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Reefer Sadness

Prohibitionists used Florida man to advance anti-marijuana agenda

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The idea that marijuana can induce psychotic breaks and lead directly to murder apparently originates—where else?—here in Florida. You’re about to read the sad story of Victor Licata. Licata, of Ybor City, was 21 years old when he used an axe to brutally murder five sleeping members of his family in 1933. There is no reason to suspect that the youngster had tried marijuana before, let alone developed any debilitating addiction to the drug. But facts were never an impediment to the prohibitionist agenda. Within days, the story had become front-page news fodder nationwide, and it was off to the racist from there.

Harry Anslinger, then director of the infamous Federal Bureau of Narcotics, teamed up with the original supervillain of mass media, William Randolph Hearst, to successfully peddle the fiction that Licata, whose history of mental illness was already on record, had been driven insane by his dependence on marijuana. (When police found him the next morning, he wore freshly laundered clothes, but his unwashed body was covered with blood.)

The episode was also among the earliest known examples of the cultural phenomenon commonly known today as #FloridaMan. Licata was declared insane and spent the next 12 years of his life in a Chattahoochee mental hospital. He escaped in 1945, evading capture for five years. He was sent to Raiford after being re-captured and almost immediately hanged himself, which I’m told is perfectly understandable to anyone who’s spent time there.

Licata’s parents were first cousins—that’s not good—several of his relatives were sent to asylums, and his younger brother had been diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia), the same disorder Licata was later found to have. Licata stood five feet and eight inches tall, weighing 127 pounds. He was barely strong enough to lift the axe, let alone wield it like a hammer of the gods. But he did, and we will never know exactly why. In the modern era, one can think of all kinds of substances that would induce that effect, most notably some of this crazy fake weed going around or bath salts. One might also suspect some kind of childhood abuse, but that wouldn’t explain why he killed his siblings.

More so than probably any other human being, we have Licata to thank for the banning of marijuana in 1937, though that wasn’t his fault. No mention of weed turns up in his medical records, and he never made any public comment prior to his suicide in 1950. He also murdered a fellow patient while in Chattahoochee, despite having no access to marijuana at the facility. Anslinger globalized the lie while serving as the U.S. delegate to the United Nations Narcotics Commission (I need that t-shirt), where the Licata lie resurfaced in official documents as late as 1966. One study found that, out of 200 cases of marijuana-induced violence cited by Anslinger throughout the years, 198 were ultimately disproven, although (as noted in last week’s issue) many of these gimmicks persist. Had modern fact-checking methods existed back then, who knows how many lives could have been saved.

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