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Reconsidering Ansinger: Race, the Gateway Theory, and the Origins of Marijuana Prohibition (Part II)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s note: This post concludes Seth Blumenthal’s two-part series on the origins of marijuana prohibition and the gateway theory of drug use. Make sure to catch up on Part I and please email the author at

Even the people who stood in opposition to the Marijuana Tax Act, such as Dr. William C. Woodward encouraged enforcement, claiming “we need heavier penalties” to stop the “illicit traffic that has developed in it [marijuana] for injurious and deleterious purposes.”  Yet, Woodward argued against the law to protect physicians’ and pharmacists’ right to prescribe cannabis as he blamed marijuana addiction on youth and claimed the problem will continue “until we develop young men and young women who are able to suffer a little and exercise a certain amount of control.”  When it came to educating young people and the medical industry, Woodward suggested, “we must deal with the narcotic addiction as something more than a police measure.”  In this context, even for opponents of prohibition, it was assumed that “young men and women” were the symbolic white victims that should be protected from marijuana and criminalization.


Marijuana also became a representation of the new concerns about youth, specifically, the advent of the teenager.  In 1937, a FBN representative spoke to over two thousand members of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers and asked them to help in the “relentless warfare on marihuana”; the most “pernicious” of drugs caused “temporary sense of complete irresponsibility that led to sex crimes” and was sold by “Mexican peddlers who have since reaped a financial harvest in the larger centers.” While this the FBN’s rhetoric linked marijuana dealers with immigration and urban settings as an enforcement issue, the Congress’ president spoke about ways to protect youth from pot as she told parents and educators to teach children to “think clearly…weigh evidence and enable them to meet new situations.” Naming these “new situations,” this gathering feared taverns, pool rooms with slot machines, “soft drink parlors with curtained booths” and “moving picture houses with low grade pictures and ‘bank nights.’”[1] So concerned about white teenagers learning about this vice from films such as Reefer Madness, the New York Board of Regents banned Assassin of Youth unless shown for educational purposes and not at “any place of amusement.” This distinction meant to emphasize the film’s warnings about marijuana and protected kids from learning about pot in the context of leisure and entertainment. Thus, parents concerns about marijuana’s seductive and addictive high served as the incipient foundation for the gateway theory. All sorts of threats lurked in the new suburban landscape that now confused so many parents who had never witnessed the rebellious behavior exhibited by adolescent American whites.

Scholarship on the advent of the teenager in the 1920s and 1930s shows American parents’ fears about adolescents’ vulnerabilities in modern, suburban leisure settings.  More widespread and pernicious than the racial minorities who purportedly smoked and sold pot; music, cars, cigarettes, and soda bars also invaded a new youth culture that spread throughout the growing suburban neighborhoods across America. These were new facets of the adolescent lifestyle that sparked their parents’ imaginations about the dangers lurking beneath.  As Grace Palladino explains the problem; “by the 1930s high school students seemed more convinced than ever that experimentation was a normal part of growing up.”[2] While Anslinger emphasized reports about Mexican peddlers, stories also blame pot for other youthful indiscretions and experimentation.  Kids were doing crazy things while high; one couple eloped while smoking marijuana, another young marijuana addict pawned his mother’s jewelry to satiate his craving for cigarettes.  Reading this anecdotal evidence cynically, perhaps marijuana also became a convenient excuse for young people looking to defend their actions.

In addition, in the 1930s, the depression raised fears of suicide, violence, crime, and the youth unemployment, and marijuana became a symbol of each these problems.  In one example, Anslinger explains that the depression had increased “vagrant youths coming into contact with older psychopaths” and initiated a rise in marijuana use.[3] While pot’s associations with opioid addiction evolved, marijuana’s unknowns created opportunities for its opponents to connect its use with whatever danger threatened young Americans. Since 1937, each version of the gateway theory requires historical context, as the larger danger that awaits “addicts” shifts with temporal and popular anxieties.

