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“Blunt Truths” tells the origin story of marijuana prohibition.

The story so far: Racism lies at the heart of America's marijuana prohibition. For the first three years of Harry Anslinger's tenure as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), he viewed marijuana as a local problem limited to America's Southwest. Fearing that marijuana was spreading into “white culture,” he made marijuana prohibition his priority. To win his war, though, Anslinger knew he'd have to wage a public relations battle first.

As good as Harry Anslinger was at being a bureaucrat, he was even better at controlling a narrative. He understood that most Americans knew nothing about marijuana — except that black or brown people used it. Since no one ran to marijuana's defense, Anslinger had the stage to himself. He took full advantage. Pulling from his “gore files” — the collection of dubious newspaper clippings and handwritten notes that formed the basis for his case against marijuana — Anslinger almost single-handedly invented the anti-marijuana mythology that persists through this day.

When he heard the story of Victor Licata, Anslinger knew he'd found his poster child for marijuana prohibition — and a tragedy he could exploit for his own perverse use. Though Licata had a history of mental illness before he ever touched marijuana, Anslinger told Licata's story as if marijuana alone caused Licata to murder his parents, two brothers, and a sister with an ax in Ybor City, Florida, on October 16, 1933.

Anslinger's version of events, like almost all of his arguments, was demonstrably false. But because it was untrue — and because no one else made those arguments, Anslinger's anti-marijuana statements became markers — especially when they emerged from other people not directly connected to Anslinger.

Considering how clearly the film “Reefer Madness” invokes Anslinger's mythology, it would be obvious to assume Anslinger played some role in its creation or production. There is no proof that he did. In a sense though, the film exhibited Anslinger's influence on culture.

The origins of “Reefer Madness” are shrouded in mystery. There are suggestions it was financed by a church group but those claims remain unsubstantiated. Three writers received credits: one with the original story (Lawrence Meade), one with the script (Arthur Hoerl), and one who contributed additional dialogue (Paul Franklin). Hoerl had a long list of credits going back to silent pictures before writing “Reefer Madness.”

The film's producer, George A. Hirliman, ground out “adventure programmers” (low-budget action movies) for RKO in the 1930s. In the June 15, 1938, issue of Variety, he announced production of “Tell Your Children,” the original title of “Reefer Madness.” Over the course of its life, the film would get several titles (“The Burning Question,” “Doped Youth” and “Victims of Marijuana”) until “Reefer Madness” (believed to have originated with a 1947 re-release) stuck.

The cast was mostly workaday actors with workaday careers. The late Thelma White (who plays Mae the pot party hostess) was an RKO contract player making $2,500 per week. She told the Los Angeles Times in 1987 that she was “horrified” to learn she'd been loaned out to the independent production company that made “Reefer Madness.” “I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic,” she said. “I hide my head when I think about it." White died in 2005.

The film was shot in approximately three weeks. By all rights, considering its budget and the fact that it was an exploitation movie, it should have suffered the same obscurity that befell most other exploitation films from that era. But, because the film was never properly copyrighted, it ended up much sooner than it should have in the public domain. That's how Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) found it: in the Library of Congress.

Stroup purchased a print for $297 and screened it in New York at a fundraising event in May 1972.

Film producer Robert Shaye saw it at the fundraiser and introduced the film to the midnight movie circuit that same year. Shaye owned film company New Line Cinema. In time, based on his success releasing “Reefer Madness,” Shaye would go on to produce or executive produce, the “Nightmare On Elm Street” series and the “Lord of the Rings” franchise.

Anslinger, however,  was less interested in the stories Hollywood told and more interested in the stars who might be partaking. Anslinger's biographer, John C. McWilliams pointed out inThe Protectors” that after arresting and prosecuting jazz musicians including drummer Gene Krupa (arrested in January 1943 for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor because he sent a 17-year-old boy to his hotel room to fetch a marijuana cigarette”), Anslinger turned his focus to Hollywood.

Anslinger's biggest arrest in Hollywood was actor Robert Mitchum. Anslinger's FBN caught Mitchum and two others in a three-room cottage on the outskirts of Hollywood in 1948. They charged the young actor with possession but, in the end, Mitchum's case was dismissed in 1951. Anslinger also monitored the activities of blues singer Billie Holiday and singer/actress Judy Garland — both of whom would die from drug overdoses. Ironically, McWilliams reported, “Anslinger informed Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios in 1948 that Miss Garland is not now and has never been addicted to the use of narcotic drugs.”

As always though, Anslinger's bottom line was controlling the narrative. He wanted the studios to hew to the studios' Production Code, the set of self-imposed moral guidelines for content,  to avoid government scrutiny. When they strayed — as director Otto Preminger did with his feature “The Man With The Golden Arm,” a story about heroin addiction, Anslinger barked. He preferred pictures such as 1948's “To The Ends Of The Earth” — a story about U.S. Treasury Agents fighting international crime.

The fact that Anslinger had a cameo — playing himself — probably had something to do with it.

Next Installment: “Pushback.”

Just as success beckoned to Anslinger and his attempts to make marijuana illegal, New York City Mayor Fiorello Laguardia popped up to oppose Anslinger because the mayor knew that virtually everything Anslinger was saying about marijuana was untrue.


Follow the “Blunt Truths” series:

  • Introduction: How One Man Turned the Law and Society Against Weed
  • Chapter 1: Harry Anslinger, the Prohibition Cop with Nothing to Prohibit
  • Chapter 2: What Stoners Know that Harry Anslinger Didn't Care to Know
  • Chapter 3: Cannabis was Accepted Before Harry Anslinger
  • Chapter 4: The Great Hemp Conspiracy
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6: All Publicity is Good Publicity

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