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The early days of cannabis prohibition were nothing if not a whirlwind. Although certain states had already started to place restrictions on cannabis, it was nothing compared to the beginning of the nation-wide campaign against the plant. Largely due to the relentlessness of Harry Anslinger, the United States placed a federal ban on cannabis. Today, we have new information and scientific evidence demonstrating the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine and the mostly harmless nature of it as a recreational substance. But we’re still feeling the ramifications of Anslinger’s anti-pot agenda. Here are some highlights from the early days of cannabis prohibition.
Commonly referred to as the “Father of Cannabis Prohibition,” Harry Anslinger’s official job title was Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was the first person to hold that position.
Born in 1892 to immigrant parents, Anslinger began his career as an investigator for the Pennsylvania Railroad. For 10 years, he linked up with the police and military to combat international drug trafficking. Because he primarily worked with the Treasury Department, illegal drug and alcohol trafficking had a purely financial focus—not one based on morals or social issues.
In 1929, Anslinger started working as the assistant commissioner of the Treasury’s Bureau of Prohibition. But then, in 1930, he got the promotion of a lifetime. His wife’s uncle, Andrew W. Mellon, appointed him as the first-ever commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
At this point in the country’s history, cannabis restrictions were already starting to be enacted in a few states. Interestingly enough, when he started his new job, Anslinger had no problem, moral or otherwise, with cannabis. According to sources, he even said that cannabis—then called “Indian Hemp”—wasn’t harmful and didn’t cause users to behave violently.
Then the prohibition of alcohol ended.
Anslinger changed his tune. He began to spread false reports of cannabis-induced madness, violence and crime.
Using the powers of the mass media, he got the American public on his side by releasing what was dubbed “Gore Files.” These consisted of police reports of gruesome crimes supposedly committed by people under the influence of cannabis.
One such crime was the murder of the Licata family in Florida in 1933. Victor Licata, a 20-year-old man, used an ax to kill his parents and three siblings. Although psychiatric evaluation indicated that he was seriously mentally ill, anti-cannabis propagandists, including Anslinger, spread the story that Licata was addicted to cannabis.
The case was so gory and reached such a wide audience that it even inspired one of the most notorious films released in the United States: the 1936 exploitation film-turned-unintentional-satire Reefer Madness.
Ever the sensationalist, Anslinger kept up the momentum of the idea that cannabis caused insanity.
“Marihuana is a shortcut to the insane asylum,” he said. “Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing …read more