Hearst, Anslinger, and the True Origins of Cannabis Prohibition: It's Not Quite What You Think
In this third volume of our ongoing series, we delve deeper into the accepted narrative surrounding cannabis prohibition, challenging widely-held beliefs and shedding light on the complex interplay of personalities and politics.
By Joshua Scott Hotchkin
This will be my third and final installment in a trilogy of articles that began when I was invited to write a piece about the racist roots of the word ‘marijuana’ and how that contributed to prohibition. My initial beliefs were in line with the above assertion, and I had written along those lines in the past. This time around, I took the investigation into those claims deeper and found that they were mostly unsubstantiated—much to my surprise. After concluding that the word was not racist in my first piece, I then pointed out Anslinger was probably not quite the rabidly racist boogeyman we view him as today in the second installment. In my third installment, I intended to pull the mask off William Randolph Hearst and the DuPont family, to show where the real bigotry and roots of prohibition began, and once again my research upended those beliefs.
As for being a bigot, Hearst is not entirely off the hook. However, his most notable prejudice was against Asian immigrants, a sentiment rooted in his staunch support for labor rights and unions. This stemmed largely from the perception that Asian immigrant laborers, ready to accept substantially lower wages and limited labor rights, compromised the success and impact of strikes and union initiatives. Hearst used his media empire to influence public perception of Asian immigrants in order to gain support for the laborers and unions they were replacing, during a time when Hearst was still aligned with leftism and the Democratic Party. The same treatment was given to Mexican immigrant workers later on, but not quite to the same extent. Then during the presidency of FDR, Hearst took a hard right turn, disavowing labor and class causes while continuing his policy of anti-Asian sensationalism in his fight against communism, in which he was more involved than even Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Cora Miranda Beggerly Older was Hearst’s biographer. Through their interactions, she developed a deep perspective of his motivations. Her position was that Hearst used racially charged sentiments opportunistically to achieve other means. What we can say undoubtedly about Hearst, the father of sensationalistic Yellow Journalism, is that he was motivated to sell newspapers, which peddling outrageous stories invoking xenophobic fears helped to do, simply because people, in a culture where journalism and entertainment are virtually indistinguishable, are drawn to that sort of hyperbole.1 This interplay between the media and the public has been a defining characteristic of American journalism since the nation’s inception and continues to be so into the present day.
The final question is how much effect did Hearst have on Anslinger and prohibition, and the answer is not very much. Anslinger certainly took Hearst’s sensationalist stories to heart, and Hearst’s newspapers certainly supported Anslinger and his efforts, but there is no smoking gun to tie the two figures directly together in a contrived plot against cannabis. While the two shared a narrative, they had different motivations. Anslinger was ripe for exploitation by the opportunism of Hearst, whose primary agenda was to sell his product.
It has also been suggested that Hearst was attempting to undermine cannabis because he saw it as a threat to his lumber and paper mill interests. The same accusation has been made against the DuPont family. The problem is, there is no public record of their opposing cannabis. In fact, these claims did not appear until the mid 1980s, when activist Jack Herer made them in his landmark book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the same source of those quotes that I previously addressed in my first two installments of this trilogy. Again, the problem is that there is no way to verify these claims. They are purely speculative, and in today’s parlance would be considered ‘conspiracy theory’ due to a lack of credible evidence.
Once again we must discuss Herer and his motivations. We know that he was one of the most dedicated and persistent figures in cannabis legalization in the 20th century. Is it possible that he concocted claims of racial prejudice and capitalist conspiracy to galvanize support for his cause? Might he have planted a few “white lies” in his writings in order to quicken support for marijuana legalization? Did the end justify the means? Herer is no longer with us, so it would be unfair to assert intentional falsehood unequivocally, since he is not here to defend himself or reveal his own sources and motivations—which is precisely what he seems to have done to Anslinger, Hearst and the DuPonts. However, we must consider the possibility, especially given how specious Herer’s claims were.
As I write this, I realize that the story is not yet over. While I have inadvertently created holes in the theory of nefarious plots underlying the prohibition of cannabis, what we are left wondering is, well then how the hell did this happen?! And that, my friends, I shall attempt to explain in what I am just going to call a sequel to my trilogy.
Er, actually, a prequel…
1Editor’s Note: This point is not made to exonerate Hearst in any way for his misdeeds. We are simply attempting to follow the facts as they are available so that we might have an objective and well-informed understanding of history. Whether his actions were a result hatred or greed, stoking the xenophobic tendencies of his reader base was a gross abuse of his position and power that is both unconscionable and unforgivable. As with Anslinger, history will continue to cast a long, dark shadow over Hearst’s grave for his transgressions.