The following essay is perhaps the best takedown of reefer madness propaganda you’ll see.
It first appeared in the 1966 issue of the prestigious “The Atlantic” magazine.
It’s written by Allen Ginsberg, the internationally-lauded late poet and activist from the legendary “Beat generation” of the 1950s and 60s.
Ginsberg’s essay vividly shows how the reefer madness portrayal of cannabis is an insult to a plant that helps you change your consciousness, thinking, and society for the better.
He speaks of the government trying to repeatedly bust him for marijuana, as it had done to other major artists and literary figures in his circle of friends and acquaintances.
I love reading this when I’m high–the word power of Ginsberg’s writing is compelling and entertaining.
This essay is perfect for sharing with people who oppose marijuana, and those who have never used cannabis but are open-minded and curious about its effects.
Note this essay was written during the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King’s push for racial equality, and before the DEA was established.
At the time Ginsburg wrote this, the main government reefer madness agency was the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Ginsburg’s essay has become very relevant again, as US attorney general Jeff Sessions is spreading reefer madness lies as he tries to figure out a way to attack legalized marijuana states.
We’ve highlighted specific passages that are especially powerful and have edited to make the essay shorter and easier to understand.
“How much there is to be revealed about marijuana for the general public!
The actual experience of the smoked herb has been clouded by a fog of dirty language perpetrated by a crowd of fakers who have not had the experience and yet insist on downgrading it.
The paradoxical key to this bizarre impasse of awareness is precisely that the marijuana consciousness is one that, ever so gently, shifts the center of attention from habitual shallow, purely verbal guidelines and repetitive secondhand ideological interpretations of experience to more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute engagement with sensing phenomena.
A few people don’t like the experience and report back to the language world that it’s a drag. But the vast majority all over the world who have smoked the several breaths necessary to feel the effect, adjust to the strangely familiar sensation of time slow-down, and explore this new space thru natural curiosity, report that it’s a useful area of mind-consciousness to be familiar with. Marijuana is a metaphysical herb less habituating than tobacco, whose smoke is no more disruptive than Insight.
This essay, conceived by a mature middle-aged gentleman, the holder at present of a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, a traveler on many continents with experience of customs and modes of different cultures, is dedicated to those who have not smoked marijuana, who don’t know exactly what it is but have been influenced by sloppy, unscientific, or (as in the case of drug-control bureaucracies) definitely self-interested language used to describe the marijuana high pejoratively.
If one is not inclined to have the experience oneself, this is a free country and no one is obliged to have an experience merely because friends, family, or business acquaintances have had it and report themselves pleased. On the other hand, an equal respect and courtesy are required for the sensibilities of one’s familiars for whom the experience has not been closed off by the door of choice.
The black cloud of negative propaganda on marijuana emanates from one particular source: the US Treasury Department Narcotics Bureau. The agents of the Narcotics Bureau have a business interest in perpetuating the idea of a marijuana “menace” lest they lose their employment, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a great deal of the violence, hysteria & energy of the anti-marijuana language propaganda emanating from this source has as its motive a rather obnoxious self-interest, all the more objectionable for its tone of moralistic evangelism. This hypocrisy is recognizable to anybody who has firsthand experience of the so-called narcotic; which, as the reader may have noticed, I have termed an herb, which it is — a leaf or blossom — in order to switch from negative terminology and inaccurate language.
A marvelous project for a sociologist, and one which I am sure will be in preparation before my generation grows old, will be a close examination of the actual history and tactics of the Narcotics Bureau and its former chief, Harry Anslinger, in planting the seed of the marijuana “menace” in the public mind and carefully nurturing its growth over the last few decades until the unsuspecting public was forced to accept an outright lie.
I must begin by explaining something that I have already said in public for many years: that I occasionally use marijuana in preference to alcohol, and have for several decades. I say occasionally and mean it quite literally. I have spent about as many hours high as I have spent in movie theaters — sometimes three hours a week, sometimes twelve or twenty or more, as at a film festival — with about the same degree of alteration of my normal awareness.
