The origins of the War on Drugs in the US go back more than a century and are mired in complicated history. However, the story of the ban on cannabis in America can be easily traced to one individual: Harry J. Anslinger, who spent three decades as the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Not only was Anslinger the loudest and most influential proponent of the ban in the 1930s, but he was also an architect of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 that federalized the ban.
As the government’s number one anti-drug crusader, Anslinger led a vitriolic campaign against cannabis, promoting his proposed ban with a blend of sensationalism, racism, and propaganda. His tactics worked, and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 kicked off nearly a century of persecution against pot smokers - one that still hasn’t ended in some parts of the country.
Anslinger held a few different jobs, including a stint working to shut down international drug pushing, before settling into a role with the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition. He quickly climbed the ranks and became the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930.
Before he became commissioner, Anslinger was vocal about his opinion that alcohol (then a banned substance), not cannabis, truly deserved to be banned. When people made comparisons between alcohol and pot, Anslinger opined that “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the notion that cannabis made people violent - a sharp contrast to the opinions he would espouse a few years later.
When the prohibition of alcohol in the United States ended in 1933, the existence of the Bureaus of Prohibition and Narcotics came under threat. Desperate for something to justify the continued allocation of funds for his department, Anslinger realized he needed a new substance to target, and cannabis became his focus.
By the 1930s, most people understood that heroin and cocaine were more dangerous to society than pot. Anslinger, however, determined that their use wasn’t widespread enough to sustain the campaign of fear he desired. Marijuana usage was much more common, and Anslinger figured the drug's popularity would help justify the continued existence of a robust budget for his Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Anslinger ended up leading that department for three decades, finally resigning in 1962 - 25 years after he crafted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
To justify his campaign against cannabis, Anslinger set out to link it to violent crime, no matter how tangential the connection. Anslinger focused on the sort of headline-grabbing stories that would be featured in the 1936 anti-pot propaganda film Reefer Madness. In an article for The American Magazine, for example, he wrote, "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, and to history as hashish."
Anslinger kept a set of specific “Gore Files” filled with gruesome crimes he felt he could attribute to the plant. He became particularly obsessed with a boy named Victor Licata who murdered his entire family with an ax. Mental illness was to blame in the incident, not marijuana.
Anslinger wanted scientific support to bolster his case for a ban, so he sought the opinion of 30 different doctors. Of those, 29 responded that there was no connection between cannabis and violent crime; however, Anslinger ignored their assessments and instead highlighted the testimony of the one dissenting doctor.
Anslinger made it clear that he was only interested in medical opinions that supported his negative portrayal of marijuana. He once remarked that anyone offering a dissenting opinion was “treading on dangerous ground."