Reefer Madman

One of the most popular films of 1933 was a slapstick, vaudeville-inspired romp called “International House,” starring W. C. Fields and featuring, among others, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Bela Lugosi. Filmed in the days before the Motion Picture Production Code took much of the fun out of America cinema, it concluded with a rousing musical number by Cab Calloway and his orchestra entitled “Reefer Man.” “Man what’s the matter with that cat there?” asked Calloway in the intro. The answer: “Must be full of reefer.” The song clearly and unabashedly was about marijuana and was not the only reference to the herb in movies of the time. Even the beloved Harpo Marx apparently smoked a joint in the film Animal Crackers. Cannabis was not widely used and generally confined to entertainers, black musicians, and Hispanic immigrants. Its association with the latter two categories led to its national prohibition.

While a handful of state and local jurisdictions attempted to regulate marijuana, there was no national effort until Harry Anslinger found his calling as America’s anti-pot crusader. Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, initially disputed that marijuana should be banned. His view changed when the Department of Prohibition became obsolete after Prohibition ended and he did what any potentially obsolete Prohibitionist would do under the circumstances: he invented a new prohibition and turned his gaze on grass.

Anslinger needed political support for his new prohibition and called on a Golden Oldie: American racism. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S.,” he said, “and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers.” He also stated, “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use.” Then, the coup de grace: “This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” (They had names like “Shifty” and “D-Money,” he didn’t add!) The campaign worked and Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the beginning of a national marijuana prohibition. The prohibition remained in effect as long as Anslinger lived and only recently began to break down as 29 states legalized cannabis for medical reasons and eight legalized, or will legalize it, for recreational use.

Which brings us to Senator Jefferson “don’t Beauregard that joint” Sessions III.

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