Across the country, voters are pushing to decriminalize cannabis. Some cite overcrowded prisons as their reason. Others want less government regulation of leisure time. There is also a huge movement of Americans who want the plant to be treated like a medicine. Still, despite a plethora of studies finding that marijuana is not addictive, does not have any long-term health effects and is quite helpful for many sick people, the plant is still federally classified as a Schedule I substance, meaning it has no medicinal purposes and therefore remains illegal.

America seems to be torn about its feelings towards cannabis. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 104 million Americans over the age of 12 have smoked cannabis. That is 41.5% of the total population. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Economist in February of 2011 found that 58% of respondents thought cannabis should not only be decriminalized, but legalized. Yet, there still seems to be a great deal of fear surrounding cannabis. That fear might be a byproduct of a generation who grew up during the “War on Drugs” in which cannabis was dubbed a “gateway” drug that leads young people into lives of crime and dereliction. It could also be a simple morality play in which people associate all illegal drugs with evil.

People forget that until 1937, cannabis was legal. It was not considered dangerous and most Americans were wholly unaware of its existence. Today, everyone knows what cannabis is, but their opinions about the drug might be misinformed. DrugWarRant.com’s Peter Guither writes, “Many people assume that cannabis was made illegal through some kind of process involving scientific, medical, and government hearings; that it was to protect the citizens from what was determined to be a dangerous drug.” However, this ideology could not be further from the truth. For thousands of years, humans have been using the hemp plant for all sorts of everyday tasks and for medicinal, ritual and recreational purposes. So the question is, when did cannabis become evil?

Enter Harry J. Anslinger, who in the 1930s was head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Deemed an ambitious man by his peers, Anslinger led many campaigns against alcohol and narcotic use and addiction. Anslinger was known for his “Gore Files”, which were a case-by-case account of terrible acts of mania and violence committed by individuals who smoked marijuana. Here are some examples put together by reefermadness.org:

  • A man under the influence of the drug attempted to shoot his wife but killed her grandmother instead and then committed suicide.
  • A man 25 years old, charged with criminally assaulting a 10-year-old girl, entered a plea of not guilty because of insanity. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
  • A young boy who had become addicted to smoking marihuana cigarettes killed his father, mother, two brothers and a sister, wiping out the entire family except himself.

Surely these crimes are horrendous, yet historians have found no documented evidence that any of them actually occurred. Likewise, it seems that Anslinger’s opinions about cannabis might have been swayed by some of his fantastic personal beliefs. Here or some of his thoughts from the Gore Files (organized by Guither):

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, 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.”

“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

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

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

“Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing”

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

Clearly, it would seem that Anslinger wanted to believe that cannabis was evil, and in fact, he may have had to believe it for the furthering of his career.

Following Anslinger’s charge, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. Anslinger himself drafted the legislation, which was designed to levy a tax of one dollar onto anyone who purchased, sold or possessed hemp or hemp byproducts. The Tax Act did not criminalize cannabis directly, but because there were so few people who grew or used the plant, they became easy targets for the Anslinger’s Bureau of Narcotics and soon found themselves harassed and bankrupt.

It was not until the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that cannabis became federally criminalized along with heroin, LSD and other mind altering drugs for which there are believed to be no medicinal uses.

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