Article by Alyssa Pagano, Business Insider
The legal status of cannabis has been in question in the U.S. since people starting regularly smoking it in the early 1900s. The debate continues today, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions taking a firm stance against legalization and insisting that federal prohibition laws be enforced, even where states have made it legal. But how did it become illegal in the first place? As it turns out, it has some roots in racist rhetoric pushed by politicians and the media in the 1930s, when it first became illegal. Following is a transcript of the video.
– Weird orgies. Wild parties. Roots in Hell. How did marijuana get such a bad wrap? The answer is simple. Racism.
As early as the 1800s, there were no federal restrictions on the sale or possession of cannabis in the US. Hemp fiber from the plant was used to make clothes, paper, and rope. Sometimes it was used medicinally, but as a recreational drug, it wasn’t that widespread. A New York Times article from 1876 even cites the positive use of cannabis to cure a patient’s dropsy. Basically swelling from an accumulation of fluid.
In the early 1900s an influx of Mexican immigrants came to the US fleeing political unrest in their home country. With them, they brought the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally. And it took off. The Spanish word for the plant started to be used more often too. Marijuana. Or as it was spelled at that time, marihuana, with an “H. This is when the more sensational headlines about the drug began to appear.
In 1936, a propaganda film called Reefer Madness was released. In the movie, teenagers smoke weed for the first time and this leads to a series of horrific events involving hallucination, attempted rape, and murder. Much of the media portrayed it as a gateway drug.
– [Reporter] Marijuana, a powerful excitant, produces unpredictable emotional results. But its greatest danger lies in the fact that it is a stepping stone to the harder drugs such as morphine and heroin.
The following year in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. Cannabis sales were now taxed. Part of the reason this act was passed was because of all the fear mongering going on at the time. And a huge instigator of that fear mongering was the man behind the Marihuana Tax Act, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was named the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the prohibition era. But once national prohibition ended in 1933, Anslinger turned his focus to marijuana. This is when racism and xenophobia really kicked in.
Harry Anslinger took the scientifically unsupported idea of marijuana as a violence-inducing drug, connected it to black and Hispanic people, and created a perfect package of terror to sell to the American media and public. By emphasizing the Spanish word marihuana instead of cannabis, he created a strong association between the drug and the newly arrived Mexican immigrants who helped popularize it in the States. He also created a narrative around the idea that cannabis made black people forget their place in society. He pushed the idea that jazz was evil music created by people under the influence of marijuana.