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Highlighting Race, Ignoring Motive: Science, Subjectivity, and Walter Bromberg at Bellevue

Updated: Aug 29, 2023


Bromberg’s Laboratory

The year 1934 was a turning point for cannabis in the U.S. This was the year that Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics turned its attention toward the marijuana menace, thus inaugurating the reefer madness era. That same year, Dr. Walter Bromberg, senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, published the first in a series of articles about his examinations of cannabis users in New York. The article, entitled “Marihuana Intoxication” appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Historians have pointed to Bromberg’s work as a direct challenge to the FBN’s narrative of the marijuana menace during this period. His general conclusions seem to affirm this characterization, especially in terms of the extent and impact of use. For example, in the ’34 article, Bromberg describes a survey of felony convicts in Manhattan in which only seven smoked the drug regularly, and none of their crimes were committed as a result of, during or after, marijuana intoxication. By 1939, Bromberg was able to link the misinformation directly to the propagandistic efforts of various public institutions, even forcing Anslinger to respond personally.

But highlighting the conflict between medical authority and drug policy obscures the significance of Bromberg’s examination of his patients. Looking deeper into Bromberg’s conclusions reveals the ways in which his racial worldview, and his profession, caused him to draw connections between marijuana use and degeneracy. His work laid the contemporary framework for a scientifically informed race-based explanation of cannabis use which, though not new, had far reaching implications on U.S. War on Drugs, and the unique place that cannabis holds in that policy area. In addition, recognizing Bromberg’s subjectivity lends credence to historiographical arguments about the importance of set and setting on drug use and addiction, as well as my own hypothesis that cannabis was used as self-medication.

Having already been pigeon-holed as a foreign menace, it is no surprise that the subjects presented to Bromberg were disproportionately non-white, and were admitted by police. Generally speaking, Non-white users were classified by how the drug worked on their personalities. With white users, Bromberg appears to excuse their use by highlighting a patient’s underlying pathology leading to use. When read in this way, the racial and eugenic tone of the marijuana debate within the medical community comes to the fore, as does the unspoken motivation for use, for both groups. In the two key articles, published in 1934 and 1936, and summarized in a 1939 article in JAMA, we can see this subjectivity at work. He presents his subjects in no particular order, but by separating Bromberg’s white subjects from his non-white subjects, we can see the clear differences in the way he handles these two groups.[1]

Marijuana Girl

The threat of cannabis on respectable sexuality was not confined to men.

One man, described as a “24-year-old negro laborer” smoked a “few reefer cigarettes” and had a “frightening” reaction which landed him at Bellevue, having been escorted there by police. Bromberg noted the patient’s hazy recollection of the events of the day. Another black patient, a 28 year old of unknown occupation, had been at a party drinking, when he was offered marijuana. This patient’s bad reaction produced initial sexual excitement followed by suicidal thoughts, and led the patient to seek medical help. The patient was observed and released the following morning. Sexual excitement was a common theme among both popular and official characterizations of marijuana users and presented one of the most evident sources of concern. A “well developed [adult] negro” had been brought to Bellevue by officers who had observed him “following women” in Central Park. Described as an “illiterate laborer” the man used marijuana at a party and began to hallucinate images of naked black and white women in bed who “appeared as though they expected men.” The patient left the party and his hallucination continued where he saw naked women walking around in Central Park. The next day, the patient was described as “composed, quiet [and] clear” having remembered everything about the day before except for “a period at the height of the excitement.”

With no consideration of prior psychological makeup, Bromberg assumed that the effects described by this group of patients was caused by cannabis use. And though these men didn’t commit crimes per se, there was a clear determination that without intervention by police, or through a complete breakdown, marijuana intoxication might very well lead to sexual deviance. By highlighting the effects of intoxication and ignoring underlying pathology, Bromberg’s conclusions reinforce the long-standing racist assumptions about the effect of drugs on non-white users.

