Last month, in an article entitled “What’s in a Name,” I dissected the long-established narrative that the use of the word “marijuana” is racist. That idea is derived from the belief that the United States’ first Drug Czar, Harry Anslinger, was a cartoonish villain of hysterical racial prejudice. While there is some evidence that Anslinger likely held racial prejudices, there is an argument to be made that his motivations for championing cannabis prohibition were merely born from the hubris of a misguided anti-drug fanatic.
After my earlier article, I tracked down the source of the two quotes used to characterize Anslinger as being racially motivated in his desire and strategies, which are as follows:
- “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
- “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Eventually, I contacted the Pennsylvania State University Library, the entity in possession of Anslinger’s writings. This was not the first time someone attempting to verify the source of these quotes had contacted them. Thus, their response was swift. Both quotes seem to first appear in the 1985 book by cannabis activist Jack Herer, The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Herer attributed the first quote directly to Anslinger, without providing a source. The second “quote” was not even a quote, but an attempt by the author to “encapsulate the sentiment” against cannabis in the Southern states. Because both quotes are inconsistent with Anslinger’s rhetorical style, yet similar to one another, it’s arguably safe to assume they are both Herer’s satirical representations of the Anslinger era.
If you are not familiar with Herer, he was a commanding and charismatic individual, as well as the inspirational namesake of a foundational sativa strain. Herer, who passed away in 2010 at seventy, was a relatively late convert to cannabis, having only discovered the plant’s benefits in his early thirties, but became a fervent and widely respected advocate for the cause. He first entered the scene as a head shop owner and early pioneer of the glass pipe industry. Born again in the light of marijuana, it soon became the center of his life, the rest of which he spent as an entrepreneur and activist. He was an intelligent leader who knew how to broaden the appeal of his cause by setting it apart from old fashion values and foibles. Unfortunately, it seems that he was not always concerned with accuracy. He was criticized more than once for misrepresenting the scientific facts of the hemp plant to strengthen his cause. It would appear that Herer had perfectly good intentions in doing so, but like Anslinger, he may have been just a little compromised by the white-hot passion of his convictions, albeit with far more admirable results.
As for Anslinger, the genesis of his supposedly righteous crusade against drugs appears to have innocent (albeit misguided) origins, born of personal experience. As a twelve-year-old boy, the screams of a woman drew Anslinger to a nearby farm. He rushed to help her, only to find that she was in the throes of withdrawal from morphine addiction. The people in the house sent him out to fetch some of the substance to ease her pain, which he obtained easily, despite his young age. As he matured, he wondered just how wise it was to give children access to morphine, a drug he had seen turn a regular farm girl into a deranged banshee. That was a valid concern, and one most of us would share. As a young man, he worked on the railroad, where he would hear stories from the Italian immigrants with whom he worked about the Mafia, and the unspeakable horrors they inflicted for power and profit in the drug trade. He was, in fact, the first law enforcement officer to take the threat of the Mafia seriously. These were but a few of the experiences that imbued Anslinger with a strong fear regarding the destructive effects of drugs—long before he rose to the position of commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
In my earlier article I was able to verify that Anslinger had an open, seething dislike of jazz music. In my recent research I have uncovered that he was a classically trained concert pianist. It is not uncommon in any era for classically trained musicians to have a loathing for contemporary popular music.
The United States government had already conducted studies in 1893 concluding that cannabis was not a threat to personal or public health. It is unclear whether Anslinger ever bothered to read these studies, but it likely would not have mattered. His personal experiences, real as they may have been, had sent him spiraling into the radical position that drugs are bad, m’kay. Harry Anslinger was consumed by his fear of drugs through experiences that, when considered alone, gave him good reason to be scared. But that fear kept him from looking at the bigger picture with discernment and nuance and propelled him to pursue the eradication all perceived threats against the people he believed he was duty bound to protect. This doesn’t necessarily make his story any better; just different than what we’ve generally assumed.
None of this is to say that our antagonist was blameless, or that he didn’t harbor abhorrently racist views. The racial aspect of his rhetoric was simply less pronounced than what has been claimed by activists in our midst—a lot closer to the sort of race-baiting perpetrated by politicians today. This may seem like hair-splitting, but accuracy is essential to the foundation of our progress. If the basis of our argument evaporates under the light of the facts, so too can our hard-fought victories. Moreover, to truly understand the opposition, we must understand its root causes. Reducing the argument to a simple charge of racism not only short-changes us of a deeper understanding; it erodes the strength of that charge when leveled legitimately.
My point: Moral hysteria is dangerous, no matter the validity of the cause. When we become obsessively and blindly attached to our crusade for righteousness, facts become inconvenient barriers to our cause, and are thus overlooked and swept away by more bombastic narratives that bypass our reason by way of our emotions. Most of the bad guys were trying to be good guys, and weren’t gonna let a little thing like truth get in the way. We must be ever vigilant to avoid that pitfall, no matter how righteous the cause, which is just as much a concern today as it was in the first half of the last century.
However, this is not to say there are no truly bad guys. Anslinger, already a menacing character himself, was a useful tool for far more powerful men, with far more to gain, precisely because his passion and concern was so authentic. But that, as they say, is a whole other story—perhaps for another article in a coming issue.
Editor’s note: The point of this article is not to paint Harry Anslinger in a saintly likeness, nor is it an attempt to mitigate the damage done to society by his authoritarian crusade. From all accounts, Anslinger was a demagoguing, puritanical autocrat whose ham-fisted approach to drug policy led to nearly a century of injustice, the majority of which was inflicted on America’s minority populations. History will continue to cast a long shadow over his grave, regardless of the nuance argued here. Moreover, while this article does debunk the most famous quotes attributed to Anslinger, there is still plenty of evidence that his rhetoric was often peppered with racially charged sentiments, as illustrated by the quotes below.
Quotes that are attributable to Anslinger:
“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”
“Two Negroes took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.”