The history of disinformation about the true nature of marijuana has aided prohibition and slowed the process of legalization in the United States. The classification of the plant as a Schedule I drug has a deep history that stretches back to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the forerunner to today’s Drug Enforcement Agency.

Where did the Drug Enforcement Agency Come from? (H2)

Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) would play a vital role in shaping U.S. policy and determining the nation’s attitudes toward marijuana.  Douglas Valentine, an expert on the FBN, spent countless hours interviewing former members of the organization, tracing their history through the formation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He has spent years critically investigating the inner-workings of the anti-drug establishment.  As a central argument of his book on the history of the FBN, The Strength of the Wolf, Valentine asserts, “Federal drug law enforcement is essentially a function of national security, as that term is applied in its broadest sense: that is, not just defending America from its foreign enemies, but preserving its traditional values of class, race, and gender at home, while expanding its economic and military influence abroad.” [1]

From 1930-1962, the FBN was led by Harry J. Anslinger, a stocky, intimidating man, standing a shade under six feet tall. Anslinger believed that he was “engaged in the war against the murderers…the men who control and direct the international traffic in narcotics.”    Through his experience he observed that the majority of powerful drug dealers could be found in “the most elite circles in both Europe and America.”    He had an inordinate amount of power which led the men in his division to acquire “a reputation” for being more brazen and shameless than any other federal division.  Many members of the FBN considered the Bill of Rights little more than a hindrance; they would not hesitate to bend the law to apprehend a suspect.  To protect themselves against punitive measures, they adopted a silent internal code of conduct. [2]

Anslinger was a man not given to compromise. The prevailing belief within the FBN and the U.S. government was that Anslinger and his men were working for a greater good.  This mindset of a righteous man set against the limitations of a flawed community of wealthy drug lords and addicts was the basis for Anslinger’s actions as the leader of the FBN.[3]

From Cocaine, Heroin, and…Marijuana? (H2)

During the early years of Anslinger’s tenure as head of the FBN his focus was on stemming the flow of cocaine and heroin. However, as the use of these drugs began to wane in the early portion of the 1930s, the agency’s attention lighted upon a new threat: marijuana. Mexican laborers who were flooding into the Southwest to fill labor demands were accustom to smoking marijuana in order to relax after a long day’s work. The financial squeeze of the Great Depression led many U.S. citizens to regard Mexican immigrants as usurpers. Marijuana was linked to illegal Mexican immigrants, creating a stigma that would endure. [4]

The FBN quickly realized that unlike cocaine and heroin, which were derived from exotic locations, marijuana could be cultivated in anyone’s back yard. This caused Anslinger to lead the FBN in a new direction with regards to marijuana. He decided to launch PR campaign that would play on the populace’s prejudices and use wild exaggerations to scare people away from the devil weed. Thus, the era of “Refer Madness” (almost laughably inaccurate in retrospect) was born, shaping the opinions of generations of Americans.[5]

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 Sets the Stage (H2)

This was the matrix that gave birth to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the first piece of legislation to regulate marijuana cultivation. The use of the plant was minor in the ensuing decades, and the result was that the gravity of the law was not felt by much of the population until 1960s when marijuana became a popular symbol of the countercultural movement. In that era, pot became only one of the many drugs consumed by a growing group of drug enthusiasts.[6]

Richard Nixon and Marijuana’s Classification as a Schedule I Drug (H2)

The Nation seemed to be coming apart at the seams when Richard Nixon made his bid for the White House in the late 1960s. Nixon distinguished himself from a crowded field of presidential candidates by promising to restore order and tackling the problem of drugs in the United States was part of that parcel. When Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act, which he signed into law in 1970, Nixon did not know where to place marijuana. As a result, he arbitrarily labeled it a Schedule I drug.[7]

In 1971 President Nixon instituted the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. The commission made two reports on marijuana which can be read here: (see links below). Ironically, the commission stated that marijuana was not a major problem and they suggested decriminalization. However, even in the 1970s, the majority of marijuana enthusiasts were either African-American or Latino and in the minds of many citizens the attitudes about the drug were firmly entrenched. Aside from the racial prejudices surrounding the plant, there were concerns about the users being unmotivated slackers. So, there was never a push to remove the drug from its classification because there was no political impetus. As Oregon-based lawyer Paul Loney, who specializes in marijuana justice, concisely put it: “It’s all politics and then we got stuck in the ‘Just Say No’ era which lasted 20-some years.” The bad news is that with regards to the Schedule I classification, nothing has changed, yet. But the good news is that attitudes in our nation toward marijuana have rapidly progressed which could push policy in a new direction and change the arcane policy. Unfortunately, the gears of justice grind slowly and the DEA is notoriously sluggish.[8] (IBT)

Commission Report Links:

http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/duapip/pipmenu.htm

http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/nc/ncmenu.htm

[1] Douglas Valentine, The Strength Of The Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, 2d ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 3.

[2] Ibid, 18.

[3] Ibid, 19-21.

[4] David F. Musto, “Patterns in U.S. Drug Abuse and Response.”  In Drug Policy In The Americas.  (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), 39.

[5] Ibid, 39.

[6] Ibid, 39-40.

[7] Amy Nordrum, “Why Is Marijuana A Schedule I Drug?” International Business Times. 2/19/2015. http://www.ibtimes.com/why-marijuana-schedule-i-drug-1821426 Accessed on: 1/3/2016.

[8] Ibid.

DEA Marijuana War on America

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