With his white subjects, Bromberg is careful to classify them as “abnormal” in some way. Rather than attribute negative experiences to marijuana use, he attributes the rise in aggressiveness and over-sexuality, seen clearly in his non-white subjects, to a general lack of “social restraint” brought on by underlying pathology in his white patients. He claims that marijuana use does indeed have a more marked influence on “inadequate types,” a loaded term in early twentieth-century medical parlance. He described a 27 year old man “of old American stock” as a chronic alcoholic who “displayed definite evidences [sic] of a psychopathic makeup.”Another man, an “intelligent Hollander,” a 29 year old butler who smoked marijuana for two years, was observed by Bromberg in 1934. He was brought in by police after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Bromberg is keen to note a history of depression resulting from his “[worry] about his being a homosexualist [sic].” Another white man, 26 years old who “had done all kinds of work but rarely…for an extended period” was introduced to marijuana from a “Hindu” whom he met at his union club meeting. This short list of examples illustrates that “abnormal” white people, alcoholics, homosexuals, and itinerant laborers, frequently influenced by foreigners were prime candidates for marijuana use.

In contrast to the bias on display for non-white users, Bromberg assumes that white users’ motivations are internal, mental health issues. While none of us today would equate alcoholism, vagrancy, and homosexuality, the ways in which these were equated in the early twentieth century makes Bromberg’s conclusions here useful. In fact, combining Bromberg’s biases can reveal the utility of these seemingly antiquated observations by reverse-historicizing our modern conceptions of race, mental health, and self-medication onto these subjects. These new conclusions add layers onto some of my previous speculations on the role and utility of intoxication for cannabis users in this era.

Primarily, the notion that race is a determining factor of the effect of a drug on the body is ludicrous. This conclusion allows us to consider Bromberg’s non-white subjects alongside (and not separate from) his white subjects. In doing this, the similarities come to the fore. These patients all seem to share class and occupational status. During the Depression, it seems likely that these working class folks are dealing with a certain degree of anxiety, if not outright depression, due to their noted economic hardships. In addition, you might recognize the problematic sexuality of gay and black men as a significant social issue in the 1930s. Bromberg highlights sexuality as both cause (gay white men) and effect (black men) of cannabis use. We could perhaps conclude (historians have, here and here) that Bromberg was highlighting a popular anxiety about male sexuality that, aside from the false attribution, had nothing at all to do with cannabis use at all.

Finally, Bromberg’s conclusions include very little examination of the user’s perspective at all. The only dialogue he recounts in his articles involve descriptions of how the patient came to Bellevue, and their present state of mind during the examination. Little consideration is given to specific motivations for use. However, we can infer, and add other evidence to support, the notion that cannabis use was a form of self-medication for users in the context of economic depression, and suffocating social regulations.

In 1939, two years after passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, Bromberg published a summary of his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In it, he tries to take back the independence of the medical findings, insisting that it was the job of the clinician to determine what effects marijuana had on incidents of psychosis: “One is apt to overestimate the place of marihuana in the causation of a psychotic picture” due to the


The real cause of anxiety and Depression during the 1930s

increased public attention given to the drug by “police officers, narcotic officers, prosecutors [and] judges” over the preceding ten years.

But more than staking out the boundaries of medical authority, and their role in determining the “causation of a psychotic picture,” Bromberg, perhaps unwittingly, sets out the framework of my self-medication thesis. “The basic personality of the smoker appears to be a vital factor in the development of a marihuana psychosis. Countless persons used marihuana without the development of an observable mental condition.” He also highlighted the need for more investigation, especially among white patients, to arrive at any definitive conclusions on that point. I will avoid falling victim to Bromberg’s subjectivity in my own work, but stay tuned for more of my own findings within these subsequent investigations.

[1] This post is drawn from three articles in various medical journals during the 1930s. They include: Walter Bromberg, “Marihuana Intoxication,” American Journal of Psychiatry, (91: 1934), pp. 303-30. Walter Bromberg, “Menace of Marihuana,” Medical Record. (142: 1935), pp. 309-11.Walter Bromberg, “Marihuana, A Psychiatric Study,” Journal of the American Medical Association. (113: 1939), pp. 4-12.



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