I therefore do know the subjective possibilities of marijuana and therein take evidence of my own senses between my own awareness of the mysterious ghastly universe of joy, pain, discovery, birth & death, the emptiness & awesomeness of its forms and consciousness described in the Prajnaparamita Sutra central to a Buddhist or even Christian or Hindu view of the universe, which I sometimes experience while high.
What is this criminal vision of marijuana presented by the Narcotics Department for years in cheap sex magazines and government reports? Who invented the myths of base paranoia close to murder, frothing at the mouth human dogs, sex orgies in cheap dives, debilitation and terror and physiological or mysterious psychic addiction? An essentially grotesque image, a thought-hallucination magnified thru mass media, a byproduct of Fear — something quite fiendish – the reefer madness “Dope Fiend,” the old language, a language abandoned in the early sixties when enough of the general public had sufficient personal experience to reject such palpable poppycock & the bureaucratic line shifted to defense of its own existence with the following reason: necessary to control marijuana because smoking leads to search for thrill kicks; this leads to next step, the monster heroin, and a terrible fate.
In historical context, repression of marijuana seems to the author so irrational that it is impossible to disprove. Yet public confusion may warrant some precise analysis: There are no legitimate sociological/medical study documents warranting the Narcotics Department’s assertion of causal relation between use of marijuana and opiates. There never had been any hint of such association before the two classes of drugs were forcibly juxtaposed in black market by said department; Anslinger testified to that in 1937. A greater percent of opiate users started with bananas, cigarettes & alcohol than started with marijuana — no causal relationship is indicated in any case. The number of millions of respectable Americans who smoke marijuana have obviously not proceeded on to opiates. In societies such as Morocco and India where marijuana use is universal, there is very small use of opiates, and no connection between marijuana use and opiate use.
In good health I smoked legal ganja (as marijuana is termed in India, where it is traditionally used in preference to alcohol), bought from government tax shops in Calcutta, in a circle of devotees, yogis, and hymn-singing pious Shaivite worshipers in the burning ground at Nimtallah Ghat in Calcutta, where it was the custom of these respected gentlemen to meet on Tuesday and Saturday nights, smoke before an improvised altar of blossoms, sacramental milk-candy & perhaps a fire taken from the burning wooden bed on which lay a newly dead body, of some friend perhaps, likely a stranger if a corpse is a stranger, pass out the candy as God’s gift to friend and stranger, and sing holy songs all night, with great strength and emotion, addressed to different images of the Divine Spirit.
Ganja was there considered a beginning of sadhana (Yogic path or discipline) by some; others consider the Ascetic Yogi Shiva Himself to have smoked marijuana; on His birthday marijuana is mixed as a paste with almond milk by the grandmothers of pious families and imbibed as a sacrament by this polytheistic nation, considered by some a holy society. The professors of English at Benares University brought me a bottle for the traditional night of Shivaratri, birthday of the Creator & Destroyer who is the patron god of this oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. “BOM BOM MAHADEV!” (Boom Boom Great God!) is the Mantra Yogis’ cry as they raise the ganja pipe to their brows before inhaling.
All India is familiar with ganja, and so is all Africa, and so is all the Arab world; and so were Paris and London in smaller measure in high-minded but respectable nineteenth-century circles; and so on a larger scale is America even now. Young and old, millions perhaps, smoke marijuana and see no harm. And we have not measured the Latin-American world, Mexico particularly, which gave the local herb its familiar name. In some respects we see cannabis prohibition as an arbitrary cultural taboo.
There has been a tendency toward its suppression in the Arab world with the too hasty adoption of Western rationality & the enlarged activity of the American fanatic Mr. Anslinger, retired from the Narcotics Bureau but now US representative to the UN World Health Organization Narcotic Drugs Commission, a position from which he circulates hysterical notices and warnings manufactured in Washington to the police forces of the cities of the world — so I was told by a police official in Tel Aviv, an old school chum who laughed about the latest release, a grim warning against the dangers of Khat, a traditional energizing leaf chewed by Bedouins of Arabia & businessmen & princes in Ethiopia, as well as a few traditional Yemenite Jews.
