Harry Anslinger and the Vilification of Cannabis

You’ve likely heard of the “war on drugs”. Who comes to mind when you hear this phrase? Richard Nixon no doubt? What if I told you it was actually another man, Harry Anslinger, who first coined this phrase many years prior?

Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner for the Federal Narcotics Bureau, was a key figure who influenced the American and global perception of cannabis and cannabis-based drugs immensely from the 1930s onwards, demonising the previously overlooked drug and those who took it through a radical and racialised agenda.

In this article we take a closer look at the man behind cannabis’ vilification and how his views and policies entirely changed the perception of the drug back in his day and how this continues to affect people’s views and beliefs today.

Harry Anslinger was born in 1892 in Altoona, Pennsylvania and prior to being appointed a position in the Federal Narcotics Bureau, Anslinger worked for the government in the Bahamas chasing rum runners. Until the end of the prohibition, cannabis didn’t really seem to be on Anslinger’s radar, with his office being primarily targeting heroin and cocaine use.

However, to secure himself a more permanent place working in this role, Anslinger essentially created an issue around cannabis – a drug with far more users than the less commonly used drugs heroin and cocaine that he’d previously been focussed on. Also, critically, cannabis had an association with Mexican and black people – a group of people Anslinger actively disliked; he was known to be an extreme racist even in his era, with his own senators calling for his resignation following his repeated use of racial expletives in his official memos.

With his preconceived prejudices in mind then, it’s hardly surprising that Anslinger gave his war against cannabis a pointedly racialised slant, linking use of the drug with violence, particularly violence against white women. In his 1937 article on the evils of cannabis entitled ‘Marijuana, Assassin of Youth’, Anslinger wrote that: ‘Not long ago the body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk after a plunge from a Chicago apartment window. Everyone called it suicide, but actually it was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marijuana’, before stating that ‘the menace of marijuana’ in the country came ‘from Mexico, and swept across the country with incredible speed’. Here, Anslinger linked the evils of cannabis, particularly those related to the corruption of white women, to a particular racial minority, capitalising upon the widespread prejudices bubbling up in the United States at the time to further his agenda.

Anslinger also chose to use and popularise the term ‘marijuana’ or ‘marihuana’ over ‘cannabis’ to further utilise the country’s anti-mexican sentiment to his advantage, hoping that the Spanish sounding word would conjure up existing racial biases. This tactic appeared to be successful, with multiple papers and publications adopting the phrasing across the country.

In 1937, cannabis was made practically illegally through the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act. Following this move, Anslinger remained an integral player in the Federal Narcotics Bureau until Kennedy’s presidency.

But even without his personal presence, Anslinger’s views and precedent of hard drug laws and enforcement remained ever present in the following U.S administrations. Nixon’s presidency, where he declared a “war on drugs” seems particularly poignant when viewed through the lens of Anslinger’s prior practices, with this supposed war on drugs in fact seeming to target black people and those in the anti-war left disproportionately through the veil of supposed social improvement. The “Just Say No” campaign led by Nancy Reagan also links interestingly to Anslinger’s initial war on cannabis with a racialised focus upon crack cocaine use as opposed to many other drugs used more commonly by the white majority.

Anslinger died in 1975 after, ironically, being prescribed intense opioids to help him cope with the pain he was experiencing from angina and prostate issues. His legacy lives on though, in the penalties still being enforced against those who use cannabis both in the States and elsewhere in the world. The stigma Anslinger attached to cannabis has been hard to shake over the years, but as of late, opinions seem to be changing for the better as previously constructed notions about the drug and the type of people who use it are gradually being shaken off. We can only hope that this positive wind of change is set to continue and the benefits of medical cannabis are fully realised with the restrictions against its use being loosened or eradicated with time.

For more in depth information on different regulations in various countries and how this affects pharmacists, we recommend accessing our in depth modules available on our website. Here, you can find up to date information on CBMPs and how best to prescribe them. You can also explore our news section and evidence base for the latest information on this ever-changing area of research.

We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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