“Devil Weed”—How the Newspaper Industry and Nylon Played Shameful Roles in Criminalizing Marijuana

By Steve Panovich

(the influence)

The criminalization of marijuana is rooted in a variety of causes, from Pancho Villa to corporate profits to good-old-fashioned racism.

But a lesser-known aspect is the role of the newspaper industry in demonizing weed and forcing lawmakers to a pass a series of harsh laws that have since ruined millions of lives.

When federal drug enforcement interests needed to convince Congress to boost its funding for a war on marijuana, the newspaper industry helped stir up fears about the plant. And in a concerted effort with the agricultural industry, the media of the day succeeded in creating a drug panic with long-lasting consequences.

Anslinger and Hearst

The war against marijuana was launched by a few key players , each with a stake in vilifying weed:  Key among them were a racist prohibitionist named Harry Anslinger and the also-racist newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (pictured above). The story of marijuana criminalization revolves around the tangled connections between the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the newspaper industry, and industrial textile and paper production. As John Lupien, founder of hemp technology startup Bastcore, puts it, the assault on marijuana was initially triggered “by the monopolistic greed and economic insecurity of a few financially threatened industries.”

In 1930, as alcohol prohibition began to wind down, Harry Anslinger was appointed to the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Initially, Anslinger did not consider marijuana a narcotic and had previously declared the plant as harmless. But only a few years later, he changed his tune.

Meanwhile, on the media side: Ask any over-educated stoner and they’ll give you the conspiracy theory that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had his bottom line in mind when declaring war on marijuana. The theory goes that Hearst feared industrial hemp would cut into profits from wood pulp manufacturing used in newspaper production. The truth is apparently not so simple.

“This is an oft-told story,” leading Hearst historian David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, tells me. “But in doing my research, which was extensive, I found no evidence to back it up.” (That’s not to say that there weren’t a number of other industries threatened by hemp. More on that later).

But Hearst had plenty of other motivations to wage war against marijuana. During the Mexican Revolution, he lost some 800,000 acres of land and 60,000 head of cattle in northern Mexico to Pancho Villa and the Zapatistas, well-known for their love of marijuana. Add to this Hearst’s well-documented racism and nativism, especially against Mexicans, and it’s easy to see why the Hearst newspaper chain became an eager ally in the government’s anti-weed crusade.

The mogul’s many papers began to paint marijuana, arriving from the southern border, as a scourge to society. Even the term “marihuana,” which fast replaced “cannabis” and “Indian hemp” in the press lexicon, originated from Mexico—a fact that played to the racist sentiment of the era.

In 1935, at the peak of his empire, Hearst owned newspaper and media outlets in every section of the United States, including 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines, as well as a conglomerate of radio stations, wire services and motion picture companies. Hearst had previously waged a harsh campaign against newly-elected president FDR, outright calling him a communist. Marijuana became another target.

“We do just what the old man orders.” Chicago Herald-Tribune reporter Charley Wheeler said of his employer in 1934. “One week he orders a campaign against rats. The next week he orders a campaign against dope peddlers. Pretty soon he’s going to campaign against college professors. It’s all the bunk, but orders are orders.”

The Attack on Industrial Hemp

Prior to the late 1930s, industrial hemp was seen as more of a curiosity than a threat. Aside from the occasional sensational reporting of marijuana as a narcotic, the American public didn’t know much about it. The Chicago Tribune had even sponsored an “experimental hemp farm” in 1935.

It was clear that industrial hemp had the potential to be a viable cash crop, even more so than for medical use, and farmers familiar with hemp knew it. Textile and paper manufacturing industries were voraciously searching for alternatives to wood pulp for their manufacturing in the US, turning everywhere from corn husks to weed. Even John Deere had manufactured an industrial hemp processor known as the decorticator, a cannabis version of the cotton gin.

It looked as if hemp was poised to become a major industry in the United States. Elizabeth Bass, FBN supervisor in Illinois, noted to Anslinger after touring the Tribune’s hemp farm, “Objections raised by manufacturing druggists who have slight need of the extracts of the Cannabis in medicinal compounds will be trifling when compared with the country-wide protests that will be raised as with one voice by the experimental stations everywhere developing the use of fibers of the Cannabis plant stems for every variety of textile.”

Enter big business: From 1935–1937, chemicals conglomorate DuPont lobbied the Department of Treasury for the prohibition of industrial hemp. DuPont’s reasons were clear — they were the primary supplier of chemical additives to wood pulp processing, and hemp was seen as a threat to business.

DuPont was also on the verge of releasing a new synthetic substance called “nylon,” the commercial success of which was threatened by cellulose-based substances such as hemp. Their lobbying efforts were ultimately successful.

Along with the Department of Agriculture’s industrial hemp prohibition came the demonization of marijuana from newspaper stories and ultimately Anslinger’s testimony to Congress.

When Harry Anslinger took control of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the government didn’t allocate enough funding to physically eradicate marijuana nationally. Understaffed, Anslinger had to come up with an alternative, so he looked to paint marijuana as a “scourge” among youth.

The 1937 congressional hearings on marijuana allowed Anslinger to propagandize against the plant. Using newspaper clippings from a variety of sources including Hearst’s publications, Anslinger compiled what he called “gore files” detailing ghastly horrors supposedly perpetrated under the influence of the “devil weed.”

“The fatal marihuana cigarette must be recognized as a deadly drug and American children must be protected against it,” Hearst’s Washington Times editorialized, and Anslinger even tried his hand at journalism—writing several anti-marijuana screeds for The American and Reader’s Digest.

The newspaper propaganda worked, as the lies began infiltrating the medical community. In a 1936 volume of the American Journal of Nursingmarijuana was found “to produce a violent type of insanity which has brought to it the name ‘loco weed.’” The medical journal noted that “the subject will suddenly turn with murderous violence upon whomever is nearest to him. He will run amuck with knife, axe, gun, or anything else that is close at hand, and will kill or maim without any reason.”

By the late ’30s and early ’40s, the fear-mongering newspaper and publishing industries exploded with anti-marijuana propaganda, producing trashy pulp novels and sensational headlines.

“There must be constant enforcement and constant education against this enemy,” Anslinger wrote of marijuana in The American at this time, “which has a record of murder and terror running through the centuries.”

The campaign could not have been more successful. The US government banned marijuana, then proceeded to pressure the rest of the world to do the same; the profoundly damaging results are being felt to this day.

And the ways that the yellow journalism of the Hearst empire and the self-interest of DuPont abetted Anslinger’s malevolent crusade should not be forgotten.


Steve Panovich is a writer whose work has appeared in High Times and Skyscraperzine.com.


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