Professor Alfred R. Lindesmith has already objected in public to the Department’s manipulation and attempted quashing of various medical-judicial reports. The impartial LaGuardia Report of 1944 was rudely attacked by Anslinger; a President’s Judicial Advisory Council Policy Statement (1964) has characterized the activities of the Bureau as exceeding legal rightfulness in “criminalizing” by executive fiat & administrative dictum those addicted to addicting drugs who for decades have been prevented from going to a doctor for treatment unless it was under the aegis of Lexington Jail, and thru police channels. Memory of the British East India Hemp Commission report, the largest in history, done in the 1890s, which concluded that marijuana was not a problem, has been ignored & memories of our own Panama Canal military reports giving marijuana a clean bill of health have been unavailing in consideration of the Bureau; thousands of intelligent citizens have been put in prison for uncounted years for possession or sale of marijuana, even if they grew it themselves and only smoked in private; youths have been entrapped into selling small or large quantities of the grass to police agents and consequently found themselves faced with all the venomous bullshit that an arbitrary law can create, from the terrors of arrest to the horror of years in jail; the author receives letters of complaint and appeals for help, from many US cities, from acquaintances, fellow writers, even scholarly investigators of the subject writing books about it, as well as from one energetic poet founding a fine project for an Artist’s Workshop (John Sinclair in Detroit, sentenced to six months for letting an agent buy marijuana for the second time); Ken Kesey, the novelist, is now in exile; 21,931 arrests for marijuana from 1963 to 1965 reported from California alone.
One becomes awed by the enormity of the imposition. It is not a healthy activity for the State to be annoying so many of its citizens thusly; it creates a climate of topsy-turvy law and begets disrespect for the law and the society that tolerates execution of such barbarous law, and a climate of fear and hatred for the administrators of the law. Such a law is a threat to the existence of the State itself, for it sickens and debilitates its most adventurous and sensitive citizens. Such a law, in fact, can drive people mad.
It is no wonder then that most people who have smoked marijuana in America often experience a state of anxiety, of threat, of paranoia, in fact, which may lead to trembling or hysteria, at the microscopic awareness that they are breaking a Law, that thousands of investigators are trained and paid to smoke them out and jail them, that thousands of their community are in jail, that inevitably a few friends are “busted” with all the hypocrisy and expense and anxiety of that trial & perhaps punishment — jail and victimage by the bureaucracy that made, propagandized, administers, and profits from such a monstrous law.
From my own experience and the experience of others I have concluded that most of the horrific effects and disorders described as characteristic of marijuana “intoxication” by the Bureau of Narcotics are, quite the reverse, precisely traceable back to the effects on consciousness not of the narcotic but of the law and the threatening activities of the US Federal Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics itself. Thus, as the Buddha said to a lady who offered him a curse, the gift is returned to the giver when it is not accepted.
I myself experience this form of paranoia when I smoke marijuana, and for that reason smoke it in America more rarely than I did in countries where it is legal. I noticed a profound difference of effect. The anxiety was directly traceable to fear of being apprehended and treated as a deviant criminal; put thru the hassle of social disapproval, ignominious tremblings in vast court buildings coming to be judged, the helplessness of being overwhelmed by force or threat of deadly force and put in brick & iron cell.
This apprehension deepened when on returning this year from Europe, I was stopped, stripped, and searched at customs. The dust of my pockets was examined with magnifying glass for traces of weed. I had publicly spoken in defense of marijuana and attacked the conduct of the Bureau, and now my name was down on a letter/dossier at which I secretly peeked, on the Customs search-room desk. I quote the first sentence, referring to myself: “These persons are reported to be smuggling (or importing) narcotics….”
On a later occasion, when I was advised by several friends and near acquaintances that Federal Narcotics personnel in NYC had asked them to “set me up” for an arrest, I became incensed enough to write a letter of complaint to my congressman. He replied that he thought I was being humorless about the reason for my being on a list for Customs investigation, since it was natural (I had talked about the dread subject so much in public).