Although Reefer Madness has been revived to mock the 1930s’ silly perceptions about cannabis, dismissive reactions to this cult classic miss the film’s depiction of pot’s enduring threat as a gateway for young whites in an idealized suburban space.  As historian Martin Lee observed, prohibition resulted from “the synchronicity among Washington, Hollywood and mainstream media in the war against cannabis.”[4]  This does not mean, however, that the message was the same or repetitive, rather they each offered an important piece to the prohibition argument. Reefer Madness, for example, contrasted the ideal white suburban space with the various dangers it included. This larger anxiety, not the FBN’s racist scapegoating, shaped this film and resonated with many Americans. After all, it was a local church group of parents who began the project before a Hollywood production team bought the film to adapt and sell on the heavily attended sensationalist circuit of exploitation pictures.  The timing seemed right for another drug film as Marijuana had just played an eighteen day showing in Minneapolis for 25,000 admissions. Thus, Reefer Madness and the rash of exploitation drug films in the 1930s offer an important window into the cultural foundation for prohibition and the gateway theory.


A scene from Reefer Madness, 1936

The opening scene establishes the message and the audience, as the story of fallen innocence is told in a School-Parents Association meeting on the recent evil marijuana had wreaked on a lily white and otherwise pristine community. During the meeting, Dr. Alfred Carroll excoriates the adults in the room and “school-parent groups about the country” to demand “compulsory education” and “stamp out this frightful assassin of our youth.” The film describes a group of friends who are lured into a marijuana den by an adult couple.[5] Here, young people laugh hysterically, dance frantically, grope each other and are led into a world of crime and murder. This threat did not require an “other,” as the casts of all the drug films in the 1930s– even the pushers who prey on the high school students– are white. Reefer Madness is so white for several possible reasons. First, the film genre during this time almost never casted villains as non-whites.  As historian Schaefer explains, the film only showed “pleasure-seeking, attractive, white, middle-class youth” because it followed Hollywood’s pattern of avoiding stories that featured minorities.[6]  Second, the audience itself was mostly white and often young. This crowd had very little exposure to Mexicans, urban blacks, or marijuana as the film played nationally under four regionally specified titles and also appealed to movie-goers in the East where Anslinger admitted marijuana had not yet appeared in significant quantities.[7] To grab a national audience, then, popular drug films such as Marihuana and the Assassin of Youth showed the stepping stone argument for protecting innocent kids.[8] For most Americans in the late 1930s, the plight of experimental white teenagers proved more compelling than targeting Mexicans. Still, in the congressional hearing on prohibition, Anslinger could not admit marijuana needed a gateway theory as his reach for complete prohibition precluded any complexity in comparing pot to heroin.

As early as 1931, Dr. A.E. Fossier had claimed that marijuana use led to heroin addiction. Anslinger dismissed weed’s stepping stone potential in Congressional hearings out of the pragmatic need to separate marijuana as an unknown narcotic with unique effects unrelated to and more monstrous than anything that existed.[9]  “In medical schools, the physician to be is taught that without opium medicine would be like a one armed man….Opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll, and all the evil of Mr. Hyde.”  When it came to weed, however, Anslinger warned: “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”   While Anslinger’s testimony avoids the pot to heroin gateway argument for prohibition, his effort to protect American youth shares an ideal that framed marijuana as a seemingly innocuous yet deadly Trojan horse. This view marijuana as a deceptive attack on innocent and vulnerable youth also drives the “stepping stone” theory. Anslinger denied the connection between pot and opiates during the hearings, but that relationship resonated with the many Americans who attended the drug exploitation films during the 1930s.

In 1951, Anslinger pivoted and argued that marijuana led to heroin use in the context of the new American fear, the Cold War.  Why he made this change is clear, as heroin had become widely labeled a seditious infection promoted by the Chinese who imported the opioids to make Americans pacifists.  Thus, the shift in American fears, from local concerns about adolescents, crime and sexuality to the foreign invasion of soul numbing narcotics forced anti-marijuana activists to advocate cannabis’ gateway potential. In 1951, the Senate voted to declare marijuana a drug that led to other drug use and soon after increased penalties.  The worst part, as Anslinger argued, was that drug addiction was a “contagious disease,” and “Red China” was attempting to subvert American society by smuggling heroin into the country. This meant that all pushers were criminals who infected American youth and threatened the nation’s democracy.

