capitalized on the fears of white Americans and popular media (such as the 1936 movie Reefer Madness) to push a blatantly racist agenda.
Whether they fully understood what was going on or not, the white American public was complicit in this crime.
Ainslinger’s intimidation tactics extended far past the Black community though—Chinese immigrants, global leaders, poor people, Communists, and twenty thousand doctors were also targeted by Ainslinger. A loophole in the 1914 Harrison Act that prohibited over-the-counter heroin and cocaine sales allowed doctors to continue prescribing these to patients as needed in their professional judgment. Ainslinger seemed to take this as a personal affront.
“You only have to destroy a few doctors to silence the rest. Go for the top. Maximum intimidation. This was always Harry’s way. “Anybody that came out with any academic work that could be critical of him, his Bureau, or his philosophy, had to go to prison,” Howard Diller, one of his agents, said later. “Or be beheaded” (p.38).
“Anslinger really believed he was the sworn enemy of the drug gangs, even as they were paying his officers to enact his policies. Henry Smith Williams assumed that Anslinger—and prohibition—were rational, like him. They were not. They are responses to fear, and panic. And nobody, when they are panicking, can see the logical flaws in their thought.
Harry worked very hard to keep the country in a state of panic on the subject of drugs so that nobody would ever again see these logical contradictions. Whenever people did point them out, he had them silenced. He had to make sure there was no room for doubt—in his own head, or in the country—and no alternative for Americans to turn to” (p. 41).
Click for part 3 of this series.
6. Hari, Johann (2016). Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
7. Jarvis,S., Rassmussen, S., & Winters, B. (2017). Role of the endocannabinoid system and medical cannabis. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 13(8): 525-531
8. Siff, S. (2014, May). The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from http://origins.osu.edu/article/illegalization-marijuana-brief-history
9. Siff, S. (2014, May). The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from http://origins.osu.edu/article/illegalization-marijuana-brief-history
10. Hari, Johann (2016). Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs (p. 44). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
11. Hari, Johann (2016). Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs (pp. 14-18). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
12. Jarvis,S., Rassmussen, S., & Winters, B. (2017). Role of the endocannabinoid system and medical cannabis. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 13(8): 525-531
13. Hari, Johann (2016). Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs (p. 26). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
14. Hari, Johann (2016). Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs (p. 27). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
15. Hari, Johann (2016). Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs (p. 38). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
16. Hari, Johann (2016). Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs (p. 41). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.