The War on Drugs: Turning Frankenstein into a Feedback Loop



 America’s War on Drugs dates back to what economist Thomas Sowell called the “ego boosting, moral exhibitionism” of the 1920’s. And if there's anything the 1920’s demonstrated, it was how prohibition tends to increase the demand for the thing prohibited.  In fact, from the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1920 "which prohibited the consumption of alcohol nationwide, until its repeal with the passage of the Twenty First Amendment in 1933, the United States saw a material increase in death from poisoned liquor, crime, violence and corruption. It also saw a higher consumption per capita of stronger beverages, like whiskey, than weaker beverages, like beer. This follows in accordance with a cardinal rule of prohibition that says there is always more money to be made in pushing the more concentrated substances. In many cities, for example, there were actually more “speakeasies” during Alcohol Prohibition than there previously had been saloons.”[i]  In this way, much like the prohibition on alcohol, America’s modern day drug war is essentially a feed-back loop, with the “war” driving the demand for, and thus increasing the profits and violence associated with, drugs.   

Fully understanding the genesis of this monster requires going back to the roaring 20's.  In a piece entitled Killing Democracy: How the drug War Drives the Prison Industrial Complex, Daniel Mark Larson does just this, explaining how it all began:

“On June 9, 1930, President Hebert Hoover signed H.R. 11143 into law, creating the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and entrusting the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, with the responsibility of establishing the first federal organization whose sole purpose was to rid the nation of illegal narcotics. When the Bureau opened its doors on July 1, 1930, Mellon named former vice counsel with the State Department and recently displaced assistant commissioner of Prohibition, Harry J.Ansligner, as FBN’s acting Commissioner. ”

Anslinger would turn the “fight against drugs into a national obsession.”  He did this by pushing the passage of “a series of legislative bulwarks spanning the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act up to the 1956 Narcotics Control Act. He likewise helped fuel Hollywood’s notorious 1936 drug expose, Refer Madness, which avowed that “women cry for it, men die for it”… and wrote fear mongering articles such as “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” in which he linked “marijuana fiends” with “murder (and) degenerate sex attacks.”   

 Anslinger’s article, which American Magazine published in July 1937, told the lurid and purportedly true tale of a quiet young man who had become a “marijuana addict” and then proceeded to kill his entire family of five with an ax while “pitifully crazed” on marijuana.[ii] It wasn’t true, of course, but that was beside the point.  For more than thirty years, Anslinger pushed anti-drug legislation by either supporting or producing a countless number of such horror stories for public consumption. America’s drug war, in other words, much like today’s war on terror, is the result of the political use of propaganda designed specially to terrorize.  

Some of the “horror stories” that Anslinger spread were simply old racist ideas refurbished for political convenience.  “In 1937, Anslinger testified before the senate that “those who are habitually accustomed to the use of the drug are said to develop a delirious rage after its administration, during which they are temporarily irresponsible and liable to commit violent crimes.  This narcotic, Anslinger argued, “is said to produce mental deterioration. Among some people the dreams produced are usually of an erotic character.” He would go on to describe how the drug “operates to destroy the will” and how “its use frequently leads to insanity.”  The “user” of this drug was what he called a “destroyer,” and “was often characterized by his dark skin (whether black, Chinese, or Latino), by his listening to Jazz, and by his nefarious attempts to corrupt innocent white girls.”  Here, “Anslinger (had) also introduced a scapegoat that would last for decades: popular culture (in this instance it is the “satanic music of jazz, in the future it would be heavy metal, rap music, and R-rated movies).

Much of the motivation for Anslinger’s crusade grew out of something many of us today are only too uncomfortably familiar with -  a desire for job security.  With the prohibition on alcohol ending, he needed to find a new enemy to demonize in order to justify the existence of his office and the importance of his continued employment.  He did this by successfully lighting the fuse of fear in public sentiment and using his horror stories to steadily blow the flames higher and higher.  Soon he and other prohibitionists, as Judge Gray points out, were able to convince the U.S. Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.  

“This law did not actually ban the substance. In fact, it specifically recognized marijuana’s medical utility and provided for medical doctors and others to prescribe it, druggists to dispense it, and others to grow, import, and manufacture it, as long as each of those parties paid a small licensing fee."

Although the Act did not make it a crime to use marijuana, the way it was passed was virtually a crime in itself.  As Judge Gray described it,  “The legislative hearings leading up to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 lasted only three days and took up only 124 pages of transcript—including material that was not actually discussed but only read into the record.  And there was no medical testimony at all that favored the bill.”  (emphasis added.)  Worse still, the Act was essentially shoved down the nation’s throat without a lick of evidence or credible testimony to support it while ignoring the testimony of doctor who opposed it. Gray explained the details:

 “The only medical witness who appeared at the hearing was a doctor who recommended that the bill be defeated.  This doctor testified that marijuana was a recognized medication, was distributed by many reputable pharmaceutical firms, and was currently on sale at many of the nation’s pharmacies. In addition, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association strongly urged Congress to defeat the bill. Nevertheless, it passed the House without even a roll call vote and with only two pages of debate.

After the Senate summarily passed the bill as well, with only minor changes, it was returned to the House. On that occasion, the only question asked on the floor was whether the American Medical Association supported the bill. The response by Rep. Fred M. Vinson (who later would sit as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court) was that the bill had the full support of the AMA, even though the only medical witness before the committee had directly opposed it. And so the bill became law.


With the passage of that legislation, Anslinger succeeded in transforming the Frankenstein he had built out of fear and addiction into a feedback loop that paid political dividends by dividing good apples from bad, the morally reputable from the morally bankrupt.  In so doing, an Act designed to prohibit the spread of ever stronger drugs in America only ensured their proliferation.    

“As subsequent events have proved, one distinct, direct, and lasting effect of the laws to suppress the use of marijuana was that they led to the establishment of organizations in countries like Colombia to process and distribute cocaine in this country. The reason for this was simple: it was much easier to conceal and transport cocaine than marijuana, and much more lucrative, pound for pound.”[iii]


[i] Gray, James P. Judge;  Why Our Drug Laws have Failed and What We Can Do About It p.23
[ii] Harry J. Anslinger, “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” American Magazine 124 (July
1937): 19, 150.
[iii] Gray, p 24

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