Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The racial history of cannabis in the United States

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(momento mori/ Flickr)

(momento mori/ Flickr)

With legalization of recreational marijuana on the Massachusetts ballot this year, there has been great talk (not least of which has been in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian) of the benefits, issues, fears and history of marijuana legalization. However, what has neglected to be addressed is the unmistakable racial history of the cannabis plant and the role that this history plays in the current mass incarceration of Blacks and other people of color.

John Hudak, author of the new book, “Marijuana: A Short History,” has done extensive research into the background of marijuana and, in an interview on National Public Radio, divulged some of the history of marijuana in the United States.

Beginning in the 18th century, hemp was used in the United States as an important cash crop. In the 19th century, cannabis itself began to be prescribed as a treatment for a slew of diseases, including insomnia, opioid addiction, insanity, excessive menstrual bleeding, cholera, alcoholism, leprosy and anthrax to name a few. Yes, many of these may seem ridiculous, but suffice it to say that marijuana was being used and prescribed widely across the United States without any stigma.

Meanwhile, Mexico was growing and using cannabis at higher rates than the United States, although they referred to the plant as marijuana.

After the Spanish American War in 1898, Mexican immigration to the United States began to climb rapidly. This was very upsetting to certain members of the population. The fact that Mexicans were producing a mind-altering substance (regardless of the fact the U.S. was also producing and using it) was easy fodder against these new immigrants.

As Hudak states, “marijuana gave individuals and media organizations in particular an opportunity to vilify these new Mexican immigrants, and to say that they were lazy and that they were a problem and that they were bringing this drug into this country.”

This rhetoric was swallowed easily despite its contradictory nature. Many people were not even aware that the cannabis in their cough syrup and the dreaded marijuana of degenerate immigrants were in fact the same plant.

Regardless, marijuana control quickly became a political focal point, one that was synonymous with border control and negative stereotypes of Mexicans. Marijuana was often purposefully used as a tool to search and arrest Mexican (or Mexican-looking) people.

By the turn of the 20th century, marijuana already had a bad name, but it was the hard-hitting Harry Anslinger who was almost single-handedly responsible for outlawing the drug. He took the racist rhetoric before him and brought it to new heights, brilliantly including it in his denouncements of the drug.

Anslinger, who was a prohibitionist and vehemently against all mind-altering substances, took on the task of vilifying marijuana in the eyes of the white public. He purported that marijuana turned people into psychopaths and killers and made people insane.

His real focus however was on his claim that marijuana was primarily used by the “darkies” (as he called Blacks and Latinos), and made them even more degenerative than they already were. He said, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing results from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” He also said, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Anslinger capitalized on the racist fears of Blacks and Hispanics and the sexist rhetoric of the time to push marijuana as an agent of evil and a corruptor of white sensibilities.

Anslinger’s rhetoric about marijuana led to its outlawing in 1937 and later to its categorization as a Schedule I drug.

The idea that marijuana turned people “savage” and was directly tied to the minority races continued into the 20th century. This would ultimately peak in the 80s when the “war on drugs” began. The war on drugs primarily targeted Black and minority groups, despite the fact that they use marijuana and other drugs (even cocaine) at the same rate as white people.

Today, the effects of the war on drugs are shocking. Although Blacks make up only 12.3% of the population and Hispanics only 17% of the population, they make up 57% of those jailed in federal prisons for drug related offenses, despite the fact that these groups use and sell drugs at comparable rates.

It is not surprising then that today, although Blacks and whites use marijuana around the same rate, Blacks are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges nationwide. In certain places like Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota, Blacks are 7.5-8 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana-related charges.

While this discrepancy is a commentary on the systematic racism of our police and court system, it is also directly related to the racial rhetoric of drugs, and particularly marijuana, that has marked our country’s discourse on substances for well over a century.

The legalization of weed is not just a victory for stoners, hippies, modern medicine and fans of continuity of substance laws, it is also a huge step in easing the racial history of the plant. It is the first step to abolishing the war against drugs which has caused such huge issues in minority, and also in white, communities. As you consider Question 4, please also consider the reasons behind marijuana’s outlaw in the first place.

Christin Howard is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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