Why Is Marijuana Banned? The Real Reasons Are Worse Than You Think


By Johann Hari 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Influence, and is reprinted here with permission.

Across the world, more and more people are asking: Why is marijuana banned? Why are people still sent to prison for using or selling it?

Most of us assume it’s because someone, somewhere sat down with the scientific evidence, and figured out that cannabis is more harmful than other drugs we use all the time—like alcohol and cigarettes.

Somebody worked it all out, in our best interest.

But when I started to go through the official archives—researching my book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugsto find out why cannabis was banned back in the 1930s, I discovered that’s not what happened.

Not at all.

In 1929, a man called Harry Anslinger was put in charge of the Department of Prohibition in Washington DC. But alcohol prohibition had been a disaster. Gangsters had taken over whole neighborhoods. Alcohol—controlled by criminals—had become even more poisonous.

So alcohol prohibition finally ended–and Harry Anslinger was afraid. He found himself in charge of a huge government department, with nothing for it to do. Up until then, he had said that cannabis was not a problem. It doesn’t harm people, he explained, and “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea it makes people violent.

But then—suddenly, when his department needed a new purpose—he announced he had changed his mind.

He explained to the public what would happen if you smoked cannabis.

First, you will fall into “a delirious rage.” Then you will be gripped by “dreams… of an erotic character.” Then you will “lose the power of connected thought.” Finally, you will reach the inevitable end-point: “Insanity.”

Marijuana turns man into a wild beast. If marijuana bumped into Frankenstein’s monster on the stairs, Anslinger warned, the monster would drop dead of fright.

Victor Lacata

Harry Anslinger became obsessed with one case in particular. In Florida, a boy called Victor Lacata hacked his family to death with an axe. Anslinger explained to America: This is what will happen when you smoke “the demon weed.” The case became notorious. The parents of the US were terrified.

What evidence did Harry Anslinger have? It turns out at this time he wrote to the 30 leading scientists on this subject, asking if cannabis was dangerous, and if there should be a ban.

Twenty-nine wrote back and said no.

Anslinger picked out the one scientist who said yes, and presented him to the world. The press—obsessed with Victor Lacata’s axe—cheered them on.

In a panic that gripped America, marijuana was banned. The US told other countries they had to do the same. Many countries said it was a dumb idea, and refused to do it. For example, Mexico decided their drug policy should be run by doctors. Their medical advice was that cannabis didn’t cause these problems, and they refused to ban it. The US was furious. Anslinger ordered them to fall into line. The Mexicans held out—until, in the end, the US cut off the supply of all legal painkillers to Mexico. People started to die in agony in their hospitals. So with regret, Mexico sacked the doctor—and launched its own drug war.

But at home, questions were being asked. A leading American doctor called Michael Ball wrote to Harry Anslinger, puzzled. He explained he had used cannabis as a medical student, and it had only made him sleepy. Maybe cannabis does drive a small number of people crazy, he said—but we need to fund some scientific studies to find out.

Anslinger wrote back firmly. “The marijuana evil can no longer be temporized with,” he explained, and he would fund no independent science. Then, or ever.

For years, doctors kept approaching him with evidence he was wrong, and he began to snap, telling them they were “treading on dangerous ground” and should watch their mouths.

Today, most of the world is still living with the ban on cannabis that Harry Anslinger introduced, in the nation-wide panic that followed Victor Lacata’s killing spree.

But here’s the catch. Years later, somebody went and looked at the psychiatric files for Victor Lacata.

It turns out there’s no evidence he ever used cannabis.

He had a lot of mental illness in his family. They had been told a year before he needed to be institutionalized—but they refused. His psychiatrists never even mentioned marijuana in connection to him.

So, does cannabis make people mad?

The former chief advisor on drugs to the British government, David Nutt, explains—if cannabis causes psychosis in a straightforward way, then it would show in a straightforward way.

When cannabis use goes up, psychosis will go up. And when cannabis use goes down psychosis will go down.

So does that happen? We have a lot of data from a lot of countries. And it turns out it doesn’t. For example, in Britain, cannabis use has increased by a factor of about 40 since the 1960s. And rates of psychosis? They have remained steady.

In fact, the scientific evidence suggests cannabis is safer than alcohol. Alcohol kills 40,000 people every year in the US. Cannabis kills nobody—although Willie Nelson says a friend of his did once die when a bale of cannabis fell on his head.

