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World War II and Drug Prevention

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 


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Drug use spiked during the war as soldiers at home and abroad found marijuana more accessible and desirable while serving for the armed forces in various theaters around the world. While the military maintained its emphasis on stopping the drug supply during the war and protecting bases from “predatory” dealers, soldiers on leave “over there” and on the home front consumed marijuana with relative impunity. Initially, Anslinger used WWII screenings of soldiers to brag that, while the military rejected one of every 1,500 Americans from enlisting due to addiction during WWI, only one of every 10,000 was rejected for military service during WWII. In other words, WWII had reversed this trend.


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During World War II, Anslinger stubbornly clung to his racially-constructed insistence that less educated soldiers from broken homes made up the majority of drug users and addicts in the military. Government reports defied this notion, as well-educated soldiers who had finished their schooling also used drugs. As one Congressman worried, “I am wondering, what the mothers and fathers of young men who are to be drafted or who volunteer are going to think when they pick up tomorrow’s paper and realize that their sons might well get out of his service to his country being a worthless addict.” This concern, despite the contention that addicts were “worthless,” painted drug users more sympathetically than Anslinger’s testimony and heightened a focus on prevention and education.

Officers during WWII had feared that drug education dramatized narcotics abuse and would “tempt some who have never tried it to go out and try some.” Another government official explained anti-addiction films’ unintended consequences, claiming, “Often the evil warned against is portrayed so attractively, seductively, and voluptuously that the inevitable result would be to attract people to experiment with the vice.” This avoidance approach came under increasing scrutiny after the war when this debate moved to consider prevention strategies as drug abuse and addiction increased in the military.   

Politicians in the 1950s grilled military officials for a broken chain of command and lack of uniformity when it came to resources and focus on drug education. Long before public schools in the 1960s employed more proactive education programs to teach students the dangers of drug abuse and to decrease demand for narcotics, the military considered alternatives to a supply-side interdiction. Reflecting on the rise of WWII soldiers’ drug use, policy and narcotics experts developed prevention strategies. As Senator Joseph O’Mahoney (D-WY) argued, “The most important thing from the point of view of the relatives of the soldiers is to prevent addiction in the first place.” “For that purpose,” he suggested, “I think education of the troops is a very important element.”  The military quickly responded with mandatory training videos for soldiers that emphasized marijuana’s gateway potential to create heroin addiction. Even Anslinger adopted this position after WWII and admitted the association between “habit-forming” cannabis and opioids. In official testimony, he declared, “Our great concern about the use of marihuana, [is] that eventually if used over a long period it does lead to heroin addiction.”

This shift also pushed the conversation about drug use education and prevention into the national security context that resonated with Americans’ Cold War emphasis on protecting America’s democracy and productivity. Planning the post-war economy as early as 1943, the president of Pennsylvania-Central Airlines addressed the National Aeronautic association, deriding his industry for “day dreaming” its strategy, and lectured his cohort to replace its “vision of the marihuana type” with “with the practical type upon which real progress is made.” Popular perceptions of marijuana clashed with political and economic elites’ vision for an American century.

Thus, drug awareness and education efforts after WWII also absorbed this era’s patriotic impulse and shaped public prevention efforts around citizenship and efficiency. With this focus on civic identity in drug awareness, the targeted anti-narcotics messages in distinct regions and demographics that followed the post-war era continued the culturally-defined perceptions of cannabis that mapped out the changing arguments for including marijuana in the War on Drugs.   

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