Apart from the possibility that the excessive use of certain drugs can make the user paranoid, illicit drugs have been at the center of a number of conspiracy theories over the past century. One cluster of conspiracy theories surrounds the use of opiates, and another focuses on marijuana.


Opiates—opium, morphine, and heroin—have figured largely in drug conspiracies. One of the earliest conspiracy theories surrounding opiates in the United States concerned Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. When Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States around 1870, their habit of smoking opium drew condemnation.

Chinese laborers, derogatorily called “coolies,” were essential to the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, but when economic depression beset the country in the late nineteenth century, white fears of labor competition, combined with Chinese opium smoking, led to repression of the Chinese population.

Nativism, xenophobia, and the conviction that opium smoking posed a threat to U.S. society helped lead to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigration to the United States. Other repression came in the form of local and state laws that targeted Chinese Americans, as well as harassment by native-born whites, particularly on the West Coast. In 1875 a San Francisco City ordinance banned opium smoking.

Stories of Chinese immigrants who lured white females into prostitution, along with media depictions of the Chinese as depraved and unclean, bolstered the enactment of anti-opium laws in eleven states between 1877 and 1900. On the federal level, in 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Opium Exclusion Act, which forbade the importation of smoking opium.

Although no fully formed conspiracy theory emerged among anti-opium advocates, by the turn of the century the association between Chinese immigrants, opium, and societal decay illustrated the widespread belief that opium smoking (or the consumption of any psychoactive substance for nonmedical purposes) threatened to erode the Anglo-Saxon race’s ability to propagate itself. Put another way, during the Social Darwinist–infused days of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, drug addiction among white Americans was thought to result in racial suicide.

More delineated conspiracy theories concerning opiates materialized during and after World War II. Propagating numerous drug conspiracies was Harry J. Anslinger, who served as commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) from 1930 to 1962. Anslinger had an imposing physical appearance: somber-faced, bald, thick-chested, and square-jawed, he resembled a cross between Benito Mussolini and the infamous British satanist Aleister Crowley (Sloman, xi).

As head of the FBN, Anslinger dominated U.S. drug policy for thirty years, during which time he maintained the link between foreigners and drugs, brought a high level of bureaucratic order to federal drug policy, embarked upon a campaign to demonize and restrict marijuana, melded antinarcotics policy with U.S. foreign policy and security issues, and sought repressive measures to deal with addicts and dealers.

During World War II Anslinger charged the Japanese with conspiring to spread narcotics addiction throughout the West, remarking that a drugsodden nation could offer little resistance to an invading Japanese military.

The Japanese were flooding China with narcotics during the war but no evidence corroborated their supposed plan to foment addiction in the United States. Similarly, in the early cold war years, Anslinger unrelentingly maintained that heroin addiction was part of Communist China’s plan for subversion in the United States.

Lacking any proof of such a conspiracy, Anslinger nonetheless fostered stories and images of syringe-wielding Chinese soldiers poised to take over the free world and outlined the details of the Chinese Communist Party’s heroin conspiracy in his 1953 book The Traffic in Narcotics.

Anslinger’s conspiracy theories demonstrated the link between federal drug policy and national security issues, which is to say that the FBN’s claims were in line with America’s anticommunist mission in Asia. The commissioner never recanted his accusations and his claims persisted into the 1970s.

In a reversal of Anslinger’s claims, two other drug conspiracies emerged during the cold war, which charged the U.S. government, not foreign nations, with spreading narcotics addiction and using drugs for undemocratic purposes.

One conspiracy theory accused the CIA, from the 1950s through the 1980s, of willingly allying itself with narcotics (opium, morphine, and heroin) traffickers in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as part of the agency’s anticommunist crusade in Asia.

By supplying these unsavory elements with funds, equipment, and intelligence, the CIA provided a zone of protection around drug lords and blocked investigations of their clients’ drug running. Ultimately, the CIA contributed to the global narcotics trade by sanctioning their allies’ involvement.

Researchers, such as Alfred W. McCoy, have unearthed evidence corroborating the link between the CIA and narcotics traffickers in Asia but deny the existence of a full-blown conspiracy in which the CIA intended to foster trafficking and addiction internationally, including Europe and the United States.

Rather, the CIA’s short-term goal of using narcotics traffickers as self-sustaining paramilitary forces during the cold war blinded the agency from foreseeing the long-term growth in the region’s drug trade after the U.S. government no longer needed its clients’ services. In essence, the CIA, narrowly focused on anticommunism, deemed its clients’ expanded drug trafficking abilities as only “fallout” from overriding cold war concerns.

For instance, when narcotics produced by CIA allies supplied U.S. addicts—as in the case of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam using heroin trafficked by South Vietnamese, Laotian, and Thai officials—the CIA, bound by law to provide intelligence on drug trafficking, illegally prevented investigations of Southeast Asian officials. Damning facts such as these have lent the air of conspiracy to the CIA’s relationship to the international drug trade.

Another drug conspiracy leveled at the U.S. government involved the Nixon administration’s drug policy and the White House’s reorganization of federal drug enforcement agencies. In the early 1970s President Nixon launched his “war on drugs” in response to a burgeoning heroin epidemic in the United States.

