In high school when I first learned about the alluring world of illegal pharmaceuticals, I was scared. My fear was based on all my prior knowledge of drugs was from government propaganda and popular beliefs. Now I’m older and more experienced with drugs. When did America first begin to be wildly afraid of a plant that has been on this continent since our forefathers ()? America’s fear of illicit drugs can be as far traced back as the prohibition era of the early 20th century. Pot, a nickname for the plant, is still illegal due in part to the bias government drug enforcement forces of the nineteen-thirties and forties. Past propaganda and seeds of ignorance about marijuana still grow today in American. Marijuana has been used responsibly by cultures dated as far back as 3000 BC in China (Jones, 2003). So how have Americans been brainwashed to believe marijuana is different than any other smokable plant?
The earliest harvesting of marijuana specifically for smoking, or “getting stoned,” was by the Scythians from Siberia around 700BC. Surely Marijuana has had a long history of medically used by the human race (Jones, 2003). Rastafarians base most of their key beliefs around the herb. The divinity of marijuana is central to their religious beliefs. Indian cultures have been smoking marijuana in a variety of ways for thousands of years. Hinduism has a long tradition with marijuana use, having ancient prayers claiming that pot is a sacred herb. Of major world religions, only Christianity has been a party pooper by consistently denying the divinity of weed (Jones, 2003). The Spanish Inquisition of the 12th century banned marijuana labeling it the work of the devil. Since that ancient papal decree, Christians have looked upon marijuana as a demon herb, with no medical use.
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This may have been one of the earliest attempts at marijuana prohibition. America’s history with marijuana began around 1914 when it became popular among Hispanics of El Paso and New Orleans (Jones, 2003). Around this time Americans were still angry about the Spanish-American War. A media campaign against Hispanics was launched by the government. Stories usually told of Hispanics all doped out committing vicious violent crimes. The public attitude toward marijuana in the twenties is described as, “…they believed it was a sexual stimulant and lowered societal inhibitions. (Musto, 2003)” Marijuana was blamed in part to explain Hispanics’ supposed violent behavior. Such accounts were fictionalized stories by the papers. The writers produced these tales specifically to elicit fear in the American public. This example of destructive propaganda clearly associates the fear of minorities and violent criminal behavior with no evidence. People of the time considered the government and newspapers credible sources of information. Little did they know that marijuana was a developing target for the government, as well as alcohol prohibitionists of the time.
The first real figurehead against marijuana was Harry Anslinger. He was appointed to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1931 and began a 30-year war on the pot (Jones, 2003). The FBN began to increase the circulation of marijuana scare stories in the papers upon his command. Harry‘s wealth and social stature were more to credit for his current position. He would go on to set the future tone of the government in relation to marijuana. He is quoted saying outrageous things dating back to 1929. For example, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. (reefermadness.org)” How could such an ignorant man be the basis of our government’s long battle against marijuana? He continues to say in 1938 “In some districts inhabited by Latin Americans, Filipinos, Spaniards and Negroes, HALF THE CRIMES are attributed to the marijuana craze! (reefermadness.org)” This degree of racism would currently never be tolerated by such a high-ranking government official.
Clearly, Anslinger had a long-term goal, his later comments come almost nine years after he was appointed. His public stature coupled, façade of authority, and long tenure all contributed to Aslinger’s influence on marijuana in America. Aslinger was viewed as an expert of the times by the people. Aslinger used the minorities of the time as a scapegoat. He claimed nonwhites smoked weed and thus as a result become violent criminals. The government was supposedly the first place citizens could turn for information. Instead, the deadly seed of misinformation took hold on American soil. Taking his words literally one must assume Aslinger knows nothing factual about the plant. Anslinger stated in 1938, “The Narcotics Section recognizes the great danger of marijuana due to its definite impairment of mentality and the fact that its continued use leads directly to the insane asylum.” Nothing short of prohibition would have been satisfactory for Anslinger. He had formally worked on a commission effectively promoting alcohol prohibition (Musto, 1999). Anslinger took the same approach to narcotics as he did with alcohol, with zero tolerance. The fight over marijuana in America is more political than medical or legal.
