By David A. Guba, Jr.
Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 2 August 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act, the country’s first federal anti-cannabis law, required all persons cultivating, importing, or selling cannabis for whatever purposes to register with the IRS and pay an occupational tax of $1 per ounce. The Act also stipulated that anyone caught with unregistered or untaxed marijuana would be punished with a fine of up to $2000 and/or imprisonment for up to 5 years. For the past eight decades, historians of anti-drug laws in the United States routinely have presented the history of the Marijuana Tax Act as a homegrown story firmly rooted in the post-Prohibition, anti-immigration politics of 1930s America and the personal, possibly conspiratorial ambitions of Harry J. Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Act’s primary proponent. But recent research into the intellectual origins of the Marijuana Tax Act reveals a history rooted in a centuries-long transnational circulation of ideas about cannabis and its intoxicating effects originating outside of the United States.
In his book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (2012), historian Isaac Campos helped detach the history of America’s “War on Drugs” from its national moorings by convincingly showing that popular perceptions of marijuana as a “killer weed” first developed in Mexico during the late 19th century and later spread to southwestern states in the U.S during the early 20th. In fact, the Mexican government became so convinced that marijuana incited violent criminality in users that it passed a federal marijuana ban in 1920, some 17 years before Harry J. Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics followed suit and successfully pushed their Marijuana Tax Act through Congress. By inverting the traditional historical narrative of America’s War on Drugs, Campos reveals that negative popular perceptions of marijuana that spawned the country’s anti-drug crusade in the 1930s originated outside the United States and well before the 20th century.
A closer look at the Congressional hearings on the Marijuana Tax Act in late April of 1937 as well as Harry J. Anslinger’s anti-marijuana propaganda from the mid-1930s reveals that America’s anti-drug crusaders were not only influenced by ideas about the “killer weed” originating from Mexico but also drew heavily from myths about the evils of hashish emanating from 19th century France. In his testimony to the Ways and Means Committee on 27 April 1937, Anslinger relayed a brief and inaccurate account of the French myth of the Ismaili Assassins and their supposed use of hashish to transform their disciples into blood-thirsty murderers. “In Persia, a thousand years before Christ,” Anslinger declared, “there was a religious and military order founded which was called the Assassins and they derived their name from the drug called hashish which is now known in this country as marihuana. They were noted for their acts of cruelty, and the word ‘assassin’ very aptly describes the drug.”1 Anslinger reiterated this point in an article in The American Magazine published in July 1937 entitled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth” and employed this motif of hashish-crazed assassins in a propaganda film of the same title released in the fall of 1937.2 The message of this (mis)information was abundantly clear—marijuana use threatened to transform America’s youth into drug-crazed assassins.
This myth of the medieval cult of hashish-using Islamic assassins originated in the prejudiced imagination of 19th century French scholars and scientists. In 1809, famed Orientalist Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy delivered a lecture at the Institut de France on a sect of Ismaili assassins first introduced to Europe by Marco Polo’s famous 14th century travelogue. During his talk, Sacy argued that the French word “assassin” derived from the Arabic term al-Hashishiyya (Hachichin in French and “Hashish-Eater” in English) used by contemporary chroniclers in the Islamic World to describe the sect and its supposed use of hashish. But Sacy based his conclusions on biased sources and Orientalized fantasies rather than facts and thus inaccurately portrayed hashish as an evil intoxicant used by the Ismaili sect to transform disciples into blindly obedient murderers. In fact, no conclusive evidence existed then or exists now that links the sect of Ismaili assassins to hashish. And as Marshall Hodgson, Bernard Lewis and Farhad Daftary have shown, when the term is used in extant Arabic (and often Sunni) sources it “is used only in its abusive, figurative sense of ‘low-class rabble’ and ‘irreligious social outcasts'” rather than as a practical designation of the sect’s practices. Despite the inaccuracies in Sacy’s contentions, French, European, and American scholars publishing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries widely accepted his specious conclusions and routinely cited his work when discussing the sect, hashish or the Islamic world. And through their repeated and uncritical references to Sacy’s work, these scholars steadily transformed the myth of the Haschischin into a fait prouvé, or proven fact, that linked hashish to assassination and codified both as essentially evil and “Oriental.”
When Harry J. Anslinger and his Bureau launched their propaganda campaign against marijuana and successfully pushed the Tax Act through Congress in 1937, they drew heavily from negative and prejudiced perceptions of the drug emanating from 19th century Latin America and Europe to convince American lawmakers of the urgency and necessity of establishing severe proscriptions against marijuana use. As lawmakers today reevaluate the nation’s drug laws and move towards a more rational, public health-oriented approach to drug regulations, it is imperative that they and the citizenry understand the complex historical processes that produced and legitimated the nation’s failed War on Drugs so that similar failures can be avoided in the future.
David A. Guba, Jr. is a PhD Candidate at Temple University and is presently writing a dissertation on the history of hashish in 19th century France. He is currently an Adjunct Instructor at Temple University and a Lecturer at the Universtié d’Angers in France. One can other find samples of his research and writing at his web site.
- Harry J. Anslinger, Testimony to the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives (27 April 1937). It should be noted that the Ismaili sect existed in Persia and Syria between 1090 and
- Harry J. Anslinger with Courtney Ryley Cooper, “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth,” The American Magazine 124:1 (July 1937); Assassin of Youth (Marihuana), directed by Elmer Clifton (BCM Productions, 1937).
This film was the third on three anti-marijuana films released in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1936 and 1937; Reefer Madness (1936) is the most famous of this trilogy.
- Quotation from Farhad Daftary, The Ismā’īlīs: Their History and Doctrines, 2nd Edition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 10, 24.