Like Harry J. Anslinger, Nixon cast blame on foreign nations for America’s addiction problem. Nixon favored the use of federal drug control agencies as the answer to the country’s supposedly growing rates of drug abuse.

Part of Nixon’s solution entailed the creation of the Office of National Narcotics Intelligence (ONNI), Office for Drug Abuse and Law Enforcement (ODALE), and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which replaced the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the FBN’s successor agency. The executive branch oversaw these agencies and critics accused the president of using them for purposes not related to drug control.

Specifically, skeptics argued that Nixon manufactured a drug scare that distracted the U.S. public and Congress and allowed the administration to create White House– controlled federal agencies that were used for surveillance and harassment of political enemies, not apprehending drug dealers.

Critics charged ODALE and ONNI as being little more than a White House private police force. ODALE, housed in the Justice Department, was authorized to conduct no-knock search warrants and warrantless raids, as well as to use court-ordered wiretaps. Such an agency had the capacity to act above the law and did on occasions. Indeed, key figures in the Watergate scandal—G. Gordon Liddy, Egil Krogh, E. Howard Hunt, and Lucein Conein— were all involved in federal drug control agencies.

Liddy developed the creation of ODALE. Conein, a CIA agent, apparently developed a special assassination force—ostensibly aimed at major drug traffickers—within the DEA after that organization’s creation in mid-1973. Krogh served as deputy assistant for the president for law enforcement and helped set up the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), which established federal methadone clinics.

Interestingly, the federal methadone clinics—aimed at helping heroin addicts— drew criticism from African Americans as a ploy to keep inner-city populations addicted to hard drugs. In the end, the Plumbers, drawn from the Nixon administration’s drug control apparatus, and the resulting Watergate scandal derailed Nixon’s quest for unchecked executive power.


Like the opiates, conspiracy theories formed around marijuana, a drug outlawed in 1937 by the Marijuana Tax Act. Similar to the Chinese immigrants’ negative association with opium smoking, marijuana was linked to another stereotyped immigrant group, Mexicans.

During the first few decades of the 1900s local and state restrictions on marijuana, particularly in the West and Southwest, were established as the drug was purported to cause smokers to commit crimes. Tales of stoned Mexicans who craved violence and were immune to pain were common. Throughout the first half of the 1930s Anslinger resisted calls for federal legislation banning marijuana, believing that the states could best control the matter.

But by 1936 Anslinger reversed course and embarked on a campaign in which he first stated that he had underestimated the marijuana threat and then proceeded to depict the weed as worse than heroin, and the harbinger of death and discord. Drug policy scholars have attributed Anslinger’s turnaround to his shrewd concern for bureaucratic survival—he used the marijuana issue to justify his and the FBN’s existence.

According to this line of thinking, Anslinger did not create a marijuana scare; he joined one already in progress and bolstered it to best of his ability with lurid testimony at congressional hearings and in newspaper and magazine articles. Anslinger’s article “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” which appeared in the July 1937 edition of American Magazine, was a prime example of FBN antimarijuana propaganda.

The article, as did most of Anslinger’s marijuana horror stories and other sensationalized accounts like the Hollywood film Reefer Madness, involved American youths and linked the drug with serious crimes (such as murder, rape, and mutilation), insanity, promiscuity, and general immorality.

For Anslinger, the consequences of inhaling the killer weed ranged from patricide and fratricide—as the commissioner often recounted in the case of a Florida youth—to the possibility that a user would turn into a “philosopher, a joyous reveler in a musical heaven,” a statement that linked marijuana and jazz music (Anslinger 1937, 150). The outcome of all the scare tactics and misinformation was the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which initially curtailed hemp production, but ultimately served as the basis for criminalizing marijuana users.

Countering Anslinger’s view of marijuana as a generator of crime and death is the conspiracy theory best articulated by Jack Herer in Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy: The Emperor Wears No Clothes. According to Herer, bureaucratic survival was not at the heart of Anslinger’s antimarijuana campaign. Rather, Anslinger’s role in demonizing marijuana stemmed from his participation in a concerted effort by powerful economic interests to stamp out competition from the hemp industry.

Specifically, Anslinger, the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (DuPont), business magnate Andrew Mellon, and the media giant William Randolph Hearst worked hand in hand to prevent a growing hemp industry from offering cellulosebased products, such as paper (and potentially textiles and plastics), from competing with DuPont’s products. By the 1930s DuPont had developed patents for producing paper from wood pulp and also had plans to make plastics from petroleum products.

Andrew W. Mellon, secretary of the treasury and owner of the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh, which was one of only two banks DuPont dealt with, appointed his future son-in-law to head up the newly created FBN in December 1930. Anslinger’s appointment to the FBN, housed in the Treasury Department, tied him to Mellon’s and DuPont’s financial interests, which included stunting a hemp industry that had grown over the 1920s and 1930s.

The Hearst newspaper syndicate, the nation’s largest, was also tied economically to the woodpaper industry. Moreover, Hearst, known for his disdain of jazz music, Mexicans, and African Americans, readily published antimarijuana tracts that put his newspapers in line with the federal government.

Ultimately, all of these actors constituted a conspiracy orchestrated to make hemp illegal. According to this theory, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, far from outlawing a supposedly murderous drug, was in fact legislation designed to further DuPont’s financial fortune.