At No Point Was America’s “War On Drugs” EVER About Drugs; It was Always About Racism


Remember Prohibition? That was America’s attempt to wage war on the “drug of choice” of most white people: alcohol. Prohibition failed miserably as we know. Not only didn’t it stop anyone from drinking, it made drinking sexier. And, because legitimate providers couldn’t provide during Prohibition, illegitimate providers filled in the vacuum. It was Prohibition that gave organized crime its first real foothold in America. Prohibition gave them a product to sell, a public anxious to buy and no one to regulate what anyone was doing. America put up with Prohibition for thirteen years. But, to be fair to the prohibitionists — judgmental as they were — they weren’t wrong about the harm alcohol abuse was doing to America, Americans and their families. The prohibitionists weren’t conservatives, they were progressives! Prohibition was an attempt to force a moral choice upon a population that wanted a drink instead. Being as the population was mostly white, in the end, that population had its way. Prohibition ended relatively quickly.

We cannot say the same for marijuana prohibition though — even as decriminalization spreads with remarkable speed across the country. Marijuana was effectively “illegalized” by the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937. The law didn’t make marijuana illegal because, as first drug czar Harry Anslinger found out, there is literally NOTHING in the Constitution that makes any substance illegal. In order to make opiates or cannabis illegal, lawmakers had to perform a whole Olympics worth of gymnastics. None them completed a single routine successfully — except for the fact that they did illegalize the drugs they were going after.

When Harry Anslinger became the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, he brought a couple of things with him. First was his skill as a bureaucrat. Whatever else Anslinger was (and we’ll get to what he really was momentarily), he was exceptionally skilled at working the bureaucracy to get what he wanted (even when the law wasn’t on his side — as the law wasn’t when Anslinger put a target on marijuana’s back). Anslinger began as a railroad cop for the Pennsylvania Railroad (where his father also worked). During World War I, Anslinger turned that success into a burgeoning diplomatic career. Working for the US government, Anslinger became deeply involved in the battle against international drug trafficking. Now, let’s be clear about something: in 1920, the “international drug trade” consisted of opium. That’s it.

But, if we dig a little into even that — our battle with the international opium trade — we find racism lurking. The opium wars of the 1840’s were fought because China (knowing opium smoking was problematic to peoples health and productivity), had made opium illegal while the British wanted to be able to trade in opium (in part to make up the massive trade balance they were experiencing with China). China wanted to end the trade in opium while Europe wanted it to continue — because it was enriching Europe. Jump forward a few years. When America wanted cheap (bordering on slave) labor after slavery was finally illegalized, we brought in thousands of Chinese men. We made them keep their families at home because heaven forbid we ever treat workers like human beings — especially when they’re “different”.

Had Europe not insisted on keeping the opium trade open, there wouldn’t have been anything for American racists to worry over when they saw communities of Chinese men — perhaps using opium, perhaps not — who would blame them; we left them with little to do in their off hours other than eat and sleep. The first anti-drug law in American popped up in San Francisco in 1875. It made smoking opium in opium dens illegal. Was that for a reason associated with anyone’s health? No. The law itself is pretty specific about WHY it exists because: “”Many women and young girls, as well as young men of a respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.”

“Ruined morally or otherwise”. That’s the LEGAL underpinning. When Harry Anslinger started setting up shop in 1930 at the FBN, most drug laws (if there were any) were local not national. Though opium use was being limited at the local level, there was no national law giving Anslinger any comparable power. To go along with his minimal enforcement power, he had a small work force of bureaucrats and an even smaller one of field agents. He was competing at the time with J. Edgar Hoover who was much better at public relations at first than Anslinger was.

Anslinger didn’t care about marijuana when he started working at the FBN. Prior to 1910, marijuana doesn’t really register. It scores some notoriety after Hugh Ludlow publishes The Hashish Eater in 1857 but the whole experience is exotic and foreign. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution sends a gush of people fleeing the war Many settle north of the border and begin new lives in America. They bring with them their food, their religion, their cannabis. As they know culturally, at the end of a work day — or even going into one — cannabis is awesome.

So long as marijuana remained something Mexicans did among Mexicans, Anslinger didn’t care about it. Eventually, marijuana made it over to New Orleans where a bunch of Black musicians were in the process of inventing jazz. Guys like Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and Louis Armstrong knew (perhaps from experience) that you couldn’t invent anything on opium. You couldn’t make music with heroin in your head. Ditto alcohol. That didn’t mean plenty of musicians (jazz or otherwise) didn’t try to combine music an alcohol. But, as the rest of us know, the person hopped up on hops has lost all perspective. In vino veritas? Not really. In vino lack of candor. In vino lack of judgment. In vino crap motor skills. That’s not the case with marijuana.

The Black musical artists who invented jazz loved cannabis because it opened up their creativity like nothing else. It allowed them to bridge all kinds of jumps they were making in their brains while creating jazz — while inventing music on the fly. Jazz was the first authentically American musical idiom. It couldn’t have come from anywhere else or have been produced by anyone other than the people who made it. And they made it, many of them, while using marijuana.

Among the people who hated jazz — and there were people who despised it because of who created it — was America’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger. In addition to being a very skilled bureaucrat, apparently Anslinger was a skilled musician, too. He played piano. Loved European classical music. Hated jazz and every single jazz musician for having helped create it But, even so, it wasn’t Anslinger’s hatred for jazz and jazz musicians that spurred him to finally go after marijuana.

When Anslinger heard reports of white people using dope? THAT was the bridge too far for Anslinger. White people using a drug that Black and brown people use? That’s white people being “perverted” by people of color. That, to a racist like Harry Anslinger, could not happen. It’s precisely why Anslinger decided that marijuana was a far worse threat to America than heroin.

For a very thorough telling of Harry Anslinger’s story, I suggest a few of the Blunt Truths pieces I wrote for Weedmaps News (when there was a Weedmaps News). Though a few chapters are missing (one got purloined by one of my editors at Weedmaps News — Nicolas Juarez — that effing scumbag!), the thirteen chapters and 25,000 words tell the only story one can truthfully tell about marijuana prohibition. It happened because of who, early on, was using it. No one ever cared about whether it was good or bad for anyone’s health. No research was ever commissioned to prove such a thing because health was never a factor.

One of the nicest things to experience is the slow, chillin’ demise of “Reefer Madness” as an idea of how people are when using cannabis. Think of how many more millions of Americans across the country are now using cannabis on a regular basis — integrating it into their lives — without their lives falling apart. Or Wester Civilization collapsing.

Frankly, if my young adult daughter quit drinking tomorrow and used cannabis exclusively for recreation and self-medicating? I’d be thrilled. I quit drinking because my mood stabilizer gives all alcohol a terrible, grapefruit skin-like aftertaste. As I was already using cannabis for sleeping, I upped my cannabis use — and discovered almost immediately that just by quitting alcohol, the quality of my sleep improved even more than it had when I quit over-the-counter sleeping meds for nightly indica. If sporting events sold cannabis instead of Budweiser, there would never be another drunken brawl at a soccer game that spills out into the streets. Instead, a crowd that just watched a sporting event while stoned would end up hugging each other even if they supported the other side. It’s just hard to feel that shitty with THC sprinkling you gently with euphoria.

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