Cannabis prohibition and racism: History’s strange bedfellows

by DGO Web Administrator

According to analysis by the ACLU, cannabis arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States, 88 percent for possession only. The report also revealed a disturbing racial prejudice: despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses. To better understand how we ended up with such a racial bias, let’s take a step back in time and look at our culture and its desire to vilify “outsiders.” Although one may argue the laws enacted by our government regarding cannabis prohibition were meant to protect its citizens, the original motives may have been directed by a more sinister narrative that has contributed, in part, to the ongoing systemic racism that exists in America today.

This deep-seeded history of bias goes back to the Spanish-American War, when William Randolph Hearst, owner of the largest U.S. newspaper chain, began to let loose slurs of racial condemnation on people of Mexican descent. Headlines dominated his newspapers describing “marihuana,” the obscure Mexican slang word for cannabis, as an evil drug, used by so-called miscreants. Hearst’s vilification of the “other” continued throughout the ’20s and ’30s, finding a home with the Jim Crow laws that plagued our nation from the end of the Civil War until the onset of 20th century civil rights movements. Numerous press reports described people of color who were arrested for smoking marijuana, which had purportedly caused them to commit such acts as looking at a white woman, or stepping on a white man’s shadow.

In 1909, Congress passed the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act, which was the first federal regulation placed on a mind-altering substance, effectively starting the “War on Drugs.” It is interesting to note that the 1909 Opium Act was aimed only at opium that was prepared to smoke, which was popular in the Chinese immigrant community. This as opposed to opium sold through pharmacies to white consumers in the form of morphine or heroine. The end of the Boxer Rebellion had sent a huge wave of Chinese immigrants into the United States, and Hearst’s newspapers fanned the flames of fear of the “other,” again showing that connecting minorities to drug abuse – a threat to the American way of life – was a winning formula for fighting the war on drugs.

In 1930, Harry Anslinger was appointed as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics after working in the Department of Prohibition. Pushing his anti-marijuana agenda, Anslinger did radio shows and toured the country touting the dangers marijuana posed to the good white people of our country. With the help of Hearst, Anslinger’s message of fear spread across the country. In his testimony to Congress for the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, Anslinger would refer to what he called his “gore files”: Newspaper clippings and stories that painted horror stories of young men who had smoked marijuana and gone on psychotic rages. These cases proved to be fabrications and false equivalences. Ansliger also had a file called “marijuana and musicians.” He hoped to be able to coordinate a sting on jazz musicians and perceived marijuana use, clearing out a supposed scourge of society. When the La Guardia Committee released its in-depth five-year study on the effects of smoking marijuana in 1944, Anslinger was so livid that it did not support his claims that marijuana caused insanity that he engaged the American Medical Association to issue a conflicting report, which they did, in less than a year. In 1972, this report was finally retracted as being unscientific and biased.

In the tumultuous years that followed, the FNB went through several departmental changes, finally taking the form of the Drug Enforcement Administration. During the Nixon years, harsher penalties were set forth for marijuana offenses. In a 2016 interview with Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine, John Ehrlichman, one of Richard Nixon’s closest aides, explains Nixon’s motives:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities, we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Many of these claims have been collaborated by Nixon’s own tapes. By the mid-’80s, the War on Drugs was in full swing. Studies released by the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU confirm an alarming statistic: The overwhelming majority of people arrested for possession of illegal drugs, including marijuana in the United States, are people of color, specifically African Americans. Perhaps this would make sense if only people of color smoked marijuana, but studies show that its use is fairly even across all ethnicities. The racial bias that exists currently in our failing war on drugs is obvious and blatant, and has its roots in our country’s history of yellow journalism, racial prejudice, and the emotional provocation of fear of the “other.” Decriminalization, and releasing from incarceration non-violent, cannabis offenders, can be one avenue for our country to make its way out of the systemic racism that has plagued our nation throughout its history.

Meggie J is a published poet and freelance writer living in the Four Corners. She is an avid reader, rafter, and connoisseur of cannabis. She can be reached at [email protected].


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