I trust Cyril Wecht is a better forensic pathologist than he is a historian. In his March 1 Forum article, “The Mythology of Marijuana,” Dr. Wecht made a long-ago federal commissioner of narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, his scapegoat for what he believes are unjust marijuana laws. He asserts that Anslinger ignored heroin in favor of pursuing marijuana largely because of racial bigotry. And he claims Anslinger undertook a propaganda campaign that included the movie “Reefer Madness” to influence passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. He’s wrong on all counts.
In the early 1930s, marijuana was limited to itinerant Mexican workers along the southwest border, jazz musicians and those of Bohemian lifestyle. But by the mid-1930s, there was a rapid spread of marijuana use, particularly among young people. And during that period, defense attorneys began using marijuana intoxication as a mitigating factor in violent-crime cases. Research at the time was scant and contradictory, so it was easy to believe the worst. And marijuana quickly became associated in the minds of the public with violent crime.
Anslinger was opposed to bringing marijuana under federal control. He saw it as an intrastate problem. And he feared his staff of only 271 Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents (as compared to nearly 5,000 in today’s Drug Enforcement Administration), who were focused on Italian organized crime and the smuggling and distribution of heroin and morphine, would break if given a marijuana law to enforce. Instead, he lobbied states to adopt the model Uniform State Narcotics Act that contained a marijuana provision.
As part of his campaign, Anslinger dramatized newspaper accounts of the violent criminal prosecutions in which the marijuana defense had been introduced. But it backfired. Horrified parents demanded the federal government do more. And with much of the marijuana originating from Mexico, border states clamored for the feds to take charge. When Anslinger reluctantly submitted the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, Congress asked him why it had taken so long.
There is no evidence that Anslinger was involved with the movie “Reefer Madness.” To the contrary, the writers and producers of the 2001 Off Broadway musical by the same name researched the 1936 movie upon which they based their show and believe it to have been financed by an unidentified church group. Anslinger’s agency is misidentified in the movie, too — highly unlikely had the media-savvy commissioner been involved.
It is also unlikely Anslinger was a racial bigot. He hired narcotics agents of all races, ethnicity and religions, including Italian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Arab-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Native-Americans. He hired the first African-American agents in 1951, long before the Federal Bureau of Investigation saw fit to do so, and a Chinese-American agent who is believed to be the first employed by any law enforcement agency in America.
None of the racially biased statements Dr. Wecht attributes to Anslinger are known to have been uttered by him. Unfortunately, those and similar remarks have been scattered across the Internet by marijuana-legalization zealots anxious to vilify him and thereby undermine his credibility.
Dr. Wecht would have us believe that the lives of marijuana smokers are being wasted away in jail. In fact, possession of marijuana for personal use is not a federal crime and never has been. There are many marijuana cultivators, smugglers, traffickers and dealers in federal prison but no mere users. And in Pennsylvania, while possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500, jail time is virtually never applied. Most often these defendants are fined and diverted to an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program.
Dr. Wecht minimizes the serious health consequences of smoking marijuana, particularly for young people, and the risk of addiction, despite warnings from the American Medical Association. And like so many other pro-legalization advocates, he tries to make his case for legalization by blurring the lines between the potential use of marijuana for medical purposes and the smoking of it to get high, for which there is no redeeming quality.
Charles H. Lutz, a federal narcotics agent for 32 years, has done extensive research on Harry J. Anslinger, including a review of Anslinger’s personal papers at Penn State University’s Paterno Library. He is a member of Penn State’s Sociology and Criminal Justice Visitors Board.