Mark Wilson

Dear Pot Lawyer,

Jeff Sessions is pretty bad, but who was the worst person EVER for US pot laws?

That’s a tough one. American history has been rife with pot villains for the past 100 years. The latter half of the 20th century saw a series of terrible presidents, like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and awful local actors like Rudy Giuliani and our current attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Even presidents you may have liked, such as Bill Clinton, were terrible for weed. For the greatest villain of all, though, we harken back to the year 1930. The man you are looking for is named Harry Jacob Anslinger.

Leading up to 1930, many states had outlawed cannabis, mostly to persecute Blacks and Latinos (a shameful enforcement tradition that continues today). In those days, however, federal policy on weed was incoherent. This was also the era of alcohol prohibition, of course, which is where Anslinger comes in. He cut his teeth at the Bureau of Prohibition, and took up that cause with remarkable zeal. When Herbert Hoover created the Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, he (and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon) made Anslinger its first commissioner.

Anslinger’s tenure continued for more than 30 years, into the Kennedy administration. He took a special interest in weed, and toured the country giving speeches on the scourge of cannabis to law enforcement, civic organizations, and pretty much everyone. Anslinger manipulated data to create damning statistics and harrowing anecdotes. In a 1937 essay, for example, he wrote, “No one knows, when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a philosopher, a joyous reveler in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a murderer.” No one knows!

Anslinger spoke frequently of marijuana infiltrating the US from Mexico, and ravaging the country at incredible speed. He told stories about stoned axe murderers, and once wrote about “colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.” This is one of many appalling examples; the historical record is long. In all, it was incredibly effective.

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Anslinger’s first big win was his promotion of the Uniform State Narcotic Act of 1932, which pushed states to tag cannabis with the critical “narcotic” designation. In 1937, he prevailed upon Congress to pass the Marihuana Tax Act, which resulted in fines and jail for unregistered cannabis distributors (i.e., everyone). He had other big wins with the Boggs Act in 1951 (mandatory minimum sentences) and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 (longer minimums). During this period, Anslinger was able to shout down the American Medical Association, academics, and prominent researchers.

Anslinger had other weird fetishes—like jazz musicians, whom he linked with drug abuse and crime. He hoped to create a national dragnet of these artists and kept a file called “Marijuana and Musicians.” Anslinger’s focus could narrow brutally: He once handcuffed Billie Holiday on her deathbed due to suspicion of drug use and possession. So you ask who was the worst person ever for pot laws? Truly, Harry Anslinger was the worst.