As for my complaint about being set up—that, with my letter, was forwarded to the Treasury Dept. in Washington for consideration and reply. Thus, the reply received December 22, 1965: “I would advise you that I have been in touch with the Bureau of Narcotics and am of the opinion that nothing has been done in your case that is illegal or inconsistent with law enforcement practices designed to enforce the narcotics laws.” In this case, it was a police request to arrested friends that they carry marijuana to my apartment and to that of the novelist William S. Burroughs.
I spent half a year in Morocco, smoking kif often: old gentlemen & peaceable youths sit amiably, in cafes or under shade trees in outdoor gardens, drinking mint tea, passing the tiny kif pipe, and looking quietly at the sea. This is the true picture of the use of kif in North Africa, exactly the opposite of the lurid stereotype of mad-dog human beings deliberately spread by our police branch. And I set this model of tranquil sensibility beside the tableau of aggravated New York executives sipping whiskey before a 1965 TV set’s imagery of drunken American violence covering the world from the highways to Berkeley all the way to the dirt roads of Vietnam.
No one has yet remarked that the suppression of Negro rights, culture, and sensibility in America has been complicated by the marijuana laws. African sects have used pot for divine worship (much as I have described its sacred use in India). And to the extent that jazz has been an adaptation of an African religious form to American context, marijuana has been closely associated with the development of this indigenous American form of chant & prayer. Use of marijuana has always been widespread among the Negro population in this country, and suppression of its use, with constant friction and bludgeoning of the Law, has been a major unconscious, or unmentionable, method of assault on black people.
Although most scientific authors who present their reputable evidence for the harmlessness of marijuana make no claim for its surprising usefulness, I do make that claim:
Marijuana is a useful catalyst for specific optical and aural aesthetic perceptions. I apprehended the structure of certain pieces of jazz & classical music in a new manner under the influence of marijuana, and these apprehensions have remained valid in years of normal consciousness. I first discovered how to see Klee’s Magic Squares as the painter intended them (as optically three-dimensional space structures) while high on marijuana. I perceived for the first time Cezanne’s “petit sensation” of space achieved on a two-dimensional canvas (by means of advancing & receding colors, organization of triangles, cubes, etc. as the painter describes in his letters) while looking his The Bathers painting high on marijuana. And I saw anew many of nature’s panoramas & landscapes that I’d stared at blindly without even noticing before; thru the use of marijuana, awe & detail were made conscious. These perceptions are permanent — any deep aesthetic experience leaves a trace, & an idea of what to look for that can be checked back later. I developed a taste for Crivelli’s symmetry; and saw Rembrandt’s Polish Rider as a sublime Youth on a Deathly horse for the first time — saw myself in the rider’s face, one might say — while walking around the Frick Museum high on pot. These are not “hallucinations”; these are deepened perceptions that one might have catalyzed not by pot but by some other natural event (as natural as pot) that changes the mind, such as an intense Love, a death in the family, a sudden clear dusk after rain, or the sight of the neon spectral reality of Times Square one sometimes has after leaving a strange movie. So, it’s all natural.
At this point it should be revealed for those unaware that most of the major (best and most famous, too) poets, painters, musicians, moviemakers, sculptors, actors, singers & publishers in America and England have been smoking marijuana for years and years. I have gotten high with the majority of the dozens of contributors to the Don Allen Anthology of New American Poetry 1940-1960; and in years subsequent to its publication have sat down to coffee and a marijuana cigarette with not a few of the more academic poets of the rival Hall-Pack-Simpson anthology. No art opening in Paris, London, New York, or Wichita at which one may not sniff the incense fumes of marijuana issuing from the ladies’ room. Up and down Madison Avenue it is charming old inside knowledge; and in the clacketing vast city rooms of newspapers on both coasts, copyboys and reporters smoke somewhat less marijuana than they take tranquilizers or Benzedrine, but pot begins to rival liquor as a nonmedicinal delight in conversation. Already eight years ago I smoked marijuana with a couple of Narcotics Department plainclothesmen who were trustworthy enough to invite to a literary reception. A full-page paid advertisement in the New York Times, quoting authoritative medical evidence of the harmlessness of marijuana, and signed by a thousand of its most famous smokers, would once and for all break the cultural ice and end once and for all the tyranny of the Treasury Department Narcotics Bureau. For it would only manifest in public what everybody sane in the centers of communication in America knows anyway, an enormous open secret—that it is time to end Prohibition again. And with it put an end to the gangsterism, police mania, hypocrisy, anxiety, and national stupidity generated by administrative abuse of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
It should be understood, I believe, that in this area we have been undergoing police-state conditions in America, with characteristic mass brainwashing of the public, persecution & jail, elaborate systems of plainclothes police and police spies and stool pigeons, abuse of constitutional guarantees of privacy of home and person from improper search and seizure. The police prohibition of marijuana (accompanied with the even more obnoxious persecution of sick heroin addicts who all along should have been seeing the doctor) has directly created vast black markets, crime syndicates, crime waves in the cities, and a breakdown of law and order in the State itself. For the courts of large cities are clogged with so-called narcotic crimes and behind schedule, and new laws (such as the recent New York Rockefeller Stop & Frisk & No-Knock laws) spring up against the citizen to cope with the massive unpopularity of prohibition.