This is why, in 2006, a young man in Colorado called Mason Tvert issued a challenge to the then-mayor of Denver and eventual governor, John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper owned brew-pubs selling alcohol across the state, and it made him rich. But he said cannabis was harmful and had to be banned. So Mason issued him a challenge—to a duel. You bring a crate of booze. I’ll bring a pack of joints. For every hit of booze you take, I’ll take a hit of cannabis. We’ll see who dies first.

It was the ultimate High Noon.

Mason went on to lead the campaign to legalize cannabis in his state. His fellow citizens voted to do it—by 55 %. Now adults can buy cannabis legally, in licensed stores, where they are taxed—and the money is used to build schools. After a year and a half of seeing this system in practice, support for legalization has risen to 69 %. And even Governor Hickenlooper has started calling it “common sense.”

Oh—and Colorado hasn’t been filled with people hacking their families to death yet.

Isn’t it time we listened to the science—and finally put away Victor Lacata’s axe?


Johann Hari is a British journalist and author. This article is adapted from his New York Times best-sellling book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. To find out why Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Bill Maher, Naomi Klein and Elton John have all praised it, clickhere.

Correction: This post has been updated to clarify that John Hickenlooper was the mayor of Denver in 2006. He became governor of Colorado in 2011.

**This article is re-printed here with permission from The Influence, a site covering the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow them on Facebook and on Twitter.**


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  1. Wow wtf? Thats why you should never abuse 2 drugs at once. Drugs are not sin yet/but can be the gateway to the devil/hell if abused.

    Its obvious from his eyes he is on something else what looks to be speed.

    • Anything CAN be a gateway to hell if abused. Anything. Sin lies not in the substance you use, or the things you do.. sin lies in how you use it or do it inside your relation with God. Moderation is key here. Don’t put anything before God when it comes to your priorities in life and you aren’t committing sin. Make something more important than God and it is sin. Jesus even told his apostles to put a little wine in their water, because hard times are ahead. If smoking a bit of marijuana helps me in dealing with the sick society we live in, keeps down my aggressive impulses and prevents me from killing my annoying neighbor, is that a bad thing? I think not.

  2. hemp was outlawed by the efforts of big oil and DuPont chemical co. here is why henry ford owned the largest hemp farms in the US he made his car bodies with hemp fiber resin and black die until hemp was outlawed. ford cars were made to run on alcohol as gasoline was hard to find away from the big cities. hemp used in a still produces 2 1/2 times more alcohol per batch than corn or sugar beets. ford had promotions thatif you boughta fully equipped ford he included a still and 2 bags of hemp seed and the brewing instructions to make your own fuel for pennies per gallon. this still would make 20 gallons of fuel per day to run your car, truck or farm tractor. so this was going to threaten big oil. now for the DuPont connection. DuPont had a huge inventory of toxic waste it used to develope fiber glass with a car body made with fiberglass was 4x more expensive and the body was inferior to one mad with hemp resin fiber . the hemp car body was water proof fire proof and was stronger than any other material available and was 1/3rd cheaper than fiberglass. it was safer to work with and you put the color die in the mix and when it cured you just buffed it until it shined . fiberglass required a sealer and a coat of paint more DuPont products.. this does not even touch the medicinal properties of hemp in curing cancer and a variety of other diseases . prohibition was more about destroying the breweries that made the alcohol supplies used to power cars and tractors forcing them to run on gasoline or distillate K1 . so now you have the rest of the story

    • That’s a good short history lesson, brokenwrench. The only thing I have to add is that “big oil” needs an identifying modifier in front of it – Rockefeller – “Hemp was outlawed by the efforts of ROCKEFELLER big oil and DuPont chemical co.”

    • well said my friend.
      Shame they don’t teach these facts in history class, on about how democracy being spread to the world helped everyone and crap like that.
      Imagine where we would be today as a society if dupont failed, big oil didnt create global policies, the carbon never reached the environment, let alone the toxic waste in the 1900-1950’s from refining oil very inefficiently.
      All the battery and energy technology we would have today, that big oil and detroit bought and shelved.
      Its also funny that they are the same companies which get away with polluting oceans and rivers, global warming, pollution, traffic congestion, and no one cares at all.
      I wonder what would have happened if companies like dupont, standard oil and such never put money over ppl and general decency.

  3. Cannabis i/Marijuana is an evil life time addicting and gateway drug. It decreases ones motivation, why in heavens name would we want it legalized. It should called MARIJUANA-DEATH DRUG. It kills people (Body and Soul) and when you go over to be judged if you abused it for years or most of your life your soul could go to the “Second Death,” since you had abused your body. It is evil pure and simple.


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