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Millions of people are suddenly waking up to the fact they’ve been lied to for decades about the dangers of cannabis.

At the center of this lie is the widespread assumption that cannabis prohibition surely must have been the result of serious investigation and scientific research.

With such strong public debate, it must be backed by facts and science… Right?

Early anti-cannabis propaganda actually worked on people who knew nothing about the plant.

Early anti-cannabis propaganda actually worked on people who knew nothing about the plant.

Wrong. In fact, many people are discovering to the contrary that cannabis is actually drastically safer than alcohol, and that it can effectively replace a gamut of pharmaceuticals – without all the harsh side effects.

The recent easing of federal bureaucratic requirements for medical marijuana research is a tremendous step forward in this direction.

As we explore the potential of embracing cannabis as a society, it’s useful to take a look back and understand how this plant – grown in abundance by some of the nation’s founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – got stuck on the wrong side of the law to begin with. Here’s how the social stigma of cannabis formed in the first place.

Cannabis Prohibition and…Racism?

In 1913 California became one of the first states to outlaw cannabis. The legislation received little public notice. In fact, although you could still get it in a pharmacy, few people knew much of anything about the substance aside from its popularity among immigrants from India and Mexico.

Without internet to check the facts, the government could get away with much more primitive measures of thought control.

Without internet to check the facts, the government could get away with much more primitive measures of thought control.

Anti-immigrant sentiments at the time were high in some circles, including those of Henry J. Finger, a prominent member of the California Board of Pharmacy.

Finger, not knowing much about cannabis or the immigrants who used it, pushed his prohibition agenda based on prejudice. “The fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit,” he wrote of cannabis.

Just as with the Chinese and opium, the Board of Pharmacy pushed anti-cannabis legislation through specifically to keep it out of the hands of immigrants.

Sadly, the Racism Gets Worse

The strange plot against the plant began to thicken immensely from the early 1930s onward.

Leading the way was Harry J. Anslinger, who became the very first “Drug Czar” with the formation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930.

Anslinger made quite a name for himself rounding up all those “bad guys.”

Anslinger made quite a name for himself rounding up all those “bad guys.”

Interestingly, Anslinger – destined to become the father of the nation’s long drug war – did not initially envision cannabis within the scope of the FBN.

As Johann Hari outlines in his recent book, Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs: “Harry had long dismissed cannabis as a nuisance that would only distract him from the drugs he really wanted to fight. He insisted it was not addictive, and stated ‘there is probably no more absurd fallacy’ than the claim that [cannabis] caused violent crime.”

However, much more dangerous substances like heroin and cocaine were not problematic enough to warrant attention and funding for the FBN from the higher-ups. So Anslinger, in a bid for increased revenue during the Great Depression, launched an attack against “marihuana.”

The absurd, unfounded claims Anslinger made about cannabis from this point on form the beginning of Jacob Sullum’s recent Forbes article “Marijuana Prohibition is Unscientific, Unconstitutional and Unjust.”

Sullum recounts Anslinger’s extreme claims of how marijuana turned people into homicidal maniacs, even calling it “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

Anslinger didn’t stop there. As Sullum writes, he “warned that ‘marihuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes’ and estimated that half the violent crimes in areas occupied by ‘Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negroes may be traced to the use of marihuana.’”

A lot of the myths surrounding the herb have proven to be unsubstantiated, but they are laughable compared to this contemptible racist genesis of the movement leading to federal cannabis prohibition.

Cannabis Use Leads to Insanity, Rape, and Murder?

The poorly-attended Congressional Hearings in which Anslinger helped submit a bill that would become the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act are now considered a complete joke.

Harry Anslinger instigated the war on cannabis to further his career and his racist motives.

Harry Anslinger instigated the war on cannabis to further his career and his racist motives.

During the hearings Anslinger reported that ingestion of the herb frequently led to insanity, rape, and murder – without the least bit of scientific evidence – all on top of a continued stream of flagrant racial epithets.

Potential opponents of the bill, namely physicians, were caught off guard by the Mexican-slang word “marihuana,” and did not realize they were losing cannabis until it was too late to properly draft an opposing bill.

In fact, physicians who attempted to counter Anslinger’s staunch anti-cannabis rhetoric were threatened by Anslinger himself, as Hari describes in Chasing the Scream.

It Gets Weirder: Details of the Marihuana Tax Act

The passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 marked the beginning of federal cannabis prohibition.

One of the many peculiar details about the new law is that it didn’t explicitly outlaw cannabis as a plant. Rather, one was now required to purchase a Treasury Department tax stamp before they could legally cultivate, possess, use, sell or give away cannabis.

Acquiring one of these stamps you either had to have friends in high places or risk implicating yourself with the Treasury Department police.

Acquiring one of these stamps you either had to have friends in high places or risk implicating yourself with the Treasury Department police.

But – and this is a big BUT – to acquire one of these stamps, according to a lengthy regulation, you had to navigate a Kafkaesque nightmare of affidavits, sworn statements, depositions, and thorough investigations by the Treasury Department police.

Any physician wishing to prescribe cannabis to a patient was required to immediately submit the name, address, and what ailment the person was suffering from. If either of them didn’t properly navigate the FBN’s labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape, the result was a $2,000 fine and/or five years’ imprisonment.

It was suddenly preferable for people to leave cannabis alone…or to use it in secret.

Those who knew little about the substance in the first place were left with nothing but the impressions inculcated into the fabric of their mindsets by Anslinger’s nation-wide propaganda efforts.

Questions We Must Now Ask

If cannabis was supposedly such a menace to society, then why not an outright ban? Why the deceptive 60-page regulation attached to the Marihuana Tax Act?

Reefer madness propaganda is barbaric today. Yet this is what got the snowball rolling.

Reefer madness propaganda is barbaric today. Yet this is what got the snowball rolling.

Why so little scientific investigation?

These are questions we should all be asking each other and our public representatives!

Although the government continued to sponsor hemp fields – particularly during World War II, some suggest that cannabis prohibition was actually the result of power-mongering and industry footholds.

However, writer Steven Wishnia does a great job putting these claims to rest in his article “Debunking the Hemp Conspiracy Theory.”

Not only does Wishnia prove these claims false, he shows how they distract from the fact that attempts at drug prohibition in the U.S. and abroad have consistently coincided with racial motives.

Starting with San Francisco aiming an opium ban at Chinese immigrants in 1875 to cannabis bans in British colonies such as South Africa in the early 1900s, all the way to the current situation in the U.S. as shown in this Brookings Institute article, “How the War on Drugs Damages Black Social Mobility.”

Anslinger was a well-known racist, someone who would no doubt have taken pride in the impact of his harmful legacy. It is this very legacy that has ruined the lives of countless people in ways we can’t even begin to grasp.

As we move to embrace responsible cannabis use, we say finally: our nation is ready for healing.

Are We Ready for Change?

Cannabis has a long history of slander deeply rooted in public perception. Working to change that perception is no easy task.

Yet when we look at the dubious origins and aftermath of cannabis prohibition we see a disappointing tableau of social injustice.

As with any social issue, we must strive to discover the basis of our understanding to determine if it’s the right foundation on which to build and utilize our methodologies going forward.

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