With the gradual rise of cannabis legalisation across the world, the question on many people’s mind is: Why did cannabis become illegal in the first place?
How did we come to the consensus that cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes? We assume that somebody worked it all out by sitting down with the scientific evidence accumulated after years of research and after continuous testing came to the above conclusion.
Well, as you can probably guess by now, this was not the case!
If you look deeply into the story of why cannabis is banned, you’ll find that nearly all the roads lead to a man named Harry Anslinger. He was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in America, which laid the groundwork for the modern-day DEA, and was the architect of the war on drugs.
In 1929, just as the prohibition of alcohol was beginning to crumble, Harry was put in charge of the Department of Prohibition in Washington. He himself even said that cannabis was not a problem. It doesn’t harm people he explained, and “there is no more absurd fallacy”.
However when the alcohol prohibition finally ended in 1933 and Anslinger was put in charge of the FBN, there was a huge void left open that needed to be accounted for. With less activity and thus less money being generated as a result of the end of alcohol prohibition, Harry turned his attention to cannabis, despite previous claims he made about the safety of the drug.
“From the moment he took charge of the bureau, Harry was aware of the weakness of his new position. A war on narcotics alone, cocaine and heroin, wasn’t enough,” author Johann Hari wrote in his book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” “They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn’t keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs. He needed more.”
It was this that started the demonization of cannabis. Fueled by a handful of 1920s newspaper stories about crazed or violent episodes after marijuana use, Anslinger used the anecdotes to claim that the drug could cause psychosis and eventually insanity.
Anslinger became obsessed with one case in particular where a boy in Florida, called Victor Licata, hacked his family to death with an axe, supposedly whilst high on cannabis.
What evidence did Harry Anslinger have? It turns out at this time he wrote to 30 leading scientists on the subject, asking if cannabis was dangerous and if there should be a ban. Twenty-nine of the scientists wrote back and said “no”.
But it was the theory of one single “expert” who agreed with him, that spurred Harry to tell the public that cannabis was an evil that should be banned. The press ran with this story and sensationalized it creating a sense of fear surrounding the plant.
Today most of the world is still living with the ban on cannabis that Anslinger introduced following Victor Licata’s killing spree. But here’s the catch: Years later, the psychiatric files for Victor Licata were looked at further, and it turned out that there was no evidence he ever used cannabis!
The second component to Anslinger’s strategy was racial. He claimed that black people and Latinos were the primary users of marijuana, and it made them forget their place in the fabric of American society. The word “marijuana” itself was part of this approach. What was commonly known as cannabis until the early 1900s, was instead called “marihuana”, a Spanish word that is more likely to be associated with Mexicans.
During the panic that gripped America, marijuana was banned. The U.S. told other countries they had to do the same. Many countries disagreed with the idea and refused to do it. For example, Mexico decided their drug policy should be run by doctors. Their medical advice was that cannabis didn’t cause these problems, and they refused to ban it.
A leading American doctor called Michael Ball wrote to Harry Anslinger, puzzled. He explained he had used cannabis as a medical student, and it had only made him sleepy. Maybe cannabis does drive a small number of people crazy, he said — but we need to fund some scientific studies to find out more. For years, doctors kept approaching him with evidence he was wrong, and he began to snap, telling them they were “treading on dangerous ground” and that they “should watch their mouths”.
Since the claims made by Anslinger were made, there have been many cannabis studies around the world showing that cannabis is safer than many of the drugs available off the shelf today. Alcohol for example, kills 40,000 people every year in the U.S. whereas there have been no recorded deaths to date, directly linked to cannabis use.
Today we see a rise in cannabis legalisation. Citizens are voting for it, adults can buy cannabis legally in licensed stores where they are taxed—and the money is used to build schools. After a year and a half of seeing this system in practice, support for legalisation has risen to more than 1 in 2 Americans. Even politicians are realising it and starting to refer to legalisation as “common sense.”