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Rufus King Collection | Drug Hang Up


The Drug Hang Up, America's Fifty-Year Folly

by Rufus King

Chapter 10

The Weed of Madness and the Little Flower

BUT CONTRARY to expectations (and the apprehensions of responsible people like Dr. Woodward) marijuana did not emerge as much of a change even for Mr. Anslinger's men when the public furor subsided after passage of the 1937 Act. Reefer smoking remained a minor indulgence of poor black and Mexican-American groups, spreading from this stratum no further than a few small coteries of far-out intellectuals and jazz musicians. Only recently, commencing in the latter 1960's and in the company of other far more significant shifts in American values and attitudes, has marijuana begun to fulfill, some of the dire prophecies about its widespread use heard a quarter of a century ago. And this lag is all the more puzzling because grass has always been so much easier to obtain than the opiates or cocaine. It grows in any temperate climate, the only limitation being that the farther away from the equator it is cultivated the less potency it develops; and it requires no elaborate processing mere drying, crumbling, and do-it-yourself rolling.

Many explanations have been offered for the recent upswing in all forms of drug abuse. It is urged, for example, that the current "hippie" generation reflects a fundamental rejection of aggressive, self-assured competitiveness, which has long made dominant American groups prone to addiction to alcohol, in favor of passivity, disengagement, and an inclination to "tune out," which is fostered by the use of marijuana and other hallucinogenic, soporific, and depressant chemicals. It is also pointed out that the forces of so-called organized crime were slow to take up distribution of marijuana because it is by no stretch addicting enough to enslave its victims like opium, and because the profits from marijuana trafficking remained comparatively small-so that markets have not been expanded and large supplies have not been available until recently. Or perhaps the Rowells were right and the phenomenal success of cigarette promotion since World War II, coupled with what might be called a cancer backlash, is inducing the widespread switch.

But whatever the reasons for its delayed popularity, marijuana smoking is now regarded by most Americans as the Number-One Drug Problem, at least in the sense that it has actually emerged as a reality in the experience of millions, whereas no one even suggests widespread contact with heroin-except scare propaganda about heroin and its few hundred thousand consumer-victims. The spread of marijuana use is also of foremost importance in compelling some re-evaluations of today's policies and prejudices, which is the raison d'etre of this book. So it seems appropriate to jump briefly out of chronological sequence to unfold the rest of the marijuana story in a straight progression of its own from this point.

As has been indicated, the cannabis family yields two intoxicating substances which though chemically the same are poles apart in their strength. That is the first confusion-and a sometimes intentionally. fostered distortion-which clouds the subject. In the early literature and the occasional early records of cannabis abuse or alleged addiction, references were to the pure resin, hashish, and not to the milder forms of smokable shreds or drinkable tea. But moreover, even bearing in mind this reservation-which puts the American reefer right out of most of the early controversies-there are still point blank contradictions as to whether hashish itself, although admittedly a strong intoxicant and hallucinogen, is actually damaging, crime-inducing, or in any traditional sense addicting.

As has already been suggested, anything transpiring on the international drug scene since 1930 is suspect as a measure of the honesty and validity of Anslinger's promulgations, since he dominated most international deliberations after that date like an overbearing schoolmaster. But cannabis (and here for a moment we are talking only about the pure drug hashish, or charas) had received some attention before Anslinger's time. At the original Hague Conference in 1912, where the Opium Convention was drafted, the delegates noted "the question of Indian hemp," referring to the British findings of 1894 and recommending that the matter be studied to determine whether cannabis was being abused in any way so as to require internal legislation or international agreement. After the war, in 1923, the South Africans raised a question about it again before the League Advisory Committee, and in the ensuing two years the views and experience of all member nations were solicited.

In 1924-25, at the plenary Second Opium Conference, the Egyptian delegate, pointing out that his government had been trying to stamp out "hashishism" since 1884 and that "illicit use of hasish is the principal cause of most of the cases of insanity occurrring in Egypt," urged that the drug be brought into the control and prohibition pattern already established for opium. He added: "I earnestly beg all the delegates to give this question their best attention, for I know the mentality of Oriental peoples, and I am afraid that it will be said that the question was not dealt with because it did not affect the safety of the Europeans." As a result of this needling, the drug--defined to include only the fruiting tops of the plant from which resin can be extracted, or the extracted resin-was added to the proscribed categories. Several governments insisted, nevertheless, that hashish had not been found to be harmful in any form, and others simply ignored all requests for data and refused to cooperate.

Matters rested there until 1933, by which time Delegate Commissioner Anslinger was firmly established on the scene. The International Advisory Committee's report for that year contains the folowing U.S.-oriented item:

A smuggling trade in cigarettes containing Indian hemp ("marijuana" cigarettes) appears to have sprung up between the U.S.A., where it grows as a wild plant freely, and Canada. It may well be that, as the control over the opium and coca derivatives makes it more and more difficult to obtain them, recourse will be increasingly had to Indian hemp for addiction purposes, and it is important that the trade in Indian hemp and its products should be closely watched.

