In 1937, America’s first drug czar, Harry J. Anslinger, published a feature story in The American Magazine titled “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth.” The article featured a vicious ax murderer with a drug problem. “An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida,” Anslinger wrote. “When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an ax he had killed his father, his mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze.” At the time, Anslinger was the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the institution that preceded the Drug Enforcement Administration. The same year, he drafted legislation that effectively made cannabis illegal at the federal level.
Anslinger had plucked the story of the ax murder from his “gore files,” a collection of 200 grisly homicides committed by alleged consumers of cannabis. Keeping a list of supposed crimes committed by a scapegoated group is a tried and true strategy of strongmen waging a battle for hearts and minds. In 2017, for example, President Trump announced that his team would publish a weekly report of crimes committed by immigrants, singling out Mexicans. (Although it should be noted that, like many of Trump’s projects, this one appears to have fizzled out.) Gore files and the like are also useful in stoking moral panics about stigmatized behavior. The Prohibition era teemed with lurid anecdotes about murderous drunken rages.
The encroaching specter of mass legalization of cannabis has triggered a strange reprisal of the alarmist themes of Anslinger’s assault on the plant over 80 years ago. More curious still, our celebrated latter-day apostle of Anslingerism—the thriller novelist Alex Berenson—has been embraced by a credulous mainstream and liberal press, which gets routinely lambasted in another redoubt of culture war combat as faithless, elite-decadent merchants of “fake news.” Read more