by Johann Hari
Across the world, more and more people are asking: Why is marijuana banned? Why are people still sent to prison for using or selling it?
Most of us assume it’s because someone, somewhere sat down with the scientific evidence, and figured out that cannabis is more harmful than other drugs we use all the time — like alcohol and cigarettes.
Somebody worked it all out, in our best interest.
But when I started to go through the official archives — researching my bookChasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs — to find out why cannabis was banned back in the 1930s, I discovered that’s not what happened.
Not at all.
In 1929, a man called Harry Anslinger was put in charge of the Department of Prohibition in Washington, D.C. But alcohol prohibition had been a disaster. Gangsters had taken over whole neighborhoods. Alcohol — controlled by criminals — had become even more poisonous.
So alcohol prohibition finally ended — and Harry Anslinger was afraid. He found himself in charge of a huge government department, with nothing for it to do. Up until then, he had said that cannabis was not a problem. It doesn’t harm people, he explained, and “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea it makes people violent.
Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, poses for a photo on September 24, 1930. (AP Photo)
But then — suddenly, when his department needed a new purpose — he announced he had changed his mind.
He explained to the public what would happen if you smoked cannabis.
First, you will fall into “a delirious rage.” Then you will be gripped by “dreams… of an erotic character.” Then you will “lose the power of connected thought.” Finally, you will reach the inevitable end-point: “Insanity.”
Marijuana turns man into a “wild beast.” If marijuana bumped into Frankenstein’s monster on the stairs, Anslinger warned, the monster would drop dead of fright.
Harry Anslinger became obsessed with one case in particular. In Florida, a boy called Victor Licata hacked his family to death with an axe. Anslinger explained to America: This is what will happen when you smoke “the demon weed.” The case became notorious. The parents of the U.S. were terrified.
What evidence did Harry Anslinger have? It turns out at this time he wrote to the 30 leading scientists on this subject, asking if cannabis was dangerous, and if there should be a ban.
Twenty-nine wrote back and said no.
Anslinger picked out the one scientist who said yes, and presented him to the world. The press — obsessed with Victor Licata’s axe — cheered them on.