CannaTalk – William Randolph Hearst Stokes Reefer Madness With Fake News! – Another Episode in the Continuing Series ‘The History of Cannabis in America’
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By TLB Contributing Author & Show Narrator: Eleanor Cooney
Ever heard of a decorticator? No, it’s not a tool used by a mad brain surgeon in a ‘B’ movie. I’ll tell you who knew exactly what it was, and who felt as threatened by it as he might have been if it were such a surgical tool, and that’s media king of his day William Randolph Hearst.
The decorticator was a piece of farming equipment reported on by Popular Mechanics magazine in a 1938 article about a new “billion-dollar crop.” This crop could be made into thousands of different products, ranging from food to shoes to paper to clothing to construction and industrial materials. One acre of this stunningly versatile crop could produce the cellulose of four acres of trees. Henry Ford had already used it to make car bodies, and envisioned running those cars on fuel made from this crop.
What was this crop, and why would the decorticator help it supercharge the US economy, still staggering under the Great Depression? Why, that crop was hemp, of course, and the decorticator was a harvesting machine that mechanically and with great efficiency separated the famously sturdy fibers of the hemp stalk, making it available quickly and cheaply for all those fantastically useful and infinitely diverse applications. Until then, hemp was grown and processed by hand in small-scale labor-intensive operations. The decorticator would revolutionize the production of hemp, unleashing all that staggering potential for sorely-needed prosperity. Hemp, as anybody reading or hearing this piece knows, is the low-to-no-THC version of the cannabis plant. George Washington grew it on his farm, and there’s even some evidence in his own writings that what he grew wasn’t always quite so low-THC, if you know what I mean, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
William Randolph Hearst, newspaper and timber mogul and Hollywood hobnobber, was not amused at the prospect of some plant anybody could grow, and which took up 75% less room than trees and which grew a hundred times faster, capable of producing a fully mature crop up to three times a year, interfering with his interlocked and smoothly running mega-business empire of news and the paper it was printed on. Also not amused was fellow billionaire Lammot DuPont, of DuPont Chemicals. His company created man-made fibers, and had made a fortune off rayon and nylon in the 1920s and 30s. Nylon had been specifically invented as an alternative to hemp fiber. And guess what? DuPont and Hearst had a major deal going: DuPont supplied the chemicals for Hearst’s paper-pulping operations. With this newfangled decorticator, hemp could be turned into paper at a prodigious rate and without those nasty chemicals.
Tycoons tend to stick together when they have common cause. Plus Hearst and Du Pont had a major ally in the government: the renowned Harry Anslinger, Mr. Anti-cannabis himself, was appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930 by his uncle-in-law, Treasury Secretary under Herbert Hoover and financial backer of DuPont Andrew Mellon, a name that evokes the aroma and crackle of vast quantities of dynastic dollars.
Hearst and Anslinger had some talents and proclivities in common: they were both rabid racists and xenophobes, and they both knew how to spin a tall tale. While Anslinger’s specialty was stoking the public’s psychosexual fears of brown-skinned marauders, both domestic and foreign, Hearst, eager to sabotage hemp via the anti-marijuana hysteria of the day, published lurid stories of weed-induced murder and madness in his newspapers and magazines. Like Anslinger, he had a special hatred in his heart for Mexicans: during the Mexican revolution, he lost almost a million acres of timberland south of the border. He and Anslinger would eventually team up.
We toss the term “fake news” around a lot today, but Hearst might be the all-time champ of the art, and he was in a unique position to spread it high and low. As early as the 1920s, he’d published dozens of lethally bogus stories, like the one about how marijuana was called the “murder drug” in India because it made men grab up knives and stab strangers in the street. And later, in 1937, when the criminalization of marijuana was juggernauting across the country, a piece coauthored by Anslinger appeared in the July, 1937 issue of Hearst’s The American Magazine. You can look it up. Anslinger really had his mojo working when he penned this piece of grotesque malarkey that goes on and on and on about marijuana-induced mayhem. Here’s an excerpt:
“An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found him staggering around in a human slaughterhouse. With an ax he had murdered his father, his mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze…’I’ve had a terrible dream,’ he said. ‘People tried to hack off my arms!’ ”
Turns out the “youth” had been smoking “muggles.” Now, there’s a name we cannabis proponents should co-opt!
So, thanks, William Randolph Hearst! You showed us what happens when greed, clout and xenophobia intersect so expeditiously. You showed us how big powerful entities like you are perfectly willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of millions of people on the altar of your wealth and ego. Not only did we lose the huge economic boom that would have been had hemp not been illegalized along with marijuana, we lost the centuries-old near-panacea of medicinal cannabis, sweet soother of a thousand ills. The mind staggers trying to count the number of lives you ruined, via loss of prosperity, the legal system and pain and suffering.
Too bad no one ever sat you down and had you smoke a muggle.
Where’s my decorticator?
Watch this informative presentation …
Coming soon to CannaTalk:
Movie Review: Reefer Madness!
Just who are these “not good” people who smoke marijuana?
Cannabis throughout history. Refuting the tired old “there’s not enough evidence” argument.
About the Author/Narrator: Eleanor Cooney is a writer and a connoisseur of the absurd, the macabre, the bizarre and subterfuge, but chokes up over “brave dog” stories. She wrote three novels set in T’ang Dynasty China. Her nonfiction memoir DEATH IN SLOW MOTION was published by HarperCollins in 2004. She recently completed a novel called THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, a sly, dark, eclectic thriller for literate readers.
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