The history of marijuana propaganda follows an interesting trajectory, from moral outrage to a seemingly objective and measured scientific censure. In the arguments, certain themes and tropes appear again and again, as the narrative has built on its own stories, refined its approach and responded to criticisms.
This 1936 film depicts the anti-marijuana propaganda movement in its first frenzied iteration. The narrative follows the plight of a young man who smokes the "vicious weed" and finds himself plunged in short order into a nightmare of violence and murder that culminates in suicide and insanity. In the 1930s, cannabis and hemp, which had been grown for hundreds of years in the US, even by the founding fathers, began being referred to as "marijuana," perhaps to associate it more closely with Mexican immigrants, who were accused of taking American jobs during the Depression.
Marijuana, Assassin of Youth
This 1937 screed was penned by H.F. Anslinger, U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics, together with Courtney Ryley Cooper. Published in the American Magazine, the article could easily be a synopsis of "Reefer Madness," suggesting that the Narcotics Czar didn't look too far for his inspiration. Its notable theme is marijuana's unpredictable quality, presumably responding to people who had tried the plant and discovered it to be quite benign. One never knew how the brain would react, and "whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler, a mad insensate or a murderer." This work contained a potent theme that would appear again and again in the annals of drug prohibition literature: of young people, completely detached from material reality, flinging themselves from windows to their death.
Marihuana -- The Evil Weed
Published in Detective World in 1947 and written by Judge Carl F. Dieffenbach, Jr, this article built on the assassin theme and began to associate the plant with everything foreign and strange to the American mind. The notable use of the Anglicized spelling variation -- with "h" replacing "j" -- was very likely a deliberate choice to make the plant sound more unAmerican and menacing. Hinting that "hashish" is related to the Arabic word "assassin," the article depicts the plant as a snake that originated in the Orient and traveled through Mexico, then wound itself in a serpentine fashion through the social world of American life, determined to destroy not just the mind but also our collective culture. The article goes on to indulge in blatantly racist insinuations, associating "reefers" with "jazz" halls and "juke joints." In this reprehensible but masterly example of period propaganda, even the poet Homer is evoked to denounce the deadly plant, which had apparently invested the ancient Persians with their devilish power.
Dare Smokes a Reefer
Published in 1953, Dare Magazine concocted a scary composite picture of drug users turned into criminals and murderers from smoking "reefers." Beyond these cautionary tales, the reader was told that nearly all heroin and cocaine users started with marijuana, and only graduated to harder drugs when the thrill wore off, establishing marijuana as a "gateway" drug to harder stuff. One consequence of marijuana depicted in these case studies is tied back to its very illegality. This circular reasoning -- marijuana users suffer when they get arrested for possessing it -- became very popular in future messaging.
The Surgeon General's Warning on Marijuana
By 1982, the story had changed quite a bit. Marijuana was linked to "amotivational syndrome," characterized by low energy, diminished performance and lack of drive -- almost exactly the opposite of the manic, super-human claims of the previous decades. Along with these effects, the literature warned of low sperm count, cancer and an impaired immune system.
Marijuana -- National Drug Threat Assessment
This official report, published as recently as 2003, positioned marijuana as the leading drug threat to the country. It focused heavily on crime reports in framing the argument, which was heavily skewed to the perceptions of law enforcement agencies. Again, this problem arises from the fact that marijuana is illegal. It suggested that marijuana might be physically addictive and posited that decriminalization would increase usage.
Today, marijuana still tops the federal list of dangerous and addictive drugs. Since 1970, cannabis has been classified as a schedule I prohibited substance, the most restrictive category. However, there are signals coming from the DEA that changes may be coming soon. Maybe it's time to hear the other side of the story.