Cannabis, one of the two members of the plant family Cannabaceae, has been used throughout history as food, fuel, fiber and medicine. But only in recent history, under the guise of “loco weed” and “reefer madness” anti-marijuana propaganda, the tenets of the War on Drugs were sown.
The beginnings of anti-marijuana propaganda was subtle. In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug act was passed, which required all ingredients to be labeled in patent medicines going across state borders. This meant listing cannabis alongside the likes of heroin and cocaine — both of which were under fire not only because of their addictive properties, but also as a tool to target immigrants from the nations in which the two products were produced.
The Godfather of Marihuana
Federal cannabis prohibition was decades away, but the foundations of this prohibitive legislation were laid by a man named Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was the first person appointed to lead the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930 and had a career-long rivalry with J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The two constantly vied for recognition and many of their tactics can be traced to a battle for public favor.
Among Anslinger’s armory of stunts was influencing the dialogue surrounding cannabis to inspire fear among common citizens, such as referring to the plant as ‘Killer Weed.’ As the economy was crumbling under the weight of the Great Depression, jobs were scarce and much of this propaganda was used as a racially divisive political tool.
The political environment intensified when newspapers — especially those owned by William Randolph Hearst — popularized the (formerly uncommon) word “marihuana” hand in hand with the deceptive declarations penned by Anslinger. This manipulation of language in the press played a significant role in defining cannabis in the minds of the public as a criminal substance used by Mexican immigrants, communities of color, and counter-cultural movements.
Anslinger was a man obsessed and his campaigns intensified, though none of them were founded in quantifiable research or fact-based reporting. He put his weight behind the ‘Marihuana Tax Act’ which, when enacted in 1937 by President Roosevelt, effectively imposed taxes that made cannabis and hemp far too expensive to grow, transport or, for doctors — prescribe.
Public awareness surrounding cannabis was at an ultimate high. Anslinger began publishing articles like “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth” (published just weeks before the Marihuana Tax Act was passed) whose declarations are laughable today:
The killer was a narcotic known to America as marihuana, and to history as hashish. It is a narcotic used in the form of cigarettes, comparatively new to the United States and as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake.
From there, the battle to destroy all things cannabis continued to disproportionately target communities of color: most notably in Harlem — a haven for displaced southern blacks — among jazz musicians, the Beats and creatives who didn’t fit into standard societal molds. Eventually, Ansingler’s scare tactics sought to tie cannabis use as the entry point to heroin. Say hello to the beginnings of “marijuana the gateway drug.”
Another fringe effect of Anslinger’s steadfast determination to disparage cannabis was one of economy. As it turns out, anti-cannabis legislation is incredibly lucrative. With new policy comes the need for more police; for special task forces; for lobbyists; for prisons.
The Effort to Overcome
Fast-forward to present day — the U.S. spends more than $50 billion on the War on Drugs every year, and in 2016, 653,249 people were arrested for cannabis-related offenses. The numbers are staggering, and the stigmas cultivated by our forebears still thrive today, despite legal recreational use in 8 states.
So, what do we do? How do we stop the costly aftermath of over a century of propaganda and anti-cannabis legislation? There isn’t any one answer, but we’re going to start with an honest look at the history of cannabis and its uses as food, fuel, fiber and medicine.
Illustration: Mason Draper
Mason David Draper is a multimedia artist based out of Reno, Nevada. His bare bones style communicates on a visceral level. The majority of his inspiration is drawn from blue collar counter culture and classical works of the old masters.