In 1972, spelling out marijuana’s gateway potential to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Richard Nixon explained: “once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society — marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc. then you’re done.”[10] Nixon, the first President to declare a “War on Drugs,” railed against marijuana’s role in the youth revolt and drug culture as he cheered his aides to “hit it hard,” opting to, “Enforce the law, you’ve got to scare them.” But, even as the War on Drugs began in the early 1970s, enforcement focused on busting pushers and sparing first time offenders–plenty of cover for white suburban pot smokers trying to avoid the punitive American justice system.

During the 1980s. new and since debunked research showing that marijuana caused brain damage (think “This is your brain on drugs” and Just Say No) once again made marijuana the problem, and a gateway theory became less essential to the reasoning behind Ronald Reagan’s own War on Drugs.  As Reagan pointed out, “hard and soft….drugs are bad and we’re going after them.” Still, while marijuana legalization efforts sprang from gay rights activists in San Francisco who saw its medicinal potential with AIDS patients, Reagan’s drug advisor, Carlton Turner, offered a contradictory version of the drug that once again adapted the gateway theory.  Turner connected the drug to a new scourge, HIV, claiming that homosexuality “follows along from their drug use” and puts pot smokers at a higher risk of getting the disease. Though these comments cost Turner his job, this Reaganesque fantasy of pot and social depravation showed once again why historians and recently more Americans have become skeptical of the gateway theory.[11]

The medicinal marijuana movement evolved in the 1990s, kryptonite for the super gateway theory.  This development blurred the distinction between medical “cannabis” and menacing “marihuana” that made possible the concerns about pot as a stepping stone drug. As it has become abundantly clear, many Americans now think that marijuana does have the good of Dr. Jekyll.  In fact, the website for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program just recently removed marijuana from its list of gateway drugs, and researchers now even contend that there is a potential reverse gateway as some states are attempting to treat opioid addicts with marijuana. The rise and fall of the gateway theory provides a clear picture of what is changing now, and why the legalization effort has achieved so much success.  Still, David Simon, the director of the popular show about Baltimore’s own war on drugs, The Wire, argued that new US drug laws only help “white-middle class kids.”[1] “If they [politicians] can find a way for white kids in middle-class suburbia to get high without them going to jail,” Simon argued, “and getting them to think that what they do is a million miles away from black kids taking crack, that is what politicians would do.” Blaming Anslinger for this phenomenon ignores the more complicated forces that shaped prohibition. By understanding the protectionary, spatial foundation of the war on drugs, the recent reforms appear to mirror the traditional concern over public health for suburban, white youth and perpetuate “the reciprocal criminalization of blackness and decriminalization of whiteness.”  The rise and the fall of the gateway theory indicates that marijuana reform is limited, but also show that this change in drug policy could lead Americans to expand the public health emphasis concerning narcotics laws.

[1] “David Simon, Creator of The Wire, Says New US Drug Laws Help Only ‘white, middle-class kids’”, The Guardian, April 25, 2013.

[1] “War on Marihuana Urged on Parents: Federal Expert Calls on P.T.A”, May 4, 1937; The New York Times, p. 26.

[2] Grace Palladino, Teenagers: An American History, (Basic Books; New York, 1997.)

[3] Ibid

[4] Martin Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific, (New York: Scribner;, 2013), p.53.

[5] Reefer Madness, Louis J. Gasnier: Director; George A. Hirliman Productions, 1936.

[6] Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, Duke University Press Books; Durham, North Carolina,1999), p.233.

[7] “Marihuana makes Maniacs of Mild People: Is Warning” The Milwaukee Journal, Jan 30, 1945, p.4.

[8] Marihuana, Dwain Esper: Director, Roadshow Attractions, 1936; Assassin of Youth, Elmer Clifton: Director, BCM Roadshow Productions, 1937.

[9] David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. (New Haven: Yale University Press., 1973).

[10] Oval Office Conversation.690, March 21, 1972, 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm White House Tapes.

[11] “Reagan Aide: Pot Can Make You Gay”, Newsweek, October 27, 1986, p.95.

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