Reconsidering Anslinger: Race, the Gateway Theory, and the Origins of Marijuana Prohibition (Part I)

Editor’s Note: This week’s post comes courtesy of contributor Seth Blumenthal. In Part I, he unpacks some of the racial motivations for marijuana prohibition. Stay tuned for Part II, chronicling other national concerns about cannabis. Contact the author at  

Amidst the political debate over marijuana legalization in Massachusetts, State Representative Hank Naughton recently argued: “Marijuana is a gateway drug to the problems of the opioid crisis that we’re having today.” The Committee Chair on Public Safety and Homeland Security continued, “It’s not just a business and it’s not like a six pack of beer. There’s a lot more to it.” This stepping stone narrative– that marijuana is relatively benign but leads to something much worse– has served as the foundation of prohibition in America that treats young white users as victims and criminalizes the “invading pusher.” As historian Matt Lassiter points out; “the marijuana-as-gateway mystique…helped institutionalize two inter-linked but spatially distinct approaches: public health campaigns in white middle-class neighborhoods and militarized interdiction in urban minority areas.” Despite the changing rhetoric that drove anti-marijuana politics over the decades, the gateway theory connected these two principle motivations; one based on enforcement and the other on protection.


Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics

In 1937, however, as the first director for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry J. Anslinger eliminated any possibility that cannabis, or “marihuana,” could be a gateway drug. When asked during Congressional hearings if “the marihuana addict graduates into a heroin, opium or cocaine user,” Anslinger responded, “I think it [marijuana] is a different class. The marihuana addict does not go in that direction.” This definition of the “marijuana menace” left little room for nuanced understanding of pot’s stepping-stone relationship to “harder” drugs in the nascent debate over its prohibition. Still, Anslinger explained the racialized difference between marijuana’s predators and its victims, as he warned Mexicans were “selling cheap joints to white children.” By separating the two, white users as victims and immigrant pushers as criminals, the first prohibition of marijuana began the two-tiered effort to confront drug use. Anslinger’s simplistic emphasis on criminalizing marijuana still allowed for a widely shared distinction between arresting dealers and protecting youth. “Primarily,” one leading prohibitionist from New York’s Federation of Women’s Clubs argued in 1937, “we want to protect our young people from a danger which is not apparent to them.” Although Anslinger denied the “gateway theory,” he and the various voices in the anti-marijuana effort created the idealized white adolescent victim trope that set the racial framework for the “stepping stone” mythology.
Most scholars promote the Anslingerian narrative that simplifies the initial prohibition of marijuana as one man’s strategy. While not as distinguishable in the 1930s, the gateway theory’s racist implications should also complicate this interpretation of marijuana’s political history. As Lassiter contends, “While historians are belatedly examining crime politics and mass incarceration, which have clearly shaped the inequalities of the metropolitan land¬scape, the role of social movements and interest groups in the formation of drug policy remains underexplored.” Considering marijuana prohibition’s beginnings by examining the social and cultural landscape that inspired parents’ concerns about their adolescent children, I argue that even before pot smoking increased amongst white middle class youth in the 1950s, parents, politicians and popular media from films to newspapers began the crucial step of imagining a gateway theory and the spatial distinctions that supported the racially bifurcated policies during the ensuing war on drugs.
For several decades now, scholars have debated Anslinger’s motives. Many recent interpretations blame racism, drawing a clear line that connects prohibition politics since the 1930s to the inequalities of mass incarceration today. One Huff Post article about Anslinger modeled this teleological, simplified explanation under the headline, “Marijuana Prohibition Was Racist from the Start. Not Much Has Changed.” This focus on Anslinger’s racist motives make sense–after all, Anslinger cultivated and spread the bigoted underpinnings of prohibition, especially the regional argument shared amongst the southwestern states concerning Mexican immigrants and “marihuana.”
Several quotations attributed to Anslinger also highlight his racist views, the most common of which being: “Their [“Negroes”] satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” In addition, race drives the contemporary debate about marijuana policy, as the New York Daily News reported that 86.5% of the city’s roughly 46,600 misdemeanor arrests like pot possession in the first three months of 2016 involved people of color. Furthermore, recent scholarship such as Khalil Muhammad’s prove that marijuana became a tool of the carceral-state and intensified painful racial disparities in the justice system, as the modern war on drugs created “the reciprocal criminalization of blackness and decriminalization of whiteness.” Thus, the war on pot after WWII involved a racist, punitive “New Jim Crow” emphasis on enforcement.
Mono-causal arguments about prohibition’s origins gloss over the reason that the war on marijuana is such a rich case for scholars of carceral studies and the history of drugs and alcohol. The popular determination to exclusively credit Anslinger’s racism for prohibition misses an opportunity to scrutinize the tenuous, shifting gateway argument for making pot illegal. To be sure, xenophobic and racist notions about invading pushers motivated the initial prohibition of marijuana in 1937. Scholars such as David Musto found that regional, anti-immigration pressure pushed Anslinger to act on marijuana in the 1930s. As one letter to Anslinger from a Colorado journalist complained: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish speaking residents.” Though, even this urgent appeal for action was built on widely held assumptions in the press about weed’s frightening potential, as the letter continued: “officials fear it, not for what it had done, but for what it is capable of doing. They want to check it before an outbreak does occur.” Thus, even where the racially charged pressure to act was greatest, its mostly preventative motivation came from popular, national fears and mythology.


In fact, many racist quotations attributed to Anslinger are either poorly cited, wrong or just plain fabrications. (while Wikiquote labels this quotation as “disputed” several books have used it, which has sparked an unresolved controversy about its validity). In fact, when Anslinger revealed his obvious racism in 1934, it nearly lost him his job. After Anslinger called one marijuana user and informant a “ginger colored nigger,” Senator Joseph Guffey (PA-D) complained and asked that Anslinger be replaced. While Anslinger’s pejoratives explicitly betray his bigotry, politics demanded that he make a more subtle connection between race and marijuana.
The most racially charged depictions of black and Mexican peddlers appeared in yellow journalistic efforts to exploit sensationalized marijuana atrocities. Much of Anslinger’s anecdotal evidence relied on these articles, some of which he himself wrote, and each story fell into three basic types: articles about the prohibition movement, articles about criminals who blamed their actions on marijuana and the most common type, marijuana busts. Articles that documented marijuana and heroin arrests established the dominant narcotics storyline after 1937, as they emphasized busts that caught “peddlers” and always emphasized when dealers and growers were “Negro.” Once prohibition began, the message became less about the growing crisis and more to reassure Americans that the FBN had control of the situation and the problem was somewhat contained.
Still, the actual enforcement relied heavily on local police and Anslinger’s efforts did not translate into the racially targeted carceral state we recognize today. While over 500 Americans went to federal prison under the Marijuana Tax Act by 1943, the New York Academy of Medicine’s careful study on marijuana users, commissioned by New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia in 1944, provided glimpses into ways marijuana smoking continued with relative impunity. As the report reads, “In the Harlem dance halls smoking was frequently observed either in the lavatories or on the main floor.” The report then reveals, “Whereas the smoking of marihuana was not encouraged, nothing was done to prohibit such practice.” By 1945, total arrests actually declined sharply as law enforcement began to accept the difference between “individual violators” and “well-financed conspiracies.” This focus on peddlers assured the federal law’s wide support as it comforted Americans that the government could protect their children from the sinister side of adolescence and from prison. Americans feared criminals, but more commonly feared their children becoming criminals.