Proof of Anslinger’s overall impact on public opinion can be seen in current times. Since the1972 Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, recommended that Congress adopt this decriminalization with regard to marijuana. Since then, more than a dozen government-appointed commissions have all agreed to similar actions (NORML.com). The problem at heart lies in our politicians. Based on public pressure most politicians have not yet stood up for the scientific use of marijuana. But if the people do not want marijuana, how come ten states have decriminalized possession of small amounts. There is a rift between the public and their representatives concerning marijuana. According to the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy massive drug raid proves drug laws are doing more harm than good…the group includes psychologists, pharmacologists, lawyers, health policy advocates, and public policy researchers (NORML.com). http://www.mapinc.org/norml/v04/n521/a05.htm
This statement is an example of the current propaganda against marijuana spread by the government. These statements are viewed now as gross exaggerations of the mildly intoxicating effects of marijuana. Early efforts to criminalize weed were suspicious since; “Anslinger took pains to ensure that any groups and/or individuals that might have resisted the passing of the Act were either informed late (or not at all) that the hearings were even taking place…they would likely have argued the medicinal benefits of marijuana. Their representative, Dr. William Woodward, denounced the hearings as being rooted in tabloid sensationalism and demanded an explanation for the secrecy involved. (reefer madness.org)” How could such a plant that has been tried by at least one-third of current Americans lead to such insanity? If Anslinger was correct in his assessments about the virtue of weed then many current Americans would be considered stark raving mad.
The medical community has been kept out of the law-making process for some while after these early efforts. How come professionals around the world have not been listened to by our government. Most people in government do not think there is anything wrong with the current marijuana laws. People have been traditionally skeptical to actively protest for illegal substances. The taboos surrounding illicit drugs from the twenties have followed later generations. Still, most users are looked at with scorn and disgust by the public. Americans still discriminate against marijuana. Compare marijuana with the other three largest used drugs on the planet it ranks low in risk. “There is a consensus that…the drug [marijuana] cannot compare with either alcohol or nicotine in addictive capacity or inability to do serious damage to the human body (Schroeder, ????).” So why then is marijuana illegal? Scientific studies have proven, “fewer than one in 10 marijuana smokers become regular users of the drug… 15 percent of alcohol consumers and 32 percent of tobacco smokers exhibit symptoms of drug dependence.
Why would Americans demand highly addictive substances, for example, nicotine and alcohol, to be readily available on every street corner? Yet, still, keep a plant like marijuana in the shadows of acceptable mainstream society? This intern drives drug prices higher, simply causing users to pay more. When demand goes for marijuana, The American government has had a long history of using propaganda to mislead people about the dangers of marijuana. One famous 1937 article entitled “Assassin of the Youth” depicts one stoned teen as: “Victor had smoked some marihuana cigarettes that afternoon. After going to bed that night, he suddenly thought, as nightmarish hallucinations raced through his mind, that his mother and father were plotting to cut off his arms and legs as soon as they got up in the morning. This horrible obsession fixed itself in his mind; and so real was this imagined threat to him, that he decided the only thing to do was kill them first, while they slept. (reefermadness.org)”
This really was a case in Florida at the time. The important details about the book forgot to leave out were that Victor had suffered from serious mental problems. His parents were first cousins cannot be overlooked as the main cause of Victor‘s mental problems. The claim that marijuana drove Victor to kill was made by the author of the book, no doubt looking to sell as many copies as possible. The shock factor is the most important tool for government propaganda. Their aim is to depict marijuana as so evil that people will not try it objectively and form their own opinion. This unfounded American fear of marijuana is still described currently as; “…a problem of increasing retreat in the face of complex, difficult problems to “blob” thinking, of insisting at the earliest possible moment that everything is all good or all bad and defining good as “not bad” and bad as “not good. (Schroeder, ????)”
Aslinger set the tone for marijuana popular opinion in this country. But no visual force has been more destructive to the image of marijuana than the 1936 propaganda movie “Refer Madness.“ The cover of the poster reads, “women cry for it, men die for it!” and other slogans like “the sweet pill that makes life bitter.” These are simply outrageous claims about the drug, coupled that with the fact that in the movie marijuana is closely associated with heroin. The two were the most common illicit drugs of the time. One begins to find that such gross exaggerations about pot are very detrimental to public opinion. Films of the time we’re supposed to discourage vice and promote virtue. To achieve turning marijuana into a vice, drug czars and moviemakers demonized its use. Heroin was the only other widely available illicitly used drug of the time. To discourage teens from any drug use “Reefer Madness” lumped marijuana and heroin next to each other.
