Anslinger vs The Entertainment Industry 

At this point, having won his cannabis ban, Anslinger had new priorities. One was to make sure those who broke the new law were caught doing so. This presented problems – the use and distribution of drugs was a victimless crime, in which no party was likely to file a complaint. Anslinger’s deputy, Malachi Harney, presented the idea of using thousands of informers, paid as much as two thousand dollars for successful convictions, to target the cannabis friendly communities of jazz musicians. The FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) kept files on jazz musicians known to use cannabis – which included a laundry list of jazz greats, such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, and others. These musicians were surveilled and monitored. Despite a few higher profile arrests, including swing musician Gene Krupa, Anslinger’s persecution of jazz musicians didn’t really have the impact he was intending. Jazz was still relatively low profile to most Americans. Towards the end of the Second World War, Anslinger and the FBN turned increasingly toward Hollywood for its high profile propaganda arrests. (Booth, Chapter 15)

When actor Robert Mitchum was arrested in 1948 at a “marijuana smoking party”, he was convinced it would mean the end of his successful career as a film star – as the FBN no doubt intended. However, this would actually backfire, with Mitchum now perceived as a gritty, rugged outsider character. This would demonstrate the actual, mixed, public perception of cannabis at the time, and would no doubt infuriate Anslinger. When the conviction was overturned as a frame-job in 1951, Mitchum would actually try to downplay this development, in order to hold on to his bad boy image. However, the arrest would help to scare the more image sensitive Hollywood studios into submission to Anslinger’s agenda.  

Since blatant censorship was still not allowed, Anslinger and his FBN used intimidation from such high profile arrests to scare the media into compliance when necessary. This ushered in something of a golden age of anti-cannabis propaganda, in which media sources (especially films) would avoid mentioning cannabis use entirely, unless the message suited that of Anslinger’s hysteria. Hollywood studio executives would check scripts with the FBN, in order to avoid any hassle from the law or bad publicity down the line. Often, this turned Hollywood into a de-facto mouthpiece for Anslinger and the FBN. 1949’s She Shoulda Said No, starring Lila Leeds, provides one example. Approved by the FBN, it tells a story of a young girl whose career is ruined, and her brother driven to suicide as a result of her cannabis use turning her into a drug “pusher”. Like Reefer Madness in the previous decade, it tells the story of a young, white, all American youth driven to the margins of society by a decision to try smoking cannabis. Captain Hayes, anti-drug crusader and LAPD captain, acts as the morally upstanding protagonist. Dime novels with titles such as The Marijuana Mob or Reefer Boy would echo the sentiments of such films, no doubt also a result of intimidation from law enforcement of the era.  

Anslinger’s reach into American media life in this era is also demonstrated by his starring (as himself) in 1948’s to The Ends of the Earth, in which he is the boss of the protagonist who travels around the world to smash a particularly vicious international narcotics ring. However, Anslinger considered his battle with the entertainment industry essentially incomplete, as some of his actions against musicians were ruled unconstitutional, and measures such as cancelling the passports of those with marijuana convictions were blocked by Anslinger’s superiors. 

hollyweed hollywood sign marijuana prohibition propaganda


The 50s: New Ground for Scare Tactics

In the early 50s, heroin was beginning to encroach into America’s consciousness as a serious problem. In a time in which Cold War tensions were rising to a breaking point, many Americans believed that the heroin epidemic was a plot by newly communist China, to eat at the way at the core of American values. Anslinger, though expressing privately that he did not believe this theory, promoted it widely in public. (Booth, 215) He then went on to take advantage of this new wave of fear and scapegoating, by claiming most heroin addicts got their start with cannabis, and declaring a close causal relationship. This line of argument would take root deeply in terrified cold war America, so much so that the “gateway drug” theory Anslinger suggested is still taught in schools today, despite a conspicuous lack of evidence. 

On top of this notion, Anslinger also found traction the 50s presenting the idea that cannabis made American youth sympathize with communism, or at best made them lose their vigilance and become passive – saying that "Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing." No one publicly seemed to notice that fifteen years earlier he had claimed cannabis caused psychosis and violence. Now the narrative was about docility and passivity, an argument that would also remain in the American consciousness for decades. 

