In the 1920s and 1930s almost no-one was getting high in the US except Mexicans , a few Filipinos, and New York intellectuals who’d read some Jung. The American Medical Association used cannabis in a number of medical remedies, which according to the 1937 evidence of the AMA’s Doctor Woodward totalled about a third of those on the register: bear in mind that to this day, cannabis carries a Schedule 1 prohibtion, which defines it as ‘without recognised medical use’. Why did Anslinger pick such an obscure target? Well, he knew a guy who really, really didn’t like Mexicans.
Rumour has it that Anslinger went to California in 1933 to speak to William Randolph ‘Citizen Kane’ Hearst, and that their unholy alliance was a genuine conspiracy (extreme versions include Mellon in the plot, presumeably because he was Anslinger’s father-in-law). I have never found useful evidence that this actually happened, but the historical record would have looked no different if it had. What we know for sure is that from some time in 1932 until the eventual Congressional hearings in 1937, Harry Anslinger campaigned relentlessly against a drug no-one else was interested in. Until W. R. Hearst employed his vast and dominant media empire in a propaganda campaign that is very nearly unmatched in American history.
It is in this period that such ugly monstrosities as the movie Reefer Madness lurk. Hearst papers routinely described marijuana as causing hysterical, psychotic rages: “Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….” Anslinger’s allegation, repeated before Congress in 1937, that “Marihuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death”, was used in actual murder trials to gain acquitals. Even, in one case, of a murderer who hadn’t actually smoked the drug (his room-mate had some, and apparently sleeping in a room with a baggie in it had caused him to axe-murder some people). Anslinger had no reason to think that cannabis was dangerous. He had no science to back it up. There was no public health problem with cannabis, and there was no public outcry against the drug, because most people had never heard of it. It certainly wasn’t causing insanity, criminality and death. But Anslinger knew the Iron Law of Prohibitions: what he had was an Us and a Them. We, white America, didn’t smoke cannabis. They, Mexicans and other Latin-American immigrants, did smoke cannabis. And that’s all you need for a prohibition.
Every single person who has ever written seriously about the national alcohol prohibition agrees on why it collapsed. Why?
Because it violated the iron law of Prohibitions. What is the iron law of Prohibitions? Prohibitions are always enacted by US, to govern the conduct of THEM.
– Prof. Charles H. Whitebread
The lies didn’t stop with Anslinger. As times evolved, he had to keep coming up with new strategies. Trying to justify a nation-wide raid targeted on black men, he said he was going to round up all the musicians; “Not good musicians, gentlemen, I mean jazz musicians!” In 1951, when a government physician testified that marijuana was not addictive, and that it did not, in point of fact, cause insanity, criminality and death (yes, the government has known that, for sure, since 1951) Anslinger invented the Gateway Drug argument on the spot, setting the pattern for Nancy Reagan’s contribution to the War on Teenagers in the 80s. The lies mutate over time (the current obsession is with the canard that mild marijuana use causes schizophrenia) but they never seem to stop. It is very hard to change someone’s mind when their salary depends on not changing it.
This, then, is the legacy of the prohibitionists; enormous social damage, the ruination of myriad lives, and all standing on a foundation of outright, explicit racism. Marijuana is illegal today because white Americans didn’t like Mexicans in the 1920s; every specious rationalisation advanced since then has simply served to obscure that vile truth beneath the smoke of misinformation. This taboo was engineered before Watergate; in the 30s, people had not yet been given good reason to distrust the honesty of the government and the press in the way that modern citizens must, in their own defence. The War on Drugs has been kept alive by the dead weight of habitual fear and doubt, originally sown by deliberate lies. The truth of the War on Drugs is that it is, and has been from the start, racial and class warfare. In the words of Harry Anslinger himself, here is the rationale of the Drug War:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and 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.”
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
 And some Southern African-American communities. A good part of the Us & Them psychology of marijuana prohibition is class-based; cannabis is a drug for the poor. Without prohibition driving prices to quite frankly ridiculous levels, the drug is easy to grow for yourself, can be used alongside a hard-working life without trouble, and has good pain-killing properties which makes it very appealing to manual labourers and people who work long shifts in tight shoes. There’s a good reason why across the West, people whose lives consist of dangling from the poverty line smoke pot. In Jim Crow’s America, it is unsurprising that the Treme and Bourbon Street swiftly acquired the Mexicano habit; cannabis is a poor-people’s drug, a drug for the down-trodden which helps ease the pain.