The history of the criminalization of drugs may be even more disturbing than the costs associated with it. Before Nixon formally declared war on drugs in 1972, the US government had been outlawing plants and plant products for decades. Marijuana, a drug with medicinal benefits, was first made illegal in the early 1900s, without the knowledge of the general public, in order to crack down on Mexican immigrant workers and black jazz musicians. Below are some notable quotes from Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and one of the strongest proponents of the illegalization of marijuana:
- There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the United States, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers.
- This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others. …the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.
- Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.
- Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.
- You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.
One of the other main proponents of the illegalization of marijuana, William Randolph Hearst, coincidentally had vast timber holdings that were threatened by hemp, a product cultivated from marijuana. Hemp could provide four times more paper per acre than could traditional timber. Hearst used his media empire to print sensationalized stories about marijuana to gain support for illegalization. The stories published in his newspapers attributed axe murderers’ actions to marijuana and, much like Ansligner’s statements, played on the general racism of the public. Several other wealthy timber holders jumped on the bandwagon, including the secretary of the treasury. The federal government prepared the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in secret, based on articles from Hearst’s newspaper and statements from Anslinger. The act was introduced to Congress without giving members of Congress proper time beforehand to examine it. Over the objection of the American Medical Association, which doubted most of the claims and statistics about the dangers of the drug, the act passed.
In 1967, the Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional, because anyone seeking to pay the marijuana tax would have to incriminate himself to do it. Undeterred, Nixon’s government enacted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Nixon also appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to conduct a two-year study of drug use in America. Nixon assumed the report would demonize marijuana and provide support for his war on drugs, but before the report was finished, Nixon heard rumors that the commission might actually recommend legalization. He was furious. He had a meeting with Raymond Shaffer, the head of the commission, to influence the report, but to no avail. In 1972, the commission concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized. Despite the recommendation in the comprehensive report, Nixon declared war on drugs shortly thereafter.
A fairly recent release of the Oval Office tapes of 1971–1972 shed some light on his behavior. In conversations with advisor Bob Haldeman, Nixon blamed Jews for pushing the legalization of marijuana and thought that there was a grave distinction between getting high on marijuana and drinking alcohol for fun. Although Nixon associated antiwar activism and communism with drug use, his main problem with marijuana was its status as a gateway drug. Had Nixon read the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse’s report, he would have known that claim had been thoroughly debunked. The Journal of School Health recently reported that cigarette smoking is a greater predictor of future drug use than marijuana. Nixon may have inadvertently been on to something, though. There is one way that marijuana is a gateway drug, but it’s certainly not what he thought: kids try marijuana and realize that it’s not as bad as authority figures have been telling them, so they lose trust in what the authorities say about other, harder drugs and want to see for themselves what they are like.