You’ve probably never heard of Harry Jacob Aslinger. But if you consume cannabis, then this dude has made a dramatic impact on your life. First of all, Aslinger is the government official who became the first commissioner of the government’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. That was back in 1930 when he was 38 years old. Aslinger would go on to hold that position for an astounding 32 years. But more importantly, Harry Aslinger is the individual who singlehandedly started the insane paranoia and hysteria around marijuana. And all because he hated jazz music. Hated and feared it.
The Racist Roots of Cannabis Prohibition
The story of cannabis prohibition in the United States is written in the ink of racism, xenophobia, and a good old fashioned fear of communism. It always has been, according to the researcher and journalist Eric Schlosser. Schlosser wrote the book on the birth of Reefer Madness in the US and its long-lasting legacy of racial discrimination. Today, the US imprisons more than 2 million people, most of them on minor drug charges involving marijuana.
And we have Harry Aslinger to thank for that. Aslinger inherited decades of anti-immigrant prejudice in the United States. Political turmoil in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 led to a boom in immigration. Predictably, fear and prejudices greeted the immigrants. Soon a stereotype formed around their favorite substance: marijuana. The rumors that went around at the time sound ridiculous today (and super-racist), but they were very persuasive at the time.
Afraid of Jazz?
Once people became used to associating marijuana with the “bad” and “dangerous” people from Mexico, the accusation became a useful tool for justifying violence and discrimination against anyone and everyone. All you had to do to smear a whole group was associate them with the “killer weed.” Around 1930, when Aslinger took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, marijuana paranoia had been used to target and discriminate against all kinds of people, from African-Americans, prostitutes and “underworld whites.”
But one group, in particular, caught Harry Aslinger’s ire: entertainers, musicians. And particularly jazz and swing musicians, whose popularity was exploding across the country at the time. It’s important to know that it wasn’t just that Aslinger hated jazz and feared the people who created it. He actually thought that jazz music was produced from smoking pot. Like jazz was the only music that a marijuana smoker could create. Like weed made musicians play jazz. Hilarious.
Maia Szalavitz shows how insanely racist Aslinger was, and it looks like he considered “entertainers” to be a “degenerate race” all on their own. Aslinger associated jazz with non-white people, whom he also hated, and it made him say some pretty crazy things. Check out this madness:
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.
Celebrate Cannabis! Listen to Jazz!
That’s some cringe-worthy stuff. Bust most Americans sadly at the time were fully on board with these ideas. Let’s break down Aslinger’s train of thought. Cannabis leads to jazz leads to white women getting stoned and horny. Of course, it’s utterly ridiculous, but Aslinger was in a position of power where he could make his personal fears and prejudices part of drug enforcement institutions in the United States for decades. We live with the consequences of his ignorance this very minute.
Thankfully, things are changing around here. So put on some Mingus, spark up that J, and celebrate the collapse of cannabis prohibition!