Cannabis was criminalized in the US in the 1930s, a decision based on lies and political propaganda that would eventually lead to the present-day efforts to legalize weed once and for all.
How did it all start though? What was happening with weed in the US before the 1930s and why did it become criminalized?
Early Marijuana in America: Racism and Fear of What’s Foreign
It was in the early 1900s (well before the war on weed began) that the US began to experience extremely high tensions with their Mexican neighbors from across the border. As countless refugees crossed the Mexican/American border to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution and Poncho Villa, foreign culture and customs spilled over with them into the US. One thing that was included in this? Weed.
The Mexicans, it seemed, liked to smoke the weed and had brought it with them when they came across the border to work on various farms. Fear is often based on that which is unknown, and with already high tensions with their neighbors to the south, this “marihuana” brought over was as foreign as those who smoked it.
Texas was one area where many Mexican refugees fled to after the Mexican Revolution. The state government, however, wasn’t too keen on these immigrants’ use of cannabis. In 1914, El Paso became the first US city to pass an ordinance against it. Other states quickly followed suit.
By 1927, marijuana was outlawed in California, Wyoming, Texas, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas, and Nebraska. The criminalization of the plant was often targeted specifically against the Mexican populations of these states.
A Texas senator of this time said, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff is what makes them crazy.” The “stuff” he was referring to was marijuana, and so continued the racism on which the country was founded.
It is no secret that racial tensions fueled early 20th century America, and in states in the east, the “problem” with marijuana was accredited to not only our neighbors from Latin American countries but with the black musicians that were a huge part of the jazz scene in the 30s and 40s.
Where jazz music went, marijuana went right along with it, and the herb became an integral part of the music scene. In 1934, a newspaper editorial expressed the following about marijuana’s association with black people:
“Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”
Again, racism ruled and this time as part of a growing movement to outlaw cannabis completely.
While the Mexicans and blacks were smoking marijuana, most of the US was focused on alcohol prohibition. The “noble experiment” of 1920-1933 was taken on to reduce crime and corruption, reduce the tax burden from prisons and poorhouses, solve social problems, and improve the health and hygiene of American citizens.
It failed miserably.
Henry Anslinger, The Department of Prohibition, and the War Against Marijuana
In 1929, a man named Henry Anslinger was put in charge of the Department of Prohibition. Prohibition of alcohol, however, had turned the country upside down. To restore order, alcohol prohibition was ended, leaving Anslinger in charge of a huge federal organization…with nothing to do. If he didn’t come up with something to force prohibition on, he and his men would be out of work.
Anslinger chose marijuana.
He jumped right into the fight against marijuana deeply from the get-go, knowing that his agency needed Congressional support. He also knew it wouldn’t grow with the control of opiates and cocaine alone. So he started slamming the users of cannabis.
Anslinger drew national attention when he began a campaign against marijuana on radio and at major forums. This was well before television and the internet, and the majority of the population was subject to believe what they were told and did little to think for themselves. His tactic? Instill additional fear in the public and continue to create more racial tension.
Anslinger: Adding Fuel to the Fire
There was already a huge campaign of mass hysteria in place against marijuana. It was enacted by the Federal Government and was called the “Assassin of Youth.” This campaign claimed that marijuana was turning otherwise normal and healthy youth into criminal beasts, sex fiends, and murderers.
As part of this campaign, newly appointed Harry Anslinger began putting together what is now known as the “Gore Files.” These files contained count after count of lewd and destructive behaviors that were allegedly performed under the influence of marijuana. Many of these reports were thick with criminal and racial comments, with quotes by Anslinger at the time including statements such as:
- “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.”
- “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”
- “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 any others.”
- “Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
The accusations and criminal cases against marijuana hardly make sense today, but it’s important to remember that this was the 1930s and people truly believed what they were told at this time. Most would never even question that the government or police would actually lie to them, and why would they?
Anslinger and His Friends in High Places
The power of Anslinger at the time was huge. He had friends in very prominent places, one of them being William Randolph Hearst, owner of a huge chain of newspapers. It was the perfect combination. Newspapers were the major form of news at the time and Hearst just happened to hate Mexicans after losing 800,000 acres of timberland to Poncho Villa.
Hearst was immediately on board and slandered marijuana in print across the nation. Samples in newspapers run by Hearst across the country claimed the following tales:
- “By the tons, it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hashish makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….”
- “Users of marijuana become STIMULATED as they inhale the drug and are LIKELY TO DO ANYTHING. Most crimes of violence in this section, especially in country districts are laid to users of that drug.”
- “Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles? THREE-FOURTHS OF THE CRIMES of violence in this country are committed by DOPE SLAVES-that is a matter of cold record.”
The relentless influx of anti-marijuana propaganda quickly caught on. By the time the Marihuana Tax Act was introduced and passed in 1937 to criminalize the recreational use of cannabis through prohibitive taxation, weed was already being taken for the devil. This statute effectively criminalized marijuana, restricting possession of the drug to certain individuals who paid an excise tax for certain authorized medical and industrial uses.
Some Final Thoughts on the Early Days of Marijuana Prohibition…
To this day, we’re still fighting against these early anti-cannabis campaigns. Unfortunately, the racial disparity of cannabis is stronger than ever. And anti-marijuana activists still continue to spread lies about the plant just as Anslinger did 80 years ago.
While the early days of marijuana prohibition are certainly thought-provoking, full of assertations and actions that would never fly today, they are an important part of marijuana’s history to reflect upon. We’ve come far, but have a long way to go to reverse the damage that’s been done and continue moving forward on the legalization front.