Not only do I propose end of prohibition of marijuana but I propose a total dismantling of the whole cancerous bureaucracy that has perpetrated this historic screw-up on the United States. And not only is it necessary that the Bureau of Narcotics be dismantled & consigned to the wax museum of history, where it belongs, but it is also about time that a full-scale congressional investigation with all the resources of the embattled medical, legal & sociological authorities, who for years have been complaining in vain, should be undertaken to fix the precise responsibility for this vast swindle on the administrative & mass-media shoulders where it belongs. What was the motive & method in perpetrating this insane hoax on public consciousness?
Not only an investigation of how it all happened but some positive remuneration is required for those poor citizens who have been defenseless against beatings, arrest, and anxiety for years — a minority directly & physically persecuted by the police of cities and states and by agents of the nation; a minority often railroaded to jail by uncomprehending judges for months, for years, for decades; a minority battling idiotic laws, and even then without adequate legal representation for the slim trickery available to the rich to evade such laws. For the inoffensive charming smokers of marijuana who have undergone disgraceful jailings, money is due as compensation. This goes back decades for thousands of people, who, I claim, are among the most sensitive citizens of the nation; and their social place and special honor of character should be rewarded by a society which urgently needs this kind of sensibility where it can be seen in public.
I have long felt that there were political implications to the suppression of marijuana, beyond the obvious revelation (which Burroughs pointed out in his book “Naked Lunch”) of the cancerous nature of the marijuana-suppression bureaucracy. When the citizens of this country see that such an old-time, taken-for-granted, flag-waving, reactionary truism of police, press, and law as the “reefer madness” is in fact a creepy hoax, a scarecrow, what will they begin to think of the whole of taken-for-granted public reality?
As I declared at the beginning of this essay, marijuana consciousness shifts attention from stereotyped verbal symbols to “more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute engagement with sensing phenomena” during the high. Already millions of people have gotten high and looked at the images of their Presidents and governors and representatives on television and seen that all were betraying signs of false character. Or heard the impersonal robot tones of audio newscasters announcing mass deaths in Asia.
It is no wonder that for years the great centers of puritanism of consciousness, blackout & persecution of the subtle vibrations of personal consciousness catalyzed by marijuana have been precisely Moscow and Washington, the centers of the human power war. It is part of the same pattern that both centers of power have the most rigid laws against marijuana.
I believe that future generations will have to rely on new faculties of awareness, rather than on the versions of old idea-systems, to cope with the increasing godlike complexity of our planetary civilization, with its overpopulation, its threat of atomic annihilation, its centralized network of abstract word-image communication, its power to leave the earth. A new consciousness will evolve to meet a changed ecological environment. It has already begun evolving in younger generations from Prague to Calcutta; part of the process is a re-examination of certain heretofore discarded “primitive” devices of communication with Self and Selves. The airwaves are filled with songs of frankness and beauty.
These then are some of the political or social applications of the public legitimization of marijuana as a catalyst to self-awareness.”