Harry Anslinger: How Racism Demonized Cannabis

Justin Campagnone Avatar
harry anslinger

As of right now, African Americans are 3.6% more likely to face charges for minor cannabis possession. Despite equal usage among most Americans, the level of arrests is drastically higher for the black community.

Cannabis possession charges and arrests bog down the justice system and target a majority of Americans who believe it should be legal. Unfortunately, throughout history, with equal usage does not come with racially equal penalties.

Many of the laws that are currently in place came from one man: Harry Anslinger.

Anslinger has the notoriety of utilizing the FBN to create laws that would ruin the lives of blacks and minorities for over 100 years.

At the start of his career, he argued that cannabis did not cause harm or make citizens violent. You would think that this would have been the saving grace for cannabis. Unfortunately, things took a hard turn when the self-interest of Anslinger was met with cash from industries that were threatened by the plant.

With the special interests of the rope, paper, fossil fuels and many other established industries feeling the heat. By 1936, Harry had changed his tune. With increased reports of consumption coming mainly from the south-west (along the Mexican border) the man in charge threw his hand in the ring against it.

A radio report featuring Anslinger had this to say:

“By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms. … Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him.”

That doesn’t sound like cannabis to me. For 1930’s America, it definitely was.

Mass media was his spearhead into the homes and minds of Americans at the time. Thus, creating mass hysteria over the plant and overwhelming hype against its use.

He used tactics that would seem obviously ridiculous by today’s standards.

It gets worse. Throughout his attack on cannabis, he had over 200 broadcasts claiming murder and violence for those who would use it. One case even going so far to mention a boy who used cannabis and ended up murder his whole family.

Harry Anslinger Incites Fear Into America

The fear ran deep through America. Unfortunately, his tactics only became worse. During this time, it was strongly mentioned the use by the African American people and the Latino populace.

Reports included:

  • Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana], and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.
  • Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery, she was found to be suffering from syphilis
  • Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.

Racism in America for the 30’s was an instant grab for those looking for a scapegoat. It would go on to further intensify race relations among the populace.

Cannabis Policies Target Jazz and Black Artists

He didn’t stop there. During the 30’s Jazz was the sound of America’s youth. The scene saw rising stars such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Charlie Parker. All of whom worked to pioneer Jazz music and all of which were black.

“Jazz entertainers are neither fish nor fowl. They do not get the million-dollar protection Hollywood and Broadway can afford for their stars who have become addicted – and there are many more than will ever be revealed. Perhaps this is because jazz, once considered a decadent kind of music, has only token respectability. Jazz grew up next door to crime, so to speak. Clubs of dubious reputation were, for a long time, the only places where it could be heard. But the times bring changes, and as Billie Holiday was a victim of time and change, so too was Charlie Parker, a man whose music, like Billie’s, is still widely imitated. Most musicians credit Parker among others as spearheading what is called modern jazz.”

These tactics worked to establish Cannabis as a schedule 1 narcotic. When we take a look at history, we can see that the cause for its widespread fear has always been based off of racist remarks and lack on education.

Many states still hold on to the beliefs that Harry Anslinger had created. For most of these states, the statistics are dire.

Harry Anslinger’s Influence Continues To Haunt America

For the states that have not fully legalized, the highest – Montana has the worst. African Americans are 9.5x more likely to face charges for possession. Montana demographics don’t add up either. With 85% being white (non-Hispanic), 6.16% being Native American, 2.75% being mixed, and approximately .75% being of Asian descent, why on earth is an African American 9.5x more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession.

These rules that were set at a time of heightened racism are still the foundation for many states who wish to keep the plant illegal.

In order for America to recover from the damage of Harry Anslinger, we must change the process for which gave allowance for its criminal labeling. Legalizing cannabis is not the be-all-end-all for racism. Far from it, but it acts to ship away the many layers that continue to hold the community behind bars.

Harry Anslinger put the country in a pit that we have yet to dig our way out of. Fortunately, legal states are working to correct the wrongs of our past. From states continuing to legalize and decriminalize, to the overall outlook of the plant – these states are taking the necessary actions to lower the incarceration rate for young African American teens.

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