Article by Jolene Forman and Suchitra Rajagopalan, CNN
April 20 is a day of celebration for marijuana enthusiasts. The origin of 420 dates back to the early 1970s, when 4:20 p.m. marked the time that high school students in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, would regularly meet to consume marijuana. As people across the United States light up to mark the occasion, it is important to reflect on the ongoing legacy of marijuana criminalization and its widespread impact on black and brown communities.
Marijuana prohibition started in the 1920s at the state and local level in the southwestern United States. Despite widespread use by white people, both then and now, prohibition was driven by xenophobia and racism toward Mexican immigrants working as farmworkers. The term “marijuana” came into use as anti-cannabis factions sought to associate the substance with Mexicans, who by the early 1920s were caricatured as using marijuana to gain superhuman strength to commit acts of violence.
By the 1930s, Harry Anslinger, the godfather of modern drug prohibition, connected marijuana use to black jazz musicians and campaigned to prohibit marijuana nationally. He succeeded in 1937 with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act. This racist attitude carried over to the modern-day war on drugs, first declared by Richard Nixon in 1971. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s former chief aids, confirmed that the drug war was intended to marginalize anti-war protesters and black people. Nixon achieved his goal using drug war tactics to target black communities.According to a 2013 study from the ACLU, a black person in the United States is nearly four times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of use.