The surprising reason why marijuana was made illegal
In the global marijuana debate, the tide is slowly turning towards legalisation. You can now light up in nine American states while decriminalisation has taken effect across much of Europe. By the end of the year, it will be legal in Canada and legal for medical use in the UK.
But having been outlawed in the vast majority of the world for as long as anyone can remember, one might assume that this was at least to protect the public. However, what lies beneath the policies and paperwork is a trail of deceit which leads right to the top.
As a country built on the ideals of freedom and liberty, it should have been difficult to try to make marijuana illegal in the USA. However, in 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created and Harry Anslinger was appointed its first commissioner by Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of The Treasury at the time.
Aslinger had previously stated that "there is no more absurd fallacy" than the idea that marijuana causes violence. But now Prohibition was a thing of the past and the department was lacking funding and lacking a purpose. Aslinger was therefore keen for marijuana to be made illegal and he made sure his voice was heard at an international level.
In 1936, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst’s empire of newspapers began printing “yellow journalism”. This was media misrepresentation which deliberately demonised marijuana and connected its use with violent crimes committed by ethnic minorities.
In an attempt to make it seem fundamentally foreign, the term “marihuana” was used instead of the previously-favoured “cannabis”. The campaign created a widespread fear that marijuana could instantly cause ceaseless aggression and insanity.
The knock-on effect was enormous. In the same year, a film was produced called Reefer Madness. Today, the film is widely mocked for its depiction of marijuana users. But at the time, it was genuinely terrifying.
Its IMDB synopsis is almost laughable by today’s standards: “A trio of drug dealers lead innocent teenagers to become addicted to ‘reefer’ cigarettes by holding wild parties with jazz music.”
In one of the storylines from the film, a boy kills his entire family with an axe - all due to the “reefer madness”. Spawning a series of similar films, the public outrage snowballed into widespread panic.
Soon, there were official government posters warning: “Murder! Insanity! Death!” Police officers stated that marijuana created a "lust for blood," and gave users "superhuman strength". The entire country had become terrified of a plant.
So where’s the conspiracy? Well, Hearst had huge investments in the timber industry but hemp was both cheaper and stronger than paper pulp. Meanwhile, Secretary of The Treasury Andrew Mellon - one of the wealthiest men in the country and co-founder of Gulf Oil - had huge investments not only in oil but also in a new oil-based synthetic fibre known as nylon. While marijuana oil was undoubtedly a huge threat to oil companies, some say nylon was actually a replacement for hemp.
One year later, after considerable media-fuelled (or perhaps media-created) moral panic, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed. Marijuana was now illegal to possess unless it was for medical or industrial purposes.
However, cultivation and possession for medical or industrial purposes was subject to an expensive excise tax, ensuring that the hemp industry would never threaten the timber, oil or petrochemical industries.
The president at the time, J Edgar Hoover, was conservative, staunchly anti-communist and was known as something of a paranoid politician. This was the era of suspicion and scapegoats and Hoover was perfectly complicit in the campaign.
Marijuana has often been touted as the standout example of why global drug policy doesn’t work. With low scores for both harm and dependency, many would argue that it cannot remain illegal on the basis of self-preservation. World-renowned sociologist Howard S. Becker defiantly argues that the drug problem “is not and never has been a police problem except in the sense that the police are themselves the problem.”
In reality, very few people had ever used marijuana in America. It had predominantly been the reserve of Mexican migrants who used it instead of alcohol during the prohibition era. Nonetheless, the US government successfully weaponised their culture and used it against them. It wasn’t until the 60s that marijuana was commonly connected to white people - when the hippy movement embraced it with open arms.
Over the ensuing half a century, the public’s understanding of drugs would improve and policy would change. Gradually, there has been a shift between decriminalisation, legalisation and understanding the individual’s needs rather that giving agency to the substance itself.
The most recent seismic shift on marijuana policy has been the announcement that it will be legalised for medicinal use in the UK. Many stakeholders, including parents of children with debilitating diseases, have made their argument for marijuana to be made available through the NHS (National Health System).
Speaking to VT, drug policy expert Dr Craig Morris stated: “What is being made legal in the UK is a small number of cannabis-based medicines, not cannabis itself for medicinal use. That is an important distinction.”
He continues: “For decades, people struggle to assert that cannabis is medically useful, then industry commodified it and leaves the plant users out in the cold. Interestingly, the government's Drugs minister is married to the CEO or similar of the company that owns [one of] the biggest cannabis growing facilities in the UK … this meant that on appointment, she had to excuse herself from discussing cannabis, which is the most commonly used illegal substance in the UK.”
Driving $9.2bn in sales last year, the legal marijuana industry in the US has been praised as a taxable, above-board system which is slowly taking the trade out criminals’ hands. However, it is not without its critics.
“It is also an odd situation that the US drove the international prohibition of cannabis and more recently seems to be driving its liberalisation,” Dr Morris continues. “However, that is all at state level. Federally, cannabis use in America is still an offence … the US may have created enough of a distinction between cannabis 'the drug' and cannabis 'the medicine' that many no longer think of cannabis as one 'thing'. So Trump could elevate the 'war on drugs' including cannabis, but also tolerate a legal cannabis industry.”
Admittedly, there are arguments against the notion that a conspiracy caused this drug to be made illegal. William Randolph Hearst, for instance, is said to have sold his art collection in order to fund all the newsprint he was buying. It would therefore make sense that he would want to invest in a cheaper alternative, such as hemp.
Furthermore, there is a strong argument that yellow journalism is in itself simply sensationalism - moral stories and cautionary tales intended not to fulfil a secret purpose but instead to sell papers.
While it is true that sensationalism sells, it is also undeniable that there was a network of vested interests which very conveniently closed in on on marijuana and - by extension - the hemp industry.
Despite the significant progress in relaxing drug laws, propaganda from 1930s America still helps form our foundational beliefs about marijuana and misunderstandings from the same era are recycled in playgrounds, classrooms and newspapers around the world.
Personally, I’m not sold on legalisation. In a country like the UK, with its alcoholics, binge-drinking and turbulent night time economy, I’m not sure we can be trusted not to abuse the privilege.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a popular opinion. However, the reasons behind why marijuana was made illegal in the United States remain highly questionable nonetheless. It created an environment which, when he came to power, allowed President Nixon to demonise counter culture and make statements such as: “Every one of the bastards that are out for legalising marijuana are Jewish.”
Ultimately, the attitude instilled in the American public in the 1930s not only outlawed a drug, but paved the way for a political class which embraced both xenophobia and disinformation.