Prior to the 20th century, human beings and marijuana coexisted peacefully. The use of hemp can be traced back thousands of years; imprints of marijuana leaves have even been found on Chinese pottery shards. Though humans have used marijuana mostly as a medicine throughout its history, we eventually discovered marijuana's psychoactive properties. That's where the trouble began.
When Harry Anslinger first slid behind his desk as the country's first narcotics commissioner in 1930, the most significant law at his disposal was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. Enacted at the end of 1914 and put into effect early in 1915, the Harrison Act regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca products, which contain the psychoactive alkaloid cocaine. It did not, however, regulate marijuana.
In fact, no federal law whatsoever regulated marijuana. Anslinger could only be an observer, not an enforcer. In 1930, when Anslinger first went to work as commissioner, various states had already passed local anti-marijuana legislation. California was among the most aggressive of these states, regulating marijuana as it already had other narcotics.
Dale Geiringer, is the state coordinator of the California chapter of the National Organizations for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and a co-founder of the California Drug Policy Reform Coalition and of Californians for Compassionate Use. He's also the author of “The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California,” a fascinating and exhaustively researched study. Geiringer describes how in 1891, California created a State Board of Pharmacy tasked with overseeing both pharmacies and the sale of “poisonous drugs.” The board sailed along until 1907 – seven years before the rest of the country would pass the Harrison Act – when it did something strange: It changed California's poison laws, bringing opium, morphine and cocaine under its control by calling them “poisons” and making them available only by means of a doctor's prescription.
Geiringer also noted in his study that California's State Board of Pharmacy “pioneered many of the modern techniques of drug enforcement, employing undercover agents and informants posing as addicts, promoting anti-paraphernalia laws and the criminalization of users, and flaunting its powers to the public with a series of well-publicized raids on dope-peddling pharmacists and Chinese opium dens.”
Earlier laws restricting opium had been motivated in large part by racist animus toward Chinese laborers who'd been imported into California, along with the potential for opium addiction to spread to whites. Opiates and cocaine derivatives had been widely used in medicines and commercial products and were therefore known quantities.
Where marijuana was concerned, though, most Americans were ignorant despite the fact that it, too, was being used in medicines under the taxonomy Cannabis indica.
A few daring books such as Fitz Hugh Ludlow's “The Hasheesh Eater” (1857) tempted Americans to explore “…the soul's capacity for a broader being, deeper insight, grander views of Beauty, Truth and Good… .”. For a while on the East Coast, hash houses became very popular, Geiringer noted. He quoted an 1883 article in Harper's Magazine that describes “…a hashish-house in New York frequented by a large clientele, including males and females of 'the better classes.'”
Back in California, 1910 marked the start of California's own little Drug War. Two things happened that year that likely set it off.
Since 1900, political turmoil and growing agribusiness in the United States had motivated Mexican immigration north. When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, what had been a steady trickle became a flood: “The number of legal migrantsgrew from around 20,000 migrants per year during the 1910s to about 50,000-100,000 migrants per year during the 1920s,” according to historian Julia Young, writing in the Library of Congress blog. These immigrants brought their food, their language, and their culture across the border. And they brought marijuana.
At the same time, another group was entering California: East Indian Sihks of Punjabi origin had become a popular target of anti-immigrant sentiment after several boatloads arrived in San Francisco in 1910. Especially irate at this influx was a man named Henry J. Finger, a prominent member of California's State Board of Pharmacy, an active player in California Republican politics, and the author of California's pharmacy law regulating the sale of poisons. Though a pharmacist by training, Finger became known as the “lawyer” of the board.
Writing in his official capacity in a letter dated July 2, 1911, Finger wrote: “Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for Cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast … the fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit. … We were not aware of the extent of this vice at the time our legislature was in session and did not have our laws amended to cover this matter, and now have no legislative session for two years (January 1913). This matter has been brought to my attention a great number of time[s]in the last two months…it seems to be a real question that now confronts us: can we do anything in the Hague that might assist in curbing this matter?”
As dire as Finger made the situation sound, in 1914 and 1916 alcohol prohibition initiatives made the state ballot. Geiringer wrote in his study that “meanwhile, the legislature was tackling such morals issues as prostitution, racetrack gambling, prizefighting, liquor, and oral sex. Amidst this profusion of vices, Indian hemp was but a minor afterthought.”
The minor afterthought persisted, though.
Utah outlawed marijuana in 1914 after Mormons brought marijuana with them during their return from Mexico, where they resettled four years earlier after the state outlawed polygamy. By 1930, when Anslinger went to work, marijuana was restricted in some way in 30 states. Even then, the legislative process was disconnected from marijuana facts.
“The war on drugs is misnamed,” said Randall G. Holcombe, a research fellow at The Independent Institute and the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. “Drugs are an inanimate object. It is really a war against people,” he wrote for the blog of the Independent Institute, a libertarian research institution.
Booker Prize shortlisted historian Martin Booth concurred in his “Cannabis: A History.” “State marijuana laws were often used as an excuse to deport or imprison innocent Mexicans. Resistance to arrest was put down to marijuana-induced violence or frenzy.”
An alternative explanation could be that the arrested Mexicans were indignant because they were being arrested for something that had never been illegal before. Perhaps they were angry because the reason for their arrest wasn't honest. We can never know because their side of the story is lost or was never recorded.
Harry Anslinger wasn't interested in their story. He wanted to tell his story, untruthful and racist as it was. When he walked in the door at the Bureau of Narcotics, he had limited resources and manpower and a limited mandate. But he did have his story to tell (the mythology he was going to create around and about marijuana). As we'll see, Anslinger also had a good idea how to sell his mythology to an American public that knew nothing about marijuana.
In the next installment of Blunt Truths, we'll meet Anslinger's allies — men whose interests lined up with Anslinger's — and made it easier for Anslinger to create and perpetuate his anti-marijuana mythology.