Most cannabis consumers are only too aware of the federal-level prohibition that forces so many to purchase from the black market. This illegality potentially exposes medical and recreational users to harder drugs and criminal elements — and obviously drives up prices.
What most fans of the culture don’t know is the story of the man who was the architect of American cannabis prohibition. Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first drug czar (as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics), for years contributed racist, sensationalistic — and typically completely fabricated — articles to a variety of newspapers and magazines owned by his co-conspirator, William Randolph Hearst. He was also the author of the Marijuana Tax Act legislation passed by Congress in August of 1937. This law, although replaced by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, was the genesis of the modern day drug war and has been responsible for the emergence of a healthy black market for cannabis and the prosecution and incarceration of millions of pot smokers.
The following is an excerpt from my new book Understanding Medical Marijuana (Chapter 3: Why is Marijuana Illegal?):
Paramount Protectionism: Anslinger & Hearst
Two men are primarily responsible for the modern federal-level legal prohibition of marijuana that has been in existence for the past 78 years: Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst.
Anslinger was an ambitious government bureaucrat who, in 1930, became Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the precursor to today’s Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA). Nepotism was in full force: Anslinger was appointed by his wife’s uncle, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (of Mellon Bank, one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world at the time). Hearst was a publishing and timber mogul who owned major newspapers and popular magazines (think of him as the evil Rupert Murdoch of his day).
Hearst, according to one biography, “…hated minorities, and he used his chain of newspapers to aggravate racial tensions at every opportunity.” His motives were understandable: He lost 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution. His means of institutionalizing his bigotry, however, were less deserving of empathy.
The term “marijuana”—derived from the Mexican slang “marihuana” (either purposefully or accidentally misspelled)—was first coined in the United States in the 1890s. It was popularized in the early 1930s by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and in articles appearing in magazines and newspapers owned by Hearst. Hearst, via his publishing empire, continually attempted to taint public perception of the plant by leveraging popular prejudice against Mexican-Americans. The Mexican Spanish term “marihuana” was used to elude the public’s existing familiarity and comfort level with hemp and the medical application of cannabis tinctures (it was not a commonly smoked recreational drug at the time).
In fact, the terms “marihuana” and “marijuana” weren’t even included in official dictionaries at the time. If not for the efforts of Anslinger and Hearst, the herb would almost certainly be referred to as cannabis (the Latin name that’s most common in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia), not marijuana.
Anslinger drew upon the social stereotypes and prejudices of the day to stigmatize cannabis. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others” he said. Anslinger also made highly inflammatory and provocative statements involving significant fear mongering, such as “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” His racist side is revealed by statements such as “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” He also proclaimed, “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
Hearst and Anslinger were supported by Lammot du Pont of the DuPont chemical company and a variety of pharmaceutical corporations, all of which had a financial interest in defeating hemp to promote their own products. For example, DuPont began selling rayon (the first man-made fiber) in 1924 and invented nylon, a synthetic competitor to hemp, in 1935. One reason pharmaceutical and petrochemical companies disliked cannabis was because people could grow it themselves. (It should be noted that Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary who appointed Anslinger to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the wealthiest man in America at the time, was—along with Mellon Bank—a financial backer of DuPont.)
In February 1938, Popular Mechanics Magazine reported that hemp was the new “billion dollar crop” in the United States, due entirely to the introduction of mass production harvesting equipment. The hemp decorticator, a farm machine that mechanically separated the fiber of the hemp stalk, threatened to make hemp a strong competitor to wood. The decorticator saved massive amounts of labor and made hemp production affordable and practical on a small scale (such as on family farms).
Capable of yielding up to three crops per year in southern climates, one acre of hemp produces about the same amount of cellulose (used to create paper, among other things) as four acres of trees. Amazingly, hemp can be made into about 5,000 different products—from paper, clothing, and food to fuel and construction timbers.
The promise of hemp-based products was so great that they threatened to replace those made from petroleum-based petrochemicals, such as synthetic fibers and even gasoline. If you think this was just slightly intimidating to the likes of corporate barons such as Hearst, Mellon, and DuPont, you’re right. Billions in profits were at risk for entrenched old-school businesses and their financial backers and cronies.
