Updated: Apr 14

Profiling a publication with a prominent piece of prohibitionist propaganda.

For the first century and a half of our nation’s history, the plant commonly known as “Indian hemp” was widely used for a number of purposes—including a variety of medicinal remedies and tonics—with no restriction. Then in 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted, requiring all products containing any of ten specified ingredients that were deemed "addictive" and/or "dangerous" (of which “cannabis indica” was included, alongside alcohol, morphine, opium, and others) to list them on their label. Still, manufacturers were in no way prohibited from producing or selling them.

In that same year, a publication that had undergone numerous name changes over the previous three decades rebranded itself one final time as The American Magazine. Originally distributed by Phillips Publishing Company, it had up until then been known for its "muckraking" writers—a term coined by then-president Teddy Roosevelt to describe investigative journalists who exposed corrupt institutions, politicians, and practices. After being acquired by Crowell Publishing in 1911, however, the magazine began featuring less provocative content, such as fiction and human interest stories, in an effort to court a wider readership—or so they said.

Muckraker Cleveland Moffett

Some in the industry, however, saw this not as a harmless shift in editorial focus, but as a deliberate attempt by corporate interests to silence journalists who were speaking truth to power. Noted muckraker Cleveland Moffett claimed in a New York Times article that “the purchase of The American Magazine by Crowell Publishing Company meant that ‘the interests’ were bent on swallowing up the muckrakers…” and that journalists were “...up against the powers of darkness.” “The right of free speech in America is in jeopardy,” he warned. “They are trying to muzzle the magazines. Several magazines have changed hands recently. They have come under the control of interests, and in each of them the muckraking features will cease."

As it turned out, Mr. Moffatt's fears were well-founded; over the next two decades, many magazines and newspapers that had been gobbled up by media conglomerates would foster the birth of a new reporting style anathema to the muckrakers. Dubbed "yellow journalism" (what we would today call "tabloid journalism" or “fake news”), it relied on sensationalism, fear-mongering, and sentimentality rather than investigative acumen, rationality, and hard facts.

Media mogul William Randolph Hearst

Undoubtedly, the most egregious perpetrator of this unsavory editorial practice was media magnate William Randolph Hearst (the basis for Orson Welles' cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane). Hearst hired a writer named Winifred Bonfils who, under the pen name Annie Laurie, wrote a series of columns for his news syndicate railing against the evils of narcotics—eventually turning her typewriter against weed as well. Eschewing the familiar terms “hemp” and “cannabis,” which had been used by Western culture for centuries, these articles rebranded the widely used plant as some dangerous new drug called “marihuana”—the foreign-sounding slang name used by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, who at the time were flooding across the border at an alarming rate.

Anti-cannabis / anti-Mexican yellow journalism

Through the 1920s, Hearst published a flood of Laurie’s yellow journalism articles about these marijuana-smoking Mexicans and murderers throughout the thirty-odd newspapers and magazines in his print empire, which were read by nearly a quarter of all Americans. Many amateur historians, including legendary legalization activist Jack Herer, have speculated that Hearst’s motives for condemning cannabis went beyond mere racism—that he and Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, among others, saw the hemp industry as a threat to their investment holdings in the timber, oil and chemical industries. But upon serious research, this argument doesn’t seem to hold water factually. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, however, it was this procession of propaganda—later appropriated and amplified by one notorious anti-drug zealot—that would eventually lead to America’s criminalization of cannabis. That zealot was Harry Jacob Anslinger.

A former railroad inspector and corporate spin doctor for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Anslinger landed a job as an assistant commissioner in the Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition—thanks in part to the convenient fact that Secretary Mellon happened to be his wife's uncle. When the Bureau was transferred to the Justice Department in 1930, Uncle Andrew appointed Anslinger as Commissioner of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the precursor to today’s DEA)—making him America’s first defacto drug czar.