Prop. 19: de lange schaduw van Harry J. Anslinger

Uit alle peilingen blijkt dat het dinsdag een nek-aan-nek race gaat worden, de stemming in Californië over Proposition 19, de Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. Auteur en activist Mike Gray publiceerde deze week een boeiend artikel over de invloed van Harry J. Anslinger op het denken over cannabis in de VS.

Harry J. Anslinger
Harry J. Anslinger

Gray schreef het boek Drug Crazy, How we got into this mess & how we can get out en is bestuurslid van Common Sense for Drug Policy. In zijn artikel Prohibition of pot has relied on fairy tales of ‘Devil Weed’, deze week verschenen in de Sacramento Bee, gaat hij terug naar de bron van het cannabisverbod in Amerika. De totaal uit de hand gelopen en mislukte oorlog tegen cannabis is gestart door één man: Harry J. Anslinger, de eerste directeur van het Federal Bureau of Narcotics, de latere DEA. Van 1930 tot 1962 was Anslinger hoofdverantwoordelijk voor het Amerikaanse cannabisbeleid en de invloed van zijn bizarre, racistische denkbeelden duurt tot op de dag van vandaag.

Toch toont Gray zich optimistisch: dankzij Proposition 19 hebben de inwoners van Californië op 2 november de kans een einde te maken aan ‘dit tragische hoofdstuk’ in de Amerikaanse geschiedenis. Gray: “Proposition 19 zal ons bevrijden van de ketens van dit bastaardbeleid en zal onze justitiemensen bevrijden om zich te richten op echte verkrachters, overvallers en moordenaars.”

Prohibition of Pot Has Relied on Fairy Tales of ‘Devil Weed’

Amerikaanse filmposter uit de jaren dertig
Amerikaanse filmposter uit de jaren dertig

It was 75 years ago last summer that the war on the Devil Weed was launched by a former railroad cop named Harry Anslinger. If Anslinger had found some other line of work, it’s quite possible that marijuana prohibition might never have happened.

A bull-necked tough guy with a talent for organizing, Anslinger rose through the ranks of Treasury agents fighting for a booze-free America in the 1920s. When alcohol Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Anslinger had already landed on his feet as commissioner of the newly created Bureau of Narcotics. Unfortunately for the rest of us, he fell into a crime-fighting competition with his rival J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI.

By 1935, Anslinger had come up with a strategy to vastly increase his turf. A handful of border state sheriffs were complaining about a foreign plague creeping up from the south a weed the Mexicans called “marihuana” that was driving its victims insane. A single toke, it was said, could cause you to chop up your grandmother.

Marijuana_Girl_NR_deMexic0Anslinger initially ridiculed the idea of banning the plant “It grows like dandelions” but he finally saw its value as a symbol. So he upgraded the cannabis plant from a medicinal herb to an evil “as hellish as heroin.” And to stoke the flames, he played the race card.

“There are 100,000 total marihuana smokers in the U.S.,” he warned the Hearst papers, “and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music jazz and swing result from marihuana use. This marihuana can cause white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Most Americans had never heard of the weed, and Congress hadn’t either. But in a series of committee hearings, Anslinger managed to horrify the lawmakers with tales of rape, murder and mayhem brought on by the Devil Weed. The principal witness was Commissioner Anslinger, and his evidence consisted largely of newspaper clippings quoting himself. No scientific studies were presented. None of his charges ever was corroborated. The hearings were, as USC law professor Charles Whitebread observed, “near comic examples of dereliction of legislative responsibility.”

reefer clubOn June 14, 1937, the bill came to the House floor without debate. In a vote that no one bothered to record, on a matter of little interest, Congress casually passed a bill that would radically transform society. Last year alone we arrested more than 750,000 people for simple possession. In California, we have had to stop building universities in favor of prisons.

The overall price tag is in the hundreds of billions. Surely after such a monumental sacrifice we must have something to show for it?

Sorry. The 100,000 tokers Anslinger warned us about have doubled and redoubled again and again. Last year an estimated 28 million Americans smoked the weed, nearly a hundredfold increase per capita. Children say it’s easier to buy than beer.

But now, thanks to the state that so often points us toward the future, Californians have a chance to bring this tragic chapter to a close. Proposition 19 will free us from the bondage of this misbegotten policy and free our lawmen to focus on real rapists, robbers and murderers.

Anslinger_Reefer_darkiesThe opponents of Prop. 19 use the same arguments they used in the battle against legalizing medical use. But in the 16 years since we passed Proposition 215, a dozen other states have followed our lead and as everyone can plainly see, the sky has not fallen. If we’re willing to lead once again and the sky doesn’t fall, others will surely follow.

Mike Gray, author of “Drug Crazy,” a history of the war on drugs, is chairman of Common Sense for Drug Policy, based in Los Angeles.

Sacramento Bee (California) 29 October 2010

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