World War II and Drug Prevention

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

Screenshot 2019-02-12 at 9.30.23 AMIn 1937, 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” denied pot’s stepping-stone relationship to “harder” drugs in the nascent debate over its prohibition. During War World II, however, Anslinger lost considerable ground in his effort to criminalize cannabis. Most influential in this set-back to his strategy, World War II created a détente in his incipient war on pot.

Drug use spiked during the war as soldiers at home and abroad found marijuana more accessible and desirable while serving for the armed forces in various theaters around the world. While the military maintained its emphasis on stopping the drug supply during the war and protecting bases from “predatory” dealers, soldiers on leave “over there” and on the home front consumed marijuana with relative impunity. Initially, Anslinger used WWII screenings of soldiers to brag that, while the military rejected one of every 1,500 Americans from enlisting due to addiction during WWI, only one of every 10,000 was rejected for military service during WWII. In other words, WWII had reversed this trend.

Screenshot 2019-02-12 at 9.39.09 AMBut after hearing reports of over 3,000 investigations into marijuana trading around Army camps in 1942, Anslinger grew angry. He blamed soldiers “deliberately caught with contraband to obtain medical discharge” for the increased sales, and suggested court-martialing these suspects. To his chagrin, military officials and officers often ignored this perceived indiscretion as they realized the marijuana problem was too widespread to enforce penalties.  While Kathryn Frydl admits the challenges in calculating just how pervasive pot smoking became during and immediately after the war, she explains in her book, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, “there can be little doubt that marijuana traffic and consumption surged during the war,” as narcotics agents’ arrests of soldiers would “be futile” since they would only be turned over to military police. In addition, fears about marijuana dissipated as soldiers and officers saw first-hand that cannabis did not create the murderous insanity, or reefer madness, mythologized in the media and in politics during the 1930s and ’40s. In fact, soldiers and officers began to conflate alcohol’s effects with marijuana’s.  For example, one WWII military handbook explained, “A person who is high on marihuana is easily mistaken for a drunk, especially if he disguises his breath with liquor.”

During World War II, Anslinger stubbornly clung to his racially-constructed insistence that less educated soldiers from broken homes made up the majority of drug users and addicts in the military. Government reports defied this notion, as well-educated soldiers who had finished their schooling also used drugs. As one Congressman worried, “I am wondering, what the mothers and fathers of young men who are to be drafted or who volunteer are going to think when they pick up tomorrow’s paper and realize that their sons might well get out of his service to his country being a worthless addict.” This concern, despite the contention that addicts were “worthless,” painted drug users more sympathetically than Anslinger’s testimony and heightened a focus on prevention and education.

Officers during WWII had feared that drug education dramatized narcotics abuse and would “tempt some who have never tried it to go out and try some.” Another government official explained anti-addiction films’ unintended consequences, claiming, “Often the evil warned against is portrayed so attractively, seductively, and voluptuously that the inevitable result would be to attract people to experiment with the vice.” This avoidance approach came under increasing scrutiny after the war when this debate moved to consider prevention strategies as drug abuse and addiction increased in the military.   

Politicians in the 1950s grilled military officials for a broken chain of command and lack of uniformity when it came to resources and focus on drug education. Long before public schools in the 1960s employed more proactive education programs to teach students the dangers of drug abuse and to decrease demand for narcotics, the military considered alternatives to a supply-side interdiction. Reflecting on the rise of WWII soldiers’ drug use, policy and narcotics experts developed prevention strategies. As Senator Joseph O’Mahoney (D-WY) argued, “The most important thing from the point of view of the relatives of the soldiers is to prevent addiction in the first place.” “For that purpose,” he suggested, “I think education of the troops is a very important element.”  The military quickly responded with mandatory training videos for soldiers that emphasized marijuana’s gateway potential to create heroin addiction. Even Anslinger adopted this position after WWII and admitted the association between “habit-forming” cannabis and opioids. In official testimony, he declared, “Our great concern about the use of marihuana, [is] that eventually if used over a long period it does lead to heroin addiction.”

This shift also pushed the conversation about drug use education and prevention into the national security context that resonated with Americans’ Cold War emphasis on protecting America’s democracy and productivity. Planning the post-war economy as early as 1943, the president of Pennsylvania-Central Airlines addressed the National Aeronautic association, deriding his industry for “day dreaming” its strategy, and lectured his cohort to replace its “vision of the marihuana type” with “with the practical type upon which real progress is made.” Popular perceptions of marijuana clashed with political and economic elites’ vision for an American century.

Thus, drug awareness and education efforts after WWII also absorbed this era’s patriotic impulse and shaped public prevention efforts around citizenship and efficiency. With this focus on civic identity in drug awareness, the targeted anti-narcotics messages in distinct regions and demographics that followed the post-war era continued the culturally-defined perceptions of cannabis that mapped out the changing arguments for including marijuana in the War on Drugs.