Fear, Propaganda, and the American Psyche
It was certainly a bizarre day, the day that I finally accepted the fact that most of the thoughts and opinions I have in my head are not under my control. The day I understood that from birth onward, our brains are conditioned by everything around us: parents (in ways so profound that even great thinkers like Freud or Jung could not wholly grasp), friends, colleagues, social pressures, the nightly news, politicians, society, billboards, social media… the list never ends! All these factors are influencing our decisions, often by unconscious means.
Cannabis was always a huge question for me. The social stigma was ubiquitous and severe—I feared the idea of even complete strangers knowing that I smoked weed. Yet, friends and family viewed it as a useful plant and, further, a healthier and safer alternative to recreational alcohol. At the time, I was bewildered. My thoughts were so influenced by the culture that I was raised in. Little did I know how much I would come to love this plant, not as an alternative way of getting f’ed up, but as a therapeutic medicine.
It is always hard for us to shift our perspectives entirely; all of the associations in our brains need to change in tandem. I do not believe it is something we can easily achieve in regard to many of our core values. However, the cannabis sativa plant (cannabis and hemp) is just different for me—this plant has such a rich history. Given such promising scientific research in merely the past twenty years, it may actually be possible to override all the previous societal programming and stigmatization with a bit of education.
The Chinese Pharmacopeia, the Rh-Ya, written in 1500 BC, affirmed hemp’s medicinal values. Many ancient texts have studied both CBD and THC’s use for treating seizures and pain. In the 17th century, hemp and cannabis were used to treat gastrointestinal issues, postpartum hemorrhaging, joint pain, skin burns, ulcers, inflammation, gout, STDs, fever, and infection.
In the 18th century, American farmers were required by law to grow hemp in many colonies. The farming of both hemp and cannabis was a massive propeller for the growing United States. The drafts for the Declaration of Independence are said to have been written on hemp paper and George Washington was, in fact, a hemp farmer—ironic?
In the late nineteenth century, cannabis was sold freely in pharmacies across the country to treat pain, seizures, inflammation, etc. Believe it or not, there was a time when essentially every household had cannabis in their medicine cabinet.
So what happened?
A) 1910: The Mexican Revolution.
B) 1930: The Great Depression.
C) Cannabis becomes a political scapegoat at the hands of some very corrupt men.
Multiple parties were in competition with the hemp plant.
DuPont Cellophane Company: first company to bring cellophane to the U.S., which was set to become the standard packaging for nearly all American products. The company feared that hemp fiber would compete against cellophane-based products such as synthetic nylon and rayon.
Andrew Mellon: Secretary of the Treasury (head of all financial matters in the U.S.), the wealthiest man in the U.S., and a man who was substantially invested in nylon (DuPont’s new synthetic fiber). Mellon thought that the success of nylon was dependent on the eradication of its biggest rival, hemp.
William Randolph Hearst: the head of the newspaper business and owner of many paper mills, feared hemp as a competing paper source.
The Rockefellers: of Standard Oil feared the competition of hemp-sourced oil.
Retaining Bureaucratic Budgets with Propaganda:
Henry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the true pioneer for the war on drugs. Previous to 1930, he worked on the prohibition of alcohol. When speaking about cannabis, he stated, “there is probably no more absurd fallacy” than to claim that it made people violent.
What changed? The prohibition of alcohol was over and he needed to retain his federal budget. He switched from campaigning against alcohol to lobbying against cannabis. A bloated bureaucracy was the beginning of the prohibition on hemp.
He contacted doctors in an attempt to find any convincing argument that cannabis was dangerous. However, twenty-nine out of thirty pharmacists protested any notion of cannabis prohibition—the ailments they were treating with cannabis had no alternative treatment. Even further, no evidence or record pointed to cannabis addiction or violence resulting from the use of marijuana.
There was only one doctor who would help Anslinger campaign against the plant (for reasons unknown) and that’s how the propaganda campaign opposing “The Marijuana Menace” began. He commenced a mass media conspiracy, claiming that weed was a danger to the people of the United States. The notorious newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst, aided in the propaganda campaign, printing one article after another that warned of the dangers of the plant.
Anslinger collected 2,216 criminal convictions—none of these offenses were committed under the influence of cannabis. Despite this, he continued to push his “Gore Files” in the newspapers. These files quoted police reports and framed the crimes as direct results of drug abuse. For example, there was the infamous case of Victor Licata. Licata murdered his family and cannabis was cited as a causation factor. However, there was no evidence that the perpetrator had actually ever used marijuana.
Racism and Fear for a Political Scapegoat:
Anti-drug activists rebranded the plant with its Mexican name, “marijuana,” which they associated with dangerous criminal activities due to racist ideology. They claimed that it made people lose their minds. Weed became “the marijuana menace” and films like Reefer Madness were distributed across the country.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression’s poverty created a wave of public fear that extended to the competition for jobs with the new Mexican immigrants. The anti-drug campaigns pushed the “marijuana menace” conspiracy harder. Anslinger also targeted black Americans, claiming that weed made black people “forget their place in society.” He described jazz as evil music that was composed while the musicians were high off reefer.
Politicians needed a talking point to divert the public eye from the Great Depression. Using tribalism, the perfect complement to fear, government representatives worked hard to displace their citizens’ distress about the state of the country onto weed and racism.
In 1937, cannabis was criminalized. Within the first year of criminalization, black citizens were three-times more likely to be arrested for drug violations than white citizens. Mexicans were targeted even more disproportionately, being arrested nine-times more than white folks for possession.
Was this the responsibility of the rich wanting to advance their own agendas? Was weed a scapegoat that the government used to distract the people? Were politicians just campaigning for a vote? Were those in high places bought and paid for by competing companies?
The Psyche is Still Recovering:
Considering the long history of both hemp and cannabis, the U.S.’s prohibition/criminalization failed to last long. 60 years later, California passed the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which allowed for the legal use of medical marijuana once again. In the years following, many states followed suit, and now, even the recreational use of weed is legal in multiple states.
Even though the legalization of this plant is expanding every day, the result of the propaganda campaign is still evident in the American psyche. Minorities are still much more likely to be convicted of drug offenses, even though the prevalence rate across races is nearly the same. Even people who support legalization may not feel comfortable seeing what benefits the plant could have for them. Scientists and doctors have finally woken up from their (over half a century) slumber to see that hemp and cannabis prohibition has been politically motivated. As a result, peer-reviewed research of the cannabis plant is finally being conducted at the world’s leading institutions.
The history of weed is a part of our American psyche. That is why it is essential to take time to understand the entire history of the cannabis Sativa plant and how it is meant to be used. This understanding can lead to not only to new knowledge of the plant, but also a more nuanced understanding of how we, as a species, come to form beliefs.
We are inundated with information informing our belief systems from the moment we are born until the present moment, when Instagram tells us that everyone is having fun without us. Good ol’ mom and dad tell you that you are good when you adhere to the rules of society, but what good are rules that only exist as a result of political forces searching for a distraction and scapegoat? The biases of our outdated American psyche discourage us from questioning conventional “wisdom”—question everything.
An Article By Evie Louise
Evie Louise is a recent psychology graduate from New York University. She is a certified in International Cannabinoid Clinical Therapy. Evie sees all forms of the cannabis sativa plant as the future of psychiatry, and hopes to use it in her therapy practice as a full spectrum approach to mental health and wellness.