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Anslinger's Folly: A Brief History of Marijuana Propaganda and Criminalization

    Prohibition Does not Work For 1000s of years the marijuana plant was independently and commercially use in industry, medicine and recreation. As far back as biblical times and as recent as the 1930s marijuana was commonly used to treat quite a list of ailments. Queen Victoria used the plant for relief of menstrual cramps, headaches and other discomforts. In early America marijuana growth and cultivation was a thriving industry.

During the 20th century marijuana came under attack first by Henry Anslinger, an American Drug Czar, then by conservative special interest groups. More recently large corporations have joined the attack on the herb. These groups have been successful in persuading politicians to abide by their wishes through campaign contributions and expensive political lobbyists. The special interest groups became involved due to Anslinger's success in demonizing our herb and the pharmaceutical companies stand to lose an estimated 60% of their profit if marijuana is legalized.

When Anslinger began his anti-drug campaign he singled out marijuana claiming it to be the most dangerous and deadly drug known to man, "the scourge of America". He then proceeded to demonize the plant through a well financed propaganda campaign. He accessed every resource available at the time and soon had media support that took him into every home, school and church in America. He labeled our beloved herb "the devil's weed". Propaganda films such as "Reefer Madness", "Keep Off The Grass" and "Marihuana" were shown in homes, schools and public meetings places in attempt to frighten the American public.

What changed during the 20th century? Did the marijuana plant join a satanic cult and fall from God's grace? Did it become poisoned by the environmentally disastrous pollutants of that century? No, the plant has not changed and it has so far escaped environmental poisoning. The minds of people have been far easier to poison that the plant.

Circa 1912: Mexican laborers were crossing the border into Texas looking for work. They brought Marijuana with them because they liked to relax after a day's work. The El Paso locals did not like the Mexicans or their strange customs and they knew nothing about the plant the Mexicans smoked. The locals started rumors about the strange plant saying that Marijuana gave the Mexicans super-human strength and turned them into cold blooded killers of men, women and children. One night a local was killed supposedly by a Mexican that had been smoking Marijuana. The City of El Paso reacted quickly by putting a ban on Marijuana. Wasn't long before the locals used the ban to control the Marijuana and the Mexicans. Nonetheless, the rumors had begun and America was believing them.

Circa 1930: By 1930 America had developed quite the drug habit. Morphine, Opium, Cocaine and Heroin use had become widespread across the country. Voters demanded action and the Federal Government responded. They put the rising drug problem into the hands of the Treasury Department who formed the 'Federal Bureau of Narcotics'. They appointed Henry Anslinger as Commissioner of the new bureau, creating America's first drug czar. Henry Anslinger was a law and order evangelist. An avid prohibitionist that hated Marijuana. Anslinger stated that the only way the United States could remain morally correct is by 'controlling the depraved impulses of the masses'. He put out propaganda reporting to the public that Marijuana is more dangerous and more destructive than Morphine, Opium, Cocaine and Heroin all rolled together. Where did he get this information? He just made things up as he went along I guess. He never questioned his self- righteous was of thinking.

Anslinger then tried to get each state to sign on to fight drugs at a state level but controlled by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, (The Uniform Narcotics Act), but the states declined because they felt there was too much federal interference involved. Besides, some states wanted scientific evidence of Anslinger's claims. This was looked upon as a failure by Anslinger and he became more determined than ever to rid the country of the Marijuana menace.

At this time Marijuana was being brought into this country by West India sailors who docked at places like New Orleans. Marijuana caught on quickly with the jazz crowd because the music sounded better. Do you know that Cab Calloway sing 'Reefer Man' as early as 1930? Do you know who Cab Calloway was? Never mind - not important. Anyway, news of the herb spread north catching on big. Anslinger saw an opportunity to solve his problem with the states. If he could convince America that Marijuana is a deadly menace he could frighten voters enough that the states may agree to sign his 'Uniform Narcotics Act'. Determined to get his act passed by every state Anslinger unleashed a massive campaign against Marijuana. He used every available media source and entered every home, school and church in America. Despite lack of any evidence his propaganda campaign included statements that 'if you smoke Marijuana you will kill people'. He made up claims of Pot-fueled violence and ruined lives. States started signing up. His lies, corruption and fear tactics had paid off. This was a big victory for ol' Henry but he wasn't done. With the country terrified by his claims of ruined lives, insanity and death the door was open for continued attack. Without question, debate, objection or evidence of any kind people were demanding government action against the dread Marijuana.

1937 The Marijuana Tax Act President Roosevelt signed this act without question or evidence. This act outlawed Marijuana unless you purchased a 'Marijuana Tax Stamp'. Doesn't sound too bad? Well, the Treasury Dept did not issue any stamps therefore Marijuana was illegal. A whole new set of criminals was created over night. The drug trade became a Black Marketeer's wet dream. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics got busy as they revised, updated and improved their war on Marijuana. They pled for public support and cooperation through use of lies and fear tactics. The first victim of the war was a 58 year old farmer from Colorado named Samuel R. Caldwell. He got 4 years hard labor in Leavenworth Prison. The judge that sentenced Caldwell stated that Marijuana use turns men into beasts and that the new law would be enforced to the fullest. Click on the 'Sam's Journey' link at the bottom of the page for an animated short of Sam's experience.

That's pretty much how Marijuana prohibition came to be. Interesting, isn't it, that today many people still believe the propaganda put out by Anslinger The following is a partial list and brief explanation of legislation and events related to Marijuana prohibition since 'The Uniform Narcotics Act'. Some of us may remember some of these things, for others it's just history. Read on.

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