Spotlight on History: Henry Anslinger

One of the most nefarious figures in Cannabis history, his impact is still felt today.

By: Kevin Wyatt


Prohibition Profiteer Henry Anslinger

Sometimes, in the course of history, lesser-known figures can have a substantial and lasting impact on the reality we perceive as the world around us. One such person is Henry J. Anslinger, arguably the most significant player who led to the outlaw of cannabis production and consumption in the United States.

Anslinger can be considered the “prohibition profiteer” because prior to focusing on cannabis, he enforced alcohol prohibition while working for the Bureau of Prohibition. As the days of alcohol prohibition waned, he was appointed to head the Bureau of Narcotics by his wife’s uncle, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.

While nepotism paved the way to his new post, Anslinger must have had the foresight to know that a new substance would be needed to serve as a public enemy in order to enhance the prestige and the lucrative nature of his new post. Alcohol could no longer serve as the scapegoat. With its popularity just beginning to grow--no pun intended--and its cheap price, cannabis was an appealing target. Think about it: when there is more to enforce and a war to be won, budgets and salaries are sure to grow along the way.

Prior to taking on his new role, Anslinger spoke on the record and suggested that the idea of cannabis leading to violence was an “absurd fallacy.” Whether he had a legitimate change of heart or whether he went after cannabis because he was incentivized by his own livelihood, he stepped onto a propaganda soapbox, where he called cannabis “as hellish as heroin.”

Anslinger even started to seed crime stories to publications, citing cannabis as the culprit. He would later cite those same stories in his fight to pass the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which was a critical step on the path toward outright prohibition.

A few more examples of his outlandish propaganda statements:

Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death

You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother

But why would Anslinger go after cannabis so heavily?

One reason is that ignorance is easy to exploit. Many Americans didn’t know a whole lot about medicinal cannabis (industrial hemp was a different story, but we’ll save that for another post). Plus, it turns out that certain parties had a lot to gain from cannabis prohibition: Anslinger would benefit from elevating a new substance into the public eye as the primary enemy; pharmaceutical companies would benefit by preventing medicinal products made from cannabis and hemp from competing with their manufactured medicines. Even publishing and timber mainstay William Randolph Hearst would benefit from increasing profits for his papers, which pharmaceutical companies advertised in.

The second reason to go after cannabis is rooted in the racism that Hearst and Anslinger held in their hearts. During the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. saw a wave of Mexican immigration shortly followed by a wave of anti-Mexican sentiment. Some members of the new Mexican population used cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes. Because this was not yet common practice in the States at the time, U.S. politicians used fear of the drug as a not-so-subtle mechanism to justify anti-immigration policies.

Adding to the unfortunate synergies of the new anti-cannabis crowd, pharmaceutical companies would get behind any message that elevated them and harmed medicinal cannabis. William Randolph Hearst’s well-documented racist tendencies were significantly energized after Mexican Revolutionary, Pancho Villa reclaimed some of Hearst’s timberland and cattle he owned in Mexico. Spreading an anti-Mexican message through the guise of false information about a medicinal plant couldn’t have been a hard sell to Hearst.

Through the exploitation of ignorance and the anti-Mexican attitudes of the day, Anslinger successfully made his case to Congress: pass the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. By pitching the drug as being as dangerous as heroin and citing the significantly lower price of cannabis comparatively, the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman was convinced. The new law didn’t make cannabis and hemp illegal, but it did make it very onerous to sell legally.

Anslinger’s legislative triumph ultimately put the drug war in motion, leading to later milestones like violent Mexican drug cartels and mandatory minimum sentences in the United States for users and sellers alike.

Anslinger, Hearst, and a plethora of pharmaceutical companies stole the true story of medicinal cannabis and hemp. Their story has harmed Americans through the violence of prohibition and denial of access to a plant that may have the power to alleviate a variety of ailments, from anxiety to seizures. The greed, ignorance, and racism of this story are the antithesis of the harmony and truth that Maku looks to spread every day. Stay tuned for more information on Maku and the history of hemp and cannabis.