The hysteria was captured in the propaganda films of the time — most famously, "Reefer Madness," which depicted young adults descending into violence and insanity after smoking marijuana. The movie found little audience upon its release in 1936 but was rediscovered by pot fans in the 1970s.
Congress banned marijuana with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Anslinger continued his campaign into the '40s and '50s, sometimes trying — without luck — to get jazz musicians to inform on each other. "Zoot suited hep cats, with their jive lingo and passion for swift, hot music, provide a fertile field for growth of the marijuana habit, narcotics agents have found here," began a 1943 Washington Post story about increasing pot use in the nation's capital.
The Department of Agriculture promoted a different message. After Japanese troops cut off access to Asian fiber supplies during World War II, it released "Hemp For Victory," a propaganda film urging farmers to grow hemp and extolling its use in parachutes and rope for the war effort.
As the conformity of the postwar era took hold, getting high on marijuana and other drugs emerged as a symbol of the counterculture, with Jack Kerouac and the rest of the Beat Generation singing pot's praises. It also continued to be popular with actors and musicians. When actor Robert Mitchum was arrested on a marijuana charge in 1948, People magazine recounted, "The press nationwide branded him a dope fiend. Preachers railed against him from pulpits. Mothers warned their daughters to shun his films."
Congress responded to increasing drug use — especially heroin — with stiffer penalties in the '50s. Anslinger began to hype what we now call the "gateway drug" theory: that marijuana had to be controlled because it would eventually lead its users to heroin.
Then came Vietnam. The widespread, open use of marijuana by hippies and war protesters from San Francisco to Woodstock finally exposed the falsity of the claims so many had made about marijuana leading to violence, says University of Virginia professor Richard Bonnie, a scholar of pot's cultural status.
In 1972, Bonnie was the associate director of a commission appointed by President Richard Nixon to study marijuana. The commission said marijuana should be decriminalized and regulated. Nixon rejected that, but a dozen states in the '70s went on to eliminate jail time as a punishment for pot arrests.
"JUST SAY NO"
The push to liberalize drug laws hit a wall by the late 1970s. Parents groups became concerned about data showing that more children were using drugs, and at a younger age. The religious right was emerging as a force in national politics. And the first "Cheech and Chong" movie, in 1978, didn't do much to burnish pot's image.
When she became first lady, Nancy Reagan quickly promoted the anti-drug cause. During a visit with schoolchildren in Oakland, Calif., as Reagan later recalled, "A little girl raised her hand and said, 'Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?' And I said, 'Well, you just say no.' And there it was born."
By 1988, more than 12,000 "Just Say No" clubs and school programs had been formed, according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. Between 1978 and 1987, the percentage of high school seniors reporting daily use of marijuana fell from 10 percent to 3 percent.
And marijuana use was so politically toxic that when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he said he "didn't inhale."
MEDS OF A DIFFERENT SORT
Marijuana has been used as medicine since ancient times, as described in Chinese, Indian and Roman texts, but U.S. drug laws in the latter part of the 20th century made no room for it. In the 1970s, many states passed symbolic laws calling for studies of marijuana's efficacy as medicine, although virtually no studies ever took place because of the federal prohibition.
Nevertheless, doctors noted its ability to ease nausea and stimulate appetites of cancer and AIDS patients. And in 1996, California became the first state to allow the medical use of marijuana. Since then, 17 other states and the District of Columbia have followed.