By the time the Advisory Committee held its next biennial meeting, in 1935, the U.S. Bureau's campaign was taking shape at home, so the Committee was treated to a lengthy harangue from the U.S. delegation, revealing that habitual use of marijuana had suddenly become widespread in this country and that there was an alarming relationship between "addiction" to Indian hemp in this form and criminality.

The Egyptians jumped in to support the U.S. request for more stringent measures, but the Indian representative objected on the ground that hemp drugs had been tolerated in his country for centuries, and further that cannabis in its milder forms (ganja and bhang) were intimately connected with prevailing Indian social and religious customs. Several European governments, led by Poland and Switzerland, voiced objection to any prohibitory action because there was "no thorough study available of Indian hemp particularly from the medical and scientific standpoint." Responding to this, a subcommittee of the League Advisory Committee was named to make a full evaluation, with authority to conduct its own research if that proved necessary.

But note the timing. The League subcommittee assembled in 1935 only to choose a panel of experts and to commission the preparation of a bibliography; when it convened to go to work in 1936, it served mainly as a sounding board for the American viewpoint, presented through an American expert, Dr. Treadway, that cannabis (and now we are talking about all forms, including marijuana smoking) might be physiologically harmful, might produce insanity, might be addicting, and might directly cause crime. In 1938, when the subcommittee met again to receive various reports, it played up a laudatory account of the new U.S. Marijuana Tax Act which had been passed the preceding year, and its own recommendations sounded a novel theme: it called for research into the relation "between cannabis addiction and addiction to other drugs, especially heroin." Somewhere, possibly from the questions put to him at the hearings on the U.S. Act in 1937, Anslinger had picked up the notion that marijuana smoking might be discredited by depicting it as a "stepping stone" to other forms of addiction. So-presto!-this new line is immediately parroted by the captive international body.

But events of more consequence than our narcotic commissioner's campaign against pot smoking preoccupied the League of Nations after 1938, and neither the Advisory Committee nor its subcommittee on Indian hemp met again.

Even after the onset of World War II, which is universally believed to have broken up smuggling rings and sharply reduced the availability of the opiates in the United States, there was no great upswing in marijuana smoking. Hysteria about the reefer menace subsided, and although the Narcotics Bureau continued to fulminate, total marijuana seizures remained in the range of a scant truckload or two per year (a trifling amount when it is noted that the concentration of the active cannabis ingredient in marijuana is about the same as the concentration of nicotine in cigarette tobacco), and convictions for marijuana offenses remained substantially below the comparable figures in other drug categories.

Research which might long ago have begun to dissolve myths and answer basic scientific questions about marijuana and its effects on human beings was consistently frustrated in the United States because researchers could not obtain permits to possess and use the drug for experimentation (the issuing authority being, of course, the Bureau of Narcotics). This virtual blackout on research has, incidentally, been relentlessly maintained almost to the present; and typical of the say-anything dishonesty of Commissioner Anslinger and his successors is the current explanation that medical science could never have found out very much about the effects of marijuana in past years anyway, because the strength of various preparations from different plants might have varied; that all the Bureau itself could have furnished for distribution to researchers was stale material seized in raids; and that only now-since 1966-is there some prospect of definitive results because, thanks to a U.S. federal grant, laboratory scientists in Israel have produced and synthesized the active marijuana ingredient (THC). Had the scientific community looked similarly askance at research on unstable, and unsynthesized molds, for instance, we would still be waiting for penicillin and its multifold blessings. Moreover, this display of bland cynicism comes not only from contemporary law-enforcement people but from Public Health Service officials in the National Institute of Mental Health--of whom one might have expected more.

One public figure who stood put among his contemporaries as a man not to be trifled with was Fiorello H. La Guardia, who found himself directly embroiled in the marijuana controversy as mayor of New York. instead of playing up to hysterical press suggestions that the juveniles in his city were about to launch marijuana-induced orgies of theft, sex, and murder, he turned to the New York Academy of Medicine for advice. The Academy, after reviewing existing literature and conferring with city officials, recommended that the Mayor authorize a two-part study-first to evaluate the current effects of marijuana in the community, and second to test the drug's effects on human beings under controlled laboratory conditions. A blue-ribbon committee of doctors and public officials was thereupon organized, and the socalled La Guardia study got under way in 1939.

The sociological investigation was carried out by a team of New York police officers who were detached from their other duties, specially trained, and assigned to report directly to the committee. Over the course of almost two years they observed, interviewed, investigated, and carefully assembled an accurate picture of the situation in New York City. They found marijuana smoking to be centered in Harlem and in one other midtown section occupied by the newly immigrated Latin-Americans. Users were characteristically in their twenties, and marginally employed or without jobs. Distribution was accomplished through hundreds of retail peddlers and locations known as "tea-pads," where a reefer could be smoked on the premises.

Smokers generally agreed that using marijuana made them feel better and seemed to produce no ill effects, and further that there was no discomfort-nor even much difficulty-in discontinuing the habit at will. There was no evidence suggesting that addiction to heroin or other opiates had any sequential relation to marijuana smoking, no evidences of marijuana-induced sexual aberrations or eroticism, and nothing to substantiate a causal relationship between smoking and the commission of crimes. Outside the saturated areas, the Mayor's investigators found virtually no use of marijuana in high schools or junior high schools, and no observable connection between juvenile delinquency and such smoking as they did find. So the final conclusion in this branch of the inquiry was that "publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marijuana smoking in New York City is unfounded."