A deadly association of the two drugs by the viewer was expected. The bias of the film seems humorous new with quotes like; “In the past, we have had officers of this department shot and killed by marihuana addicts and we have traced the act of murder directly to the influence of marihuana, with no other motive. We have found from long experience and dealing with this type of criminal that marihuana is probably the most dangerous of all our narcotic drugs.” – J.F. Taylor, Chief of L.A.P.D, 1933 (onlinepot.org/ReeferMadness/quotes.htm) Marijuana was portrayed as a deadly sadistic addictive drug. Beautiful movie star actresses of the time were considered signs of lust. The government up until this point had used minorities, health risks, heroin, and tales of violent criminals to convince the public weed is an evil plant. This quote by the Los Angeles chief of police aims to convince the public that weed is the evilest of all illicit drugs. How could such misinformation be tolerated with? Addiction research of the time mainly focused on alcohol and heroin. Subsequently, because of marijuana’s prohibition, it got lumped into the class of narcotics considered dangerous and addictive.
Most people of the time did not have the first-hand experience with weed. If they saw one of these films before trying the drug then surely it would bias their opinion of the supposed drug experience. To be in a different state of consciousness for the first time is admittedly a scary experience. Government propaganda of the time helped taint the general public against weed. The misinformation could have led to two possible outcomes. First, a first-time user of marijuana could enjoy the experience and thus take the government’s warnings as completely false. So what was to stop people from assuming all illicit drugs, including heroin, were equally as mild a narcotic? Popular opinion about illicit drugs came directly as a result of the government’s propaganda. Prohibition pioneers traveled all over the country helped sway the public with popular propaganda (Musto, 1999).
Decriminalization “removes the consumer — the marijuana smoker — from the criminal justice system, while maintaining criminal penalties against those who sell or traffic large quantities of the drug” (NORML.com). “In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that Congress adopt this policy [decriminalization] nationally in the United States. Since then, more than a dozen government-appointed commissions in both the U.S. and abroad have recommended similar actions. None of these commissions have endorsed continuing to arrest and jail minor marijuana offenders. (NORML.com)” It seems odd that Presidents would assign commissions yet never listen to their findings. This is surprising considering most big wigs in Washington DC will not even give marijuana a respectable change to be argued. The politicians are simply not listening to professional advice on the decriminalization issue.
This problem is the problem inherent in our political system. The average politician. Since 1973, 12 state legislatures — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon — have enacted versions of marijuana decriminalization. In each of these states, marijuana users no longer face jail time (nor in most cases, arrest or criminal records) for the possession or use of small amounts of marijuana. According to national polls, voters overwhelmingly support these policies. US STUDIES ON MARIJUANA. “In sum, there is little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use… reducing the penalties for marijuana has virtually no effect on either choice or frequency of the use of alcohol or illegal ‘harder’ drugs such as cocaine.”
- National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine (IOM). 1999. Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. National Academy Press: Washington, D.C., 102.
- Connecticut Law Review Commission. 1997. Drug Policy in Connecticut and Strategy Options: Report to the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly. State Capitol: Hartford. “The lack of decriminalization might have encouraged greater use of drugs that are even more dangerous than marijuana. The available evidence indicates that the decriminalization of marijuana possession had little or no impact on rates of use.”
- K. Model. 1993. The effect of marijuana decriminalization on hospital emergency room episodes: 1975-1978. Journal of the American Statistical Association 88: 737-747, as cited by the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine in Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. 
- E. Single. 1989. The Impact of Marijuana Decriminalization: An Update. Journal of Public Health 10: 456-466. Decriminalization has had virtually no effect either on marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use among American young people. The data show no evidence of any increase, relative to the control states, in the proportion of the age group who ever tried marijuana. In fact, both groups of experimental states showed a small, cumulative net decline in annual prevalence after decriminalization.”
- D. Weatherburn and C. Jones. 2001. Does prohibition deter cannabis use? New South Wales (Australia) Bureau of Crime Statistics: Sydney.
- Jones, Nick Spliff, A Celebration of Cannabis Culture
- Schroeder, The politics of Drugs
- Nowlis, Drugs on the Collage Campus