Cannabis prohibition has been fuelled, in part, by racism. In the early 1900’s parts of middle class USA were distinctly suspicious of the social influence of ‘marihuana crazed’ black jazz musicians. They were also wary of cannabis smoking Mexicans, who had fled Mexico in their hundreds of thousands across a largely-open border during the long and violent Mexican Revolution which ended in 1920.
Many Mexican communities had used cannabis for centuries. Excellent quality crops could be grown as cheaply as any other outdoor crop. For the relatively poor people living from the land, cannabis was a versatile medicine and a pleasant recreational escape. The Mexican Revolution displaced millions. Many hundreds-of-thousands of them escaped north over the largely porous border with the USA. And of course they took their cannabis and their best cannabis seeds with them. Many Americans felt the immigrants were a nuisance, blaming them for crimes. The immigrants, and their cannabis, became increasingly unpopular. The first seeds of cannabis prohibition were being sown. Politicians and law makers started looking at ways to protect society from cannabis and ways to communicate the deadly menace it posed.
According to one study, titled ‘The Colors of Cannabis: Race and Marijuana’ politicians were among the first to link cannabis and racism. Texas politicians in the early 1900’s were already associating cannabis use with the ‘problems’ caused by the Mexicans. The Texas Senate was told in the early 1900s, “all Mexicans are crazy, and this [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.” Fortunately for the early prohibitionists, no evidence was needed stir up prejudice. Fear mongering alone proved very effective. With fertile conditions, racism found a home.
The same study suggests fears that the community of black former slaves would soon start to enjoy cannabis. Who knows what the repercussions could be then? Fear, uncertainty and doubt were combined with prejudice and racism. Soon, argued the politicians, laws would be needed for the safety of everyone.
The ‘Reefer Madness’ mentality prospered in the first half of the 1900’s. Cannabis was blamed for violent crimes and the sexual exploitation of women. Jazz musicians, the party animals of the day, were blamed for enjoying cannabis and luring vulnerable young women into a party lifestyle. Mexicans received racial discrimination. But blacks had always struggled with racial equality even though the slave trade had officially ended decades previously. The racist cannabis undertones used against the Mexicans were used against black people. Cannabis became intrinsically associated with crime, disorder, problems and danger.
Harry Anslinger was the first commissioner of the USA Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As such it was very much in his interests to demonize cannabis and justify his departmental budget. Cannabis was a new, lethal danger. Anslinger worked hard to ensure that everyone knew how cannabis had increased moral depravity. Cannabis use was being associated with crimes ranging from petty theft up to violent murder. It was also being linked with psychotic outbursts and uncontrolled mental breakdown. Anslinger was clear, cannabis needed to be eradicated and no area was consider out-of-bounds for his team. Prejudice and ignorance were seamlessly combined. The public relied on the Government to give an honest message, but Anslinger’s inherent racist views tainted his message and legacy.
According to the wiki page on Anslinger, racist themes were used in his anti-cannabis propaganda.
“In the 1930s Anslinger's articles often contained racist themes in his anti-marijuana campaign:
Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.
Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis. Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men”
The public had been deliberately misled and it would take decades to undo the damage done. Millions received needless criminal records, many of them jailed. The human cost to individuals and the financial cost to society has been enormous.
Racism played a large role in the prohibition of cannabis. By the end of the 1930’s cannabis was largely illegal on a federal level. And in the following few decades laws would be further tightened as cannabis became linked to the war on drugs as a gateway drug. Cannabis was supremely positioned as the root of many evils in western society. Ronald Reagan’s 1980’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign got massive amounts of mainstream attention. The anti-cannabis rhetoric began to fall away in the decades following the 1980’s. Many states and countries have legalized cannabis for either medical and/or recreational use. And many more are likely to do so in the coming decade.
Cannabis legalization campaigners have used the disparity in racial arrests for cannabis as a reminder that cannabis and racism are still linked today. This report published by Norml in the USA shows that black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis use than white people. The report was based on Police arrest data from 2012-2016. All this despite the fact that cannabis use is roughly the same in blacks and whites. Even though cannabis laws are starting to change, prejudice is slow to follow.
July 5th 2019