Poor old Herbert Hoover gets blamed for a lot of things, chief among them his inability to miraculously halt the Great Depression.

Maligned as the former president is, he was a smart and studied man. Much of what we regard as the modern American criminal justice system owes to Hoover’s influences. Unfortunately, among all the good he did to professionalize criminal justice, he made one small grievous error that manifests even today.

That error is the lasting legacy of Harry Anslinger. In 1930, Anslinger, a career diplomat, was tapped by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to head the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a predecessor to the modern Drug Enforcement Administration.

Under Anslinger’s direction, the FBN worked to increase penalties for drug usage and broaden enforcement measures. FBN efforts are generally credited with passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, as well as strengthening the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914.

During his 32 years running FBN, Anslinger proved to be a zealous champion of anti-narcotics enforcement. That said, his zeal evidenced not only a desire to rid the nation of dangerous drugs, but a deep-seated intolerance of racial and ethnic minorities. Anslinger, in league with the yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst, propagated a campaign that conflated the "problem" of blacks and Mexicans with the harms of illicit drugs.

A characteristically melodramatic Anslinger appeal is found in the July 1937 issue of American Magazine in which he writes: "Not long ago the body of a young girl lay crushed on the sidewalk after a plunge from a Chicago apartment window. Everyone called it suicide, but actually it was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marijuana …"

With recent elections re-valuating marijuana’s putative benefits as a palliative aid — and in Washington and Colorado as a recreational substance — it’s clear the era of Reefer Madness has begun to subside. Even so, we must remain cognizant that there are liabilities associated with the use of marijuana.

That said, the deaths caused each year by alcohol and tobacco have become so woven into the national fabric that most would consider their prohibition completely unrealistic. Nonetheless, we have the current federal prohibition of marijuana. People concerned over the potential harm of marijuana often invoke the "gateway" argument. Scientists are less sure.

In an August issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, Yale researchers conclude that people who used alcohol or tobacco in their youth are almost twice as likely to abuse prescription opiate drugs than those who only used marijuana. The study’s authors qualify their findings with the observation that any youth substance abuse, including just marijuana use, makes people more than twice as likely to abuse prescription opiate drugs in young adulthood.

However, the study’s authors note clinical data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that of the 12 percent of young adults who said they had abused prescription opiates, "prevalence of previous substance use was 57 percent for alcohol, 56 percent for cigarettes, and 34 percent for marijuana." Again, we have an obvious precursor boogeyman among us, but his lobbyists have a better head start than the marijuana industry.

The most interesting wrinkle in this debate comes from agents of the criminal justice system themselves. Recently, members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to refrain from interfering with ballot initiatives approved by Colorado and Washington voters.

The LEAP letter, signed by "73 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors and federal agents," reads in part: "At every crucial moment in history, there comes a time when those who derive their power from the public trust forge a new path by disavowing their expected function in the name of the greater good. This is your moment. As fellow officers who have seen the destruction the war on marijuana has wrought on our communities, on our police forces, on our lives, we hope that you will join us in seeking a better world."

Of course, in the best of worlds, modern medicine would have obviated a demand for marijuana; and people’s notion of recreation wouldn’t include having to escape something. Until those things manifest, the decades-old debate will likely persist.


Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com