Surprisingly, Henry Ford’s first Model-T automobile was built using hemp plastic panels, not metal (which featured an impact strength 10 times greater than steel). Ford envisioned his car running on fuel made from hemp or other plants. These facts threatened DuPont’s petrochemical market share (driven by new synthetic products such as rayon, nylon, cellophane, and oil-based plastics) and Hearst’s huge timberland and mill empire.
The Smear Campaign
Anslinger (basically the government puppet of corporate barons DuPont and Mellon) and Hearst (who had a clear financial interest in defeating the success of hemp), embarked on one of the world’s most effective and long-lasting smear campaigns.
Together, they crafted a highly inflammatory anti-marijuana public relations crusade with the goal of making the euphoric herb (and, more importantly, its sibling hemp) illegal—effectively eliminating it as a competitor to a variety of petrochemical products (DuPont’s territory) and timber (Hearst’s goldmine). Using Anslinger’s position within the U.S. government and leveraging Hearst’s empire of newspapers and magazines as propaganda outlets, the two concocted outlandish stories, all of which depicted marijuana as being hyperbolically more destructive than what is perceived today as a mild euphoriant that gives its recreational users giggles and the munchies. Their dramatic and sensationalistic stories described pot as an evil drug that led to murder, rape, and insanity.
As early as January 1923, Hearst published in the San Francisco Examiner that “Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse for horrid specters. Hasheesh [a purer, more potent form of marijuana] makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man…”
In February 1928, a similarly sensational article appeared in the Hearst publication the Examiner, falsely stating that marijuana was known in India as the “murder drug,” claiming that it was common for a man to “catch up a knife and run through the streets, hacking and killing every one he [encountered].” Even more outlandish, the article claimed one could grow enough cannabis in a window box to “drive the whole population of the United States stark, raving mad.”
The American Magazine, another Hearst publication, in its July 1937 issue published a sensationalized article co-authored by Anslinger entitled “MARIJUANA—Assassin of Youth” which described a young Florida man who murdered his family, an act attributed to his “habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles,’ a childish name for marijuana.” The article claimed that the murderer “had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed.”
Such articles are obviously, by modern standards, laughable—especially when a significant percentage of adults since the 1960s have sampled marijuana. Those who have tried the herb know, from firsthand experience, that it doesn’t make one “pitifully crazed” or cause users to kill their families.
Dr. William Woodward, a doctor, lawyer, and the legislative counsel to the American Medical Association, testified before Congress at a 1937 hearing to outlaw cannabis, stating that there was no evidence that the herb is dangerous. He warned that prohibition “loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.”
When the legislation, drafted by Anslinger, was presented on the floor of the House for a vote, a representative from upstate New York asked, “Mr. Speaker, what is this bill about?” The Speaker replied, “I don’t know. It has something to do with a thing called marijuana. I think it’s a narcotic of some kind.” The New York representative queried, “Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?” A member of the hearing committee interrupted and replied, “Their Doctor Wentworth [sic] came down here. They support this bill one hundred percent.”
And thus, with that lie—and despite the efforts of Woodward (one of only two medical doctors to testify at the committee hearings) and the actual opposition of the American Medical Association—the U.S. Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in early August. The cultivation and possession of cannabis and hemp has been illegal in the United States ever since.
According to a 2010 article by the Associated Press, “After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives…” In the past 10 years, $211 million was spent to enforce pot laws in the state of Washington alone (as reported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State). Meanwhile, Hearst, Mellon, and du Pont are all household names, more than a half century after the last of the group died.
One of the most indicting official statements against marijuana prohibition came, ironically, from one of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s own Chief Administrative Law Judges, Francis Young. Young, after lengthy hearings regarding the efficacy of the herb in 1988, stated, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance….” Despite his strong official opinion, the DEA did not implement his ruling and allow the rescheduling and testing of marijuana, citing a procedural technicality.
 Why did the Popular Mechanics article appear six months following enactment of the Marihuana Tax Act in August 1937, the law that effectively outlawed marijuana cultivation and possession? The law didn’t actually outlaw cannabis or hemp, but rather required a special tax stamp to be issued by the U.S. government. No tax stamps were ever issued.
 This is especially ironic because the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.
 The U.S. must import all of its hemp products from Canada and Europe, contributing to its trade deficit. In 1970, the Marijuana Tax Act was repealed and replaced by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.
This post was originally published on May 9, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.