Commentary

Jeff Sessions’s Reefer Madness

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reefer madness. It was revealed this week that Sessions personally asked Congress for the authority to prosecute medical marijuana providers in the 25 states and three additional jurisdictions (D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico) where some form of medical marijuana is legal. Sessions wanted Congress to repeal the broadly supported Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from using federal funds to go after medical marijuana providers and users in those states where it has been made legal.

Oddly enough, this week is also the 80th anniversary of the House floor vote on the first major piece of federal marijuana legislation, the Marihuana [sic] Tax Act of 1937. That was when the whole country officially caught reefer madness. In the following decades, a series of misguided government policies made the problem worse, and prejudice toward marijuana and myths about the drug still abound.

Only in the last 20 years has the country begun to get over our self-inflicted disease. Unfortunately, there are those in whom the condition is lingering.

In a letter, Sessions asked Congress to remove the restriction due to the “historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” showing that the attorney general has clearly imbibed our coarsest and most antiquated form of anti-marijuana propaganda: its supposed connection to crime and its status as a “gateway drug.” Such rhetoric goes back to the years before the Marihuana Tax Act, a piece of legislation that emerged out of a haze of smoky propaganda from the Hearst newspaper company and the unrelenting zealotry of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

The bill came to the House floor late in the afternoon on Thursday, June 10, 1937. The vote was rushed, and at least one congressman wondered if it was “a matter we should bring up at this late hour of the afternoon. I do not know anything about the bill.” Another congressman reassured him that “it has something to do with something that is called marihuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.”

At one point a group of congressmen asked that the bill’s proponents explain the provisions in further detail. In response, a member of Ways and Means recounted the hyperbolic testimony of Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a man who zealously hated drug users. In committee, Anslinger had presented photographs of bloody murder scenes in order to show “the fury of the murderer” who is high on marijuana. He recounted the “case of a 20-year-old boy who killed his brothers, a sister, and his parents while under the influence of marijuana,” and he testified that in “some cases” a single marijuana cigarette “might develop a homicidal mania.” In all, the congressional record of floor debates over the law takes up fewer than two pages.

Only in the last 20 years has the country begun to get over our self-inflicted disease. Unfortunately, there are those in whom the condition is lingering.

That’s how federal marijuana prohibition came to America.

At the time of prohibition, scientists knew very little about how cannabis operated on the human body and whether there were any legitimate medical uses. Six months after the Act was passed, Dr. Herbert Wollner, a chemist at the Treasury Department (the act, as a tax, was enforced by treasury) wrote in a memo to Anslinger: “virtually nothing is known concerning the nature of the narcotic principle, its physiological behavior, and the ultimate effect upon the social group.” Wollner later complained that “ninety percent of the stuff that has been written on the chemical end of Cannabis is absolutely wrong, and, of the other ten percent, at least two-thirds of it is of no consequence.”

But the Marihuana Tax Act put the mark of Cain on the drug, and scientific interest in studying cannabis, as well as the funding, became rare. Anslinger was highly antagonistic to any attempt to study the drug scientifically; he preferred the debate to be controlled by fear and ignorance. The Public Health Service sponsored no research in the ensuing decade. Ultimately, in the words of one historian, “the law enforcement agency [the Federal Bureau of Narcotics] became the public’s arbiter of scientific arguments and debates, functioning as a filter through which scientific research had to pass on its way to the public.”

Over the next two decades, Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics would help foster our reefer madness world-and Jeff Sessions’s reefer madness mentality-by essentially controlling the national narrative on marijuana. Anslinger asked his local supervisors to collect any newspaper stories or reports that could link marijuana to crime, and he directed all agents to look for any connection between insanity and marijuana use. Despite some researchers poking holes in Anslinger’s favorite theories-particularly that marijuana causes crime, insanity, and addiction-Anslinger was steadfast in his beliefs.

Anslinger left the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1962, but the situation hardly improved. In the 60s, one researcher in charge of the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) marijuana research complained that no “employees wanted to offend any of the Bureau of Narcotics police,” and that they “had to worry about antediluvian congressional types that had it in their power to smite us mightily where it hurt-right in our appropriation.” In the 70s, after the modern Controlled Substances Act was passed and a commission was created to study marijuana in-depth, President Nixon was as steadfast as Anslinger: “Even if the Commission does recommend that it be legalized, I will not follow that recommendation.” That commission, known as the Shafer Commission, recommended decriminalization and dispelled many myths about marijuana, concluding that “from what is known now about the effects of marijuana, its use at the present level does not constitute a major threat to public health.” President Nixon, of course, ignored the recommendations.

This is our reefer madness world, fostered by fear, ignorance, rushed lawmaking, anti-drug zealots, and a consistent discouragement of hard facts and good science. And it is the world still inhabited by Jeff Sessions, who cannot even bring himself to accept the growing consensus that marijuana has many legitimate medical applications.

Sessions’s reefer madness was once our own. Thankfully, with 61 percent of Americans supporting legalized recreational marijuana and 80 percent supporting medical marijuana, it is increasingly just his.

Trevor Burrus is a Research Fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.