With these arguments, and the help of a fearful post-war climate – even perhaps more so than after World War One - Anslinger and his party line seemed to be gaining unprecedented influence over the basic values of the average American. He had integrated a fear of cannabis into the ubiquitous fear of communism – both of which were then reinforced daily and weekly for Americans by the very real threat of nuclear war. These attitudes helped create fertile soil for the 1951 Boggs act, which increased the minimum sentences for cannabis and other drug offenses. Repeat offenders could expect to serve decades without the possibility of parole – not the case for murder, rape or espionage sentences at the time. (Booth, Chapter 15)

The Boggs Act also demonstrated a new line of racism in cannabis legislation. This period saw the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and blacks and Hispanics were now seen as promoting a movement that, like communism, were seen as going against basic American values. What Anslinger and the rest of the political establishment were actually defending was white supremacy. But in casting civil rights activists as communist sympathizers, they were able to hijack many Americans fear of the Soviet Union and nuclear annihilation, earning the support of many who would not explicitly support white supremacy as a cause. These new marijuana sentencing laws served to control segments of the population that were beginning to be seen as a threat to the white American establishment. The 1956 Narcotics Trafficking Act would further raise the maximum sentences to multiple decades for the offenses discussed in the Boggs Act. 

Because of this fear, generated by the destructiveness of World War 2 and reinforced by the threat of nuclear annihilation, the 50s were a high point for tight social control. American society closed up in many ways, and the range of ideas and lifestyles that were acceptable shrunk rapidly. With a perception that American values were under attack by Russian Soviets, Chinese Communists, and black and Hispanic civil rights activists, it became dangerous to even show sympathy for anything other than a white middle American post-war lifestyle. People often lost their jobs or their freedom for little more, in this era. By the mid-1950s, even talking about drug use was considered taboo, to say nothing of defending it. It is not that everyone believed the FBN propaganda about cannabis, but rather that the culture of fear meant anyone who didn’t buy into this line of thinking was unlikely to say so publicly. This is evidenced by Anslinger’s success in this era when it came to repressing academic research that didn’t fit into his propaganda line. Academics who advocated a medical approach to addiction were intimidated, and then often hung out to dry by fearful colleagues. However, this period of repression would soon see the beginnings of a powerful backlash. 


The Beginning of the Beginning of the End 

Marijuana prohibition propaganda 1920s cannabis

Where academics and media executives had far too much to lose in the face of cultural witch-hunts to challenge Anslinger’s propaganda machine, a group of young intellectuals took on these perceptions head on. In New York, this began as early as the late 1940s. Varying greatly in age, class background, and intellectualism, young people like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac found new perspectives in the cultural petri dish of post war New York City. Having met amongst the uptown Columbia University intellectual social scene, they took on some of the culture of the black Harlem jazz scene that surrounded them – especially the culture surrounding Bebop, a new free form approach to jazz whose followers also promoted social rebellion and were questioning of white American values. With Bebop came a desire to reclaim jazz after an era in which it was seen as having been coopted by white culture. Alongside this came an interest in drugs, including but not limited to cannabis, as a method of spiritual and creative expansion. This exploration of cannabis supported the open, avant-garde structure of the new jazz – and both factors influenced the writing that would pour out of this young “beat generation” throughout the mid-fifties. The beat and Bebop generation was in a way the first to successfully challenge Anslinger’s propaganda line, instead of just falling victim to it – but this effect would take years to manifest fully.

Ginsberg, Kerouac and others such as Neil Cassidy and William Boroughs would travel the country experimenting with new ideals of freedom, creativity and spirituality. With them, they brought an openness to cannabis as well as other intoxicants. Cassidy would indeed become a primary cannabis supplier to the San Francisco Bay are counterculture. As the Beat’s writing entered the public eye in the mid-fifties, it became clear that they were not immune to the restrictive culture of the time – Ginsberg spent time in jail, and fellow beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was charged with publishing obscenity. But despite butting heads with the establishment, Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road, both published in the mid-fifties, had a great effect on the core of public consciousness. The Beat poets offered an alternative to the all American, straight and narrow lifestyle and its focus on material wealth. This new alternative emphasized creativity, spirituality (especially Buddhism), and exploration. It entailed an openness to cannabis, and really drugs in general, as a method of internal exploration. This represented the first direct challenge to Anslinger’s ideas since their start. All this occurred during a time in which pressure to go with the grain of mainstream culture was extreme.

 However, ultimately, the social establishment failed to vilify the Beats, especially in the eyes of the younger generation. The late fifties saw their ideas mimicked in the middle class throughout America, in the form of “beatnik” culture. While considerably less reckless than the early Beats like Kerouac and Boroughs, beatniks brought the focus on creativity and challenge to mainstream values into a more college friendly platform. This slight ‘watering-down’ of the wild Beat lifestyle led to a focus on cannabis over experimentation with more dangerous drugs. By the early 60s, the older Beat writers such as Ginsberg were complaining about cannabis being harder to find, as a result of greatly increased demand. While this must have seemed like the worst case scenario to Anslinger, it would be nothing compared to the defeats anti-cannabis propaganda would suffer later in the 60s, at the hands of popular culture.

During the very decade in which Anslinger’s ideas found their tightest grip on culture, in which cannabis had become as much socially taboo as it was illegal, the seeds were already planted these ideas to suffer a mass rejection amongst a new generation.