Today, cannabis is considered a Schedule 1 drug by our federal government, meaning they consider it has no medical benefits. At the same time, 33 states have laws that allow for the medical use of cannabis. So, over half of the “United States” are in direct conflict with the federal government. For good reason too. The benefits of medical cannabis are well document and the risks aren’t comparable to those of other Schedule 1 drugs.
So how is there such a disconnect between the way the federal government regulates cannabis and the way more and more states do? Unfortunately, the answer has more to do with xenophobia and deception than sound science and thoughtful policy.
In the U.S. during the 1920s, prohibition was in full swing and certain government agencies were loving it. Imagine if your job was to find bars, chase down drunk people and confiscate the alcohol….that sounds like a sport almost. Now and then, there was the problem of heroin and cocaine use — which may not have been as fun to deal with, but it wasn’t as prevalent.
In 1925, there was something called the International Opium Convention. Contrary to what you may think, it wasn’t a chance for lotus-eaters to get together and hang out for a weekend in smoky dens. Instead, there was probably cigar smoke billowing from the stern, smug mouths of old white men there to discuss how to handle opium addiction in “their” countries (Britain was still occupying India at this point, France the Congo, Holland controlled South Africa, and so on). At some point during the conference, Cannabis was brought up and the diplomats eventually recommended that countries prohibit the use of what they called “Indian Hemp.”
This inspired the work of an American named Harry J. Anslinger.
Anslinger had been traveling around the world for sometime busting international drug dealers and in 1930 became the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. But soon after, prohibition ended! What to do? He and the boys couldn’t go bar hopping anymore and cocaine and heroin still weren’t super popular (the CIA hadn’t invented crack yet) and so he took the recommendations of the Opium Convention to heart and began a dogged campaign against cannabis. The problem was, some states regulated it as a medicine and some had huge hemp industries.
What to do? Lie of course! Anslinger became a master of propaganda. His strategy? Scare white people! Not a hard thing to do after all. Conveniently for him, the greatest areas of use were the Southwest where there was a large Hispanic population and places like New Orleans and New York — centers of culture that were driven largely by innovative black musicians — some of whom smoked cannabis.
Using rousing rhetoric that portrayed cannabis as a violence-inducing scourge used by deviants (people of color), he appealed to voters around the country to pressure their local governments to criminalize it. The following passage might give you an idea of how Anslinger liked to talk:
“the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears, not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who [at] once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a shortcut 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”
It’s hard to know if he believed this to be true or not but his own sources were shoddy. While reporting to the Ways and Means Committee, he was only able to reference one French doctor’s testimony from Tunis, Tunisia whom he referred to as the global authority on cannabis. Anslinger had no scientific evidence of its ill effects and ignored some key details of the International Opium Convention’s conclusions which included the following description of hashish use: “Taken in small doses, hashish at first produces an agreeable inebriation, a sensation of well-being and a desire to smile; the mind is stimulated.”
Nonetheless, his scare tactics, misinformation, and relentless lobbying was successful and his work is the reason our co-evolution with cannabis was stunted over the past century, leading to the development and dissemination of expensive, harmful, and ineffective drugs that are poor substitutes for the efficacy and mildness of cannabis.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to my fellow students of history out there that such a manipulation of the public will by a handful of powerful, self-interested men could take place. Now that we’ve begun unraveling the bonds of cannabis prohibition, I’d like to think we’ve learned from our mistakes. We have the opportunity to create thoughtful policy and engage in sound science to determine the right path forward. As long as we don’t cede power to the xenophobic, self-interested, and deceptive people that have plagued history with their bad decisions.