By, A L Katz
Blunt Truths is an ongoing series that explores marijuana, human beings, euphoria, and racism — and how a product and a culture were systematically stigmatized.
It all comes down to: Why?
As laws that legalize marijuana take root in state after state in America, it’s time to examine what motivated lawmakers of the past to suddenly make a good, legal product – cannabis – illegal. What inspired those lawmakers to declare an out-and-out war on an entire group of products and anyone associated with them?
Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that our lawmakers acted, as they often claim, out of concern for the greater good of humanity. But, as we keep learning, our elected leaders are as flawed as anyone else. They don’t always do things for the best – or the right – reasons. Sometimes, they even do things for very wrong reasons. The blunt truth about how – and why – cannabis became illegal in the US is a stellar and painful example of supposedly good intentions gone terribly wrong.
The prohibition of cannabis and even hemp comes with an evil twist. As history now shows, the ban was born of overt racism.
One man, Harry Anslinger, appointed the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, was almost singularly responsible for making cannabis illegal in America. Dive into his life story and it becomes clear that the petty, small-minded ex-Prohibition cop used his own deep-seated racism to transform a small, underfunded, undermanned, more-or-less purposeless federal agency into a personal fiefdom through which he dispensed his skewed version of justice to those he wrongly felt deserved it.
So what is the blunt truth about why marijuana was made illegal? Was it really even a problem demanding prohibition? Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. So, why has cannabis been kept illegal ever since? By making it and keeping it illegal, who, exactly, was and is the law really trying to punish – and for what?
According to the NAACP 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health that studied disparities in drug sentencing, “About 17 million whites and 4 million African-Americans reported having used an illicit drug within the last month. Though African-Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African-Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites.”
Further, the report found that African-Americans represent 12.5 percent of illicit drug users, but 29 percent of suspects arrested for drug offenses and 33 percent of inmates incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses.
That disparity is not a coincidence. It was built into the marijuana prohibition laws at the start.
As future Blunt Truths installments will describe, Anslinger wasn’t the first person to use racism to justify instituting marijuana prohibition laws. But he was the first to use racism effectively, creating a powerful racist myth about cannabis. Then he manipulated the media to indoctrinate that myth into America’s hearts and minds, crafting a dark reality about cannabis that persists today.
We may not know it, but we still walk around — and even use cannabis — in Harry Anslinger’s long shadow. The cannabis laws Americans are overturning – often by overruling their legislators – are Anslinger’s direct legacy. Now that we’re finally shaking ourselves free of him, it’s time we got to know him better – and what he did to us – and why.
The trouble is, there’s more to fix than we realize. Cannabis was never the problem. To advocates and students of history, it is deliciously ironic that cannabis may prove to be part of the solution.