I hope this isn’t a revelation: the “war on drugs” has never had anything whatsoever to do with drugs and everything to do with who’s using them. From its inception, the “war on drugs” was about one thing and one thing only: racism. That’s because virtually every bit of America’s current drug legislation owes its existence to Harry Anslinger – America’s first drug czar. No one (that I know of) addressed Anslinger that way during his lifetime: “drug czar”. But a “czar” is exactly what Anslinger behaved like.
Anslinger became Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930 having spent a decade as both a diplomat and a bureaucrat. Anslinger was an out-and-out racist. His one big passion in life was music. he played the piano quite well apparently. He loved classical European music. Loved playing it. To him, jazz was an abomination.
When Anslinger took over as drug czar, he didn’t see “marihuana” as a problem. Prior to 1910, there just isn’t much of the stuff in America – at least not that anyone’s noticing or writing about. The Mexican Revolution sent a gush of refugees fleeing north. Those fleeing the Revolution’s carnage brought their culture with them – including marijuana. Before too, too long, marijuana shows up in New Orleans where a group of Black musicians are inventing jazz.
The Black jazz musicians (Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong among others) took to marijuana. From experience, they knew that no one was creating anything on opioids or alcohol. Neither is good for playing or composing. Both screw up your motor skills. Marijuana on the other hand is quite different. In addition to making them feel good – euphoric – marijuana delivers clarity. And it doesn’t screw with your motor skills. In fact, cannabis can refine one’s motor skills. Cannabis can allow one to articulate quite precisely what’s inside one’s head. Creating jazz demanded superb musicianship. It’s impact on America and the world speaks for itself. That marijuana was part of its creation speaks to what cannabis is and what Harry Anslinger hated about it.
Had New Orleans’ jazz musicians not headed north periodically – taking their music and their marijuana smoking with them to Memphis and Nashville and Chicago – Anslinger may have ultimately continued shrugging at cannabis. What crossed the line for Anslinger? When white people started to use the drug.
White people using a substance that Black and brown people used was unacceptable to Anslinger. That triggered him – and triggered his war on marihuana. Consider Anslinger’s entire approach to warning America about marijuana’s dangers. The people in harm’s way: white people – white women especially. The people causing that harm: Black and brown people so deeply in marijuana’s hellish thrall that they’re capable of any kind of insane criminality to those white people. Harry Anslinger may not have coined the term “reefer madness” but he might as well have. He invented everything else about it.
Anslinger’s problem was that nothing in the Constitution grants the government any right to prohibit cannabis – just like, prior to amending the Constitution, there was no provision to prohibit alcohol consumption within our borders. You’d think – considering the mess alcohol prohibition had just made (it gave organized crime its first hold on America because they were the sole providers of the alcohol Americans wanted) that a smart bureaucrat like Anslinger would have avoided such an obvious trap. But Anslinger wasn’t thinking about anything other than something Black people did “infecting” white people. That’s how Anslinger thought about it.
Because he couldn’t make growing, buying, selling or using cannabis a crime, Anslinger went the taxation route to get what he wanted. The “Marijuana Tax Act of 1937” doesn’t make it illegal to grow, buy, sell or use marijuana, but, in order to buy or sell any amount of marijuana, one now had to pay a tax on both transactions. And to prove that the tax had been paid, one had to have a stamp. The problem? No such stamp existed.
Going forward, anyone buying or selling marijuana without paying the tax and getting the stamp was going to commit tax crime. And that’s exactly what happened almost the instant the Tax Act became federal law. Two white men were arrested in Colorado, one for buying, and the other for selling a small amount of marijuana. Those two white men were America’s first sacrifice’s the the drug war’s racism. They paid the price for being white guys who used a Black person’s drug.
In the 1950’s, as Anslinger’s “reefer madness” campaign lost its bite – and while returning opium use soared among World War Two veterans and survivors – Anslinger reinvigorated his racist campaign by inventing “the gateway theory” – the idea that today’s marijuana user is tomorrow’s heroin addict. There never ever was an iota of actual linkage between the two beyond the kind of statistics one could point to and uncritically link virtually ANYTHING.
The Viet Nam War brought marijuana home like few things could. Here’s a funny thing – and it ties directly to those jazz musicians in New Orleans. When American soldiers would go out on patrol – risking their lives – they knew alcohol or any kind of opioid would dull their senses and make them vulnerable. Cannabis on the other hand relaxed them. It mellowed them out but without dulling their senses. Quite the contrary! With a few hits of dope in them, some soldiers felt they could really hear and sense what was out there.
Then they took that war aid home – where protestors also were using cannabis. Where Richard Nixon had declared a “War On Drugs” which was always really a “War On Black & Brown People”.
Prohibition wasn’t a conservative thing. It was progressive. The temperance movement was motivated by the damage that alcohol and rampant alcoholism was doing to American families. Abuse and neglect were endemic. And, the simple fact is: alcohol abuse produces real and calculable damage. Take drunk drivers alone!
The reason cannabis legalization has happened so quickly is because civilization did not fall after it happened. ER’s haven’t filled to overflowing with stoned drivers. Fights have not broken out among cannabis users. California’s economy has benefited from all those extra tax dollars in its coffers.
All the racism that was used to buttress cannabis prohibition has been proven to be one hundred percent pure horse shit.
A day is coming soon when cannabis will be legal from coast to coast – and then in more and more countries around the world. That’s a great thing for sanity! It’s a great thing for the world because cannabis can actually do the world some good. That’s another reason legalization has moved apace.
The hardest thing to expunge alas will be the racism. There are still tens of thousands of people – many of color – serving time for cannabis crimes. They need to be freed and their records wiped clean. Those who’d now be considered businesspeople – who’d been convicted for selling cannabis – need to be re-established in their businesses; they were merely ahead of the curve.
Back in the day, the drug war crusaders used to preach from on high, two-martini lunches under their belts, about how taking drugs was stupid. It was stupid only because of the laws that were enacted by stupid racists. Or by less stupid racists – like Harry Anslinger.