You would be tempted to think that the war against marijuana is based upon scientific, medical and government hearings and supported by the fact that it is a dangerous drug that honest citizens need to be protected from.
Marijuana users with the slightest interest in its history will point out that much of the scourge around this plant and its use revolve around one man: Harry J. Anslinger. But that’s not the whole story and one must take into account the socioeconomic context inside of which the use of weed became illegal.
For 99% of our history, marijuana use has been completely legal. It’s been a part of human life for 9.000 years. Its uses are many but off-limits due to its legal status.
The 1910 Mexican Revolution saw an influx of Mexican-Americans crossing the border. They smoked cannabis as a recreational drug. In the US, tensions between small farms and larger ones employing Mexican labor grew. The following depression did little to improve the mood.
As a result, California passed the first state marijuana law, condemning the use of “loco weed”. It was soon followed by Wyoming, Texas, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas and Nebraska and all the laws seemed to be targeted against the Mexican-Americans.
“When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff…he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.” This is what a legislator had to say when Montana outlawed marijuana in 1927. And a Texas senator said that “all Mexicans are crazy and this stuff is what makes them crazy.”
In the eastern states, black jazz musicians and Latin Americans were connected to this “nationwide problem”. Racism, prejudice and ignorance led newspapers in 1934 to state that marijuana “influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at white women twice.”
Some rumors said that black people and Mexicans were baiting white children with weed while others mentioned the assassins. The latter dates a while back. When Marco Polo returned from his voyages he told about the hasheesh-eaters or hashashin from which the term assassin derived. As the story goes, these professional killers were given large doses of hashish and then shown around the ruler’s palace in order to catch a glimpse of what riches awaited them upon completing their contract. After the effects wore off, they would proceed to murder their target in a cool, calculated manner. In 1931 Dr. A. E. Fossier wrote in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal that “under the influence of hashish those fanatics would madly rush at their enemies and ruthlessly massacre everyone within their grasp.” Shortly after, marijuana was linked to violence.
During 1919 and 1933 America dealt with alcohol prohibition. While this was a visible and highly debated process which required an amendment to the constitution, drug laws were passed without the general public’s knowledge. At that time, the federal government did not have the authority to outlaw drugs so they decided to enforce the 1914 Harrison Act which taxed cocaine and opiates.
By 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created and Harry J. Anslinger was named director. He was an ambitious man and he saw an opportunity to advance his career. His platform? Marijuana, sex, violence and racism. Here are some of his famous quotes:
“There are 100.000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and many others.”
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
“Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.”
and my personal favorite:
“You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
We can see where this is going.
Enter media mogul and timber industry investor William Randolph Hearst. He had an interest in protecting his investment against the advancement of hemp cultures. He had lost 800.000 acres of forest to Pancho Villa so he deeply hated Mexicans. And he also needed to sell his newspapers and what better way than to fill them with stories about interracial sex and Mexican assassins high on the devil’s weed?
The anti-cannabis duo then received help from the Dupont chemical company. It had patented nylon and wanted hemp fiber removed from the competition table. They were also joined by various pharmaceutical companies that intended to sell medicine, not let the patients grow their own.
In 1937, after two years of secret development, he brought his plan to the US Congress. Much of it contained articles from Hearst’s newspapers centered around marijuana smoking ax murderers. One man opposed it. Dr. William C. Woodward, Legislative Council of the American Medical Association accused Anslinger of grossly distorting the facts to follow his own political agenda but in the end, yellow journalism won over scientific facts.
On August 2, 1937, marijuana became illegal on a federal level. The rest of the world followed.