The study of physiological and psychological effects was conducted with volunteer prisoners in a hospital ward at one of the city's hospitals. Observation of each subject ran over a period of several weeks, and a total of seventy-seven were used, forty-eight who had had previous experience with the drug and twenty-nine who had not. Dozens of tests were administered, and the results recorded and calibrated were far too detailed to be given here. But in substance, what emerged was a pattern of effects, responsive symptoms, and behavior covering ranges roughly approximating those which would have been covered in testing similar administrations of alcohol or tobacco smoke. Some subjects were excited, made nervous, or lost motor coordination. Some who had never used the drug had flash reactions of nausea or panic. Almost all experienced dizziness, light-headedness, and feelings of euphoria, although occasionally the responses were anxiety or ill-tempered antagonism. As the effects of the drug wore off, always within a few hours of its administration, the subjects became drowsy and were usually very hungry and thirsty.

Nine single experiences (nine episodes, not nine subjects) characterized by the observers as psychotic reactions were recorded, all involving acute anxiety, disorientation, and irrational behavior. Six of these were temporary and ended before the effects of the drug had worn off; two of the remaining three were identified with factors other than the drug,--"prison psvchosis"; and although it was speculated that marijuana might have brought on the other recorded case, it turned out that the subject was an epileptic and that his reaction may well have coincided with an epileptic seizure. Careful tests of IQ, learning ability, memory, and emotional responsiveness showed up-and-down irregularities in relation to the administration of the drug, but no results that could be characterized as a significant pattern.In sum, the clinical studies showed no permanent alterations in basic personality structure, but minor variations in peripheral aspects while the subjects were intoxicated.

Even before the La Guardia study was released, Anslinger began to shoot at it. Responding to a preliminary description published in the American Journal of Psychiatry by two participating doctors in 1942, he wrote:

Of course, the primary interest of the Bureau of Narcotics is the enforcement aspect. From this point of view it is very unfortunate that Doctors Allentuck and Bowman should have stated so unqualifiedly that the use of marijuana does not lead to physical, mental or moral deterioration.

The Narcotics Bureau allegedly brought heavy pressures to bear in trying to suppress the report (a charge that can be accepted as valid in the light of similar in-fighting-to be detailed in following chapters), and the Committee's findings were in fact held up nearly three years before being made public.

The blow at Doctors Allentuck and Bowman had been open, in the form of a letter signed by Commissioner Anslinger himself. The blow at the La Guardia Report, when the latter really made its appearance, was underhanded, published as an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (the AMA having once again abandoned its own professional brethren, in the New York Academy this time, to execute one of its turntails for the Bureau). But the text was pure Anslinger:

For many years medical scientists have considered cannabis a dangerous drug. Nevertheless, a book called "Marijuana Problems" by the New York City Mayor's Committee on Marijuana submits an analysis by 17 doctors of tests on 77 prisoners and, on this narrow and thoroughly unscientific foundation, draws sweeping and inadequate conclusions which minimize the harmfulness of marijuana. Already the book has done harm. One investigator has described some tearful parents who brought their 16 year old son to a physician after he had been detected in the act of smoking marijuana. A noticeable mental deterioration had been evident for some time even to their lay minds. The boy said he had read an account of the La Guardia Committee report and that this was his justification for using marijuana. He read in Down Beat, a musical journal, an analysis of this report under the caption "Light Up Gates, Report Finds 'Tea' a Good Kick."

A criminal lawyer for marijuana drug peddlers has already used the La Guardia report as a basis to have defendants set free by the court. . . . The book states unqualifiedly to the public that the use of this narcotic does not lead to physical , mental or moral degeneration and that permanent deleterious effects from its continued use were not observed on 77 prisoners. This statement has already done great damage to the cause of law enforcement. Public officials will do well to disregard this unscientific, uncritical study, and continue to regard marijuana as a menace wherever it is purveyed.

There was more. But the above is a good sampling--and remember that this nonsensical frothing, which could not conceivably have come from anywhere but the Bureau, was making its appearance under the prestigious AMA Journal masthead.

Nor is that the end of the matter: as part of its response to the currently revived interest in marijuana, the new Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, successor to the Treasury Bureau, has reprinted this 1945 editorial and is broadcasting it today as part of its package of handouts designed to defend the old Anslinger line.

After the New York Academy studies and the La Guardia Report the blackout on research imposed by the Narcotics Bureau became almost total. Reputable scientists would not risk being pounced upon by federal or state agents for working with the drug obtained from illegal sources (and possession for any purpose was a crime under the laws of a number of states, anyway); and cop-trained officials in the Bureau unhesitatingly pronounced even the facilities of great hospitals and leading universities inadequate for the conducting of responsible experiments, and hence unworthy of a Treasury license. The number of Treasury-approved projects dropped from eighty-seven in 1948 to eighteen in 1953, and to six in 1958.