Mental Health Matters: Will marijuana turn you into a dangerous beast? (opinion) |

Mental Health Matters: Will marijuana turn you into a dangerous beast? (opinion)

Andrew Whyman, MD
Mental Health Matters
Andrew Whyman
File photo |

Harry said, “Marijuana turns man into a wild beast,” and, “Parents beware! Your children … are being introduced to a new danger in the form of … marijuana. Young people are slaves to this narcotic, continuing addiction until they deteriorate mentally, become insane (and) turn to violent crime and murder.”

It was the 1930s, and Harry Anslinger was the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Harry believed that all drugs deemed illegal were inherently evil, causing slavish addiction, moral turpitude, monstrous crime and communal destruction.

He pledged to eradicate them, all over the world, and within thirty years his department became the headquarters for a global war that lasts to this day.

This fall, both California and Nevada citizens will vote on ballot initiatives to legalize the sale of cannabis, i.e., marijuana.

With billions of dollars at stake, powerful interests take positions. Ferreting out the truth from “truthiness” or fiction about cannabis and other illegal drugs requires diligent homework.

I hope to assist in that effort, starting with some enlightening history.

Over the millennia, humans discovered plants with medicinal and/or euphoriant properties. These were found to be useful as elixirs, as energy boosters, for symptom relief and for religious ceremonies.

Cocaine and opium, to take two examples, were available in coca leaves or poppy plants and either chewed or dissolved in alcoholic beverages for centuries. The invention of organic chemistry in the 1800s meant the form of these drugs could now be modified.

Diacetylmorphine, or heroin, was first synthesized in the 1870s and then sold by the Bayer Company as a medicinal for sore throat, cough, headache, diarrhea and stress.

Coincident with the use of these drugs and new technologies to deliver them in more concentrated form, America was undergoing convulsive and unsettling changes.

Waves of immigrants who came to America to escape persecution or build the new country were seen as different and potentially threatening. “American” jobs were lost to them.

Blacks, no longer slaves, were free to compete in an industrializing America. Protestants, seeing the arrival of immigrant Catholics, worried about losing their way of life.

These real social and economic problems were distilled down into a simplistic assessment that alcohol and drugs were the actual cause of these threats to tranquility and stability. And so, alcohol prohibition, and then drug prohibition, came to be seen as solving them.

This had little to do with public health, public safety or the dangers of alcohol and drugs. Examples of how America came to criminalize drugs are instructive.

Chinese immigrants first came to the West during the Gold Rush and later to build the transcontinental railroad. In Chinatown, San Francisco, Chinese men, as was their cultural bent, smoked opium during their leisure hours.

Rumors grew that they lured white women from good families into their “opium dens” and took advantage of them. This led town elders to pass the first anti-opium laws in America in 1875.

In 1909, a combination of American anti-Chinese sentiment coupled with an opportunity to curry favor internationally produced a federal ban on opium smoking.

Cocaine, another legal drug at the beginning of the twentieth century, was removed from Coca-Cola in 1903 as fear grew that black men were being sexually aroused by cocaine products.

New Orleans passed the first laws criminalizing cocaine when rumors spread that black men smoked cocaine and became violent.

Cannabis was another case. After the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Southwest saw an influx of poor migrant Mexicans who smoked marijuana and worked for low wages.

When the Great Depression dawned, native born Americans were desperate for work, and stories surfaced that cannabis made you crazy.

Harry Anslinger, testifying to Congress in 1937, said, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US  and most of them are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. The Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage (which) causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negro entertainers and others.”

Congress passed the first federal prohibition of marijuana that year, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

In each instance, fear — of the descendants of slaves, newcomers to America with different religious beliefs, Chinese immigrants, Mexican immigrants, immigrants as a group — was a major impetus to passage of America’s first anti-narcotic laws.

Since those early formative years, the basic premises undergirding drug criminalization have deepened and solidified: Billions are still expended on overseas eradication and interdiction programs.

At home, “Illegal” drug possession remains a criminal offense warranting punitive sanctions that can last a lifetime. Now, as then, these sanctions disproportionately impact the poor, and persons of color.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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