Racial Prejudice and Cannabis

White culture’s continuing bias about nonwhites and cannabis.

Posted Sep 18, 2020

Although hemp, used for its fiber and lacking intoxicating properties, arrived in the New World 53 years after Columbus first landed, it is less clear when smokable psychoactive varieties of cannabis were imported. It is generally believed that what we call marijuana today was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands by the British for the primary purpose of pacifying slaves.

It later arrived in the United States along two routes. Sailors and migrants from the Caribbean filtered into New Orleans and, in 1910, asylum seekers fleeing Mexico’s violent revolution began crossing the border, primarily through El Paso. Both carried marijuana with them. All the derogatory racial stereotypes white Americans associated with brown and black people were attached to marijuana. Its use was alien to American culture and reinforced prejudice against the immigrants. From the very beginning, smokable cannabis and racism have been intertwined.

Before the Mexican Spanish word “marihuana” first entered English usage, “cannabis” and variants of “hash” were the only terms used. The pharmaceutical companies Bristol Myers Squib and Eli Lilly referred to cannabis and cannabis extracts in their over the counter patent medicines. The word “marijuana” was popularized in racially derogatory stories about Mexican refugees. Pancho Villa and his bandoliered men, who briefly invaded New Mexico in 1916, openly flouted their pot use as they sang verses of La Cucaracha about a cockroach smoking marijuana. But Pancho Villa’s greater crime was wresting 800,000 acres of timberland from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst during Mexico’s uprising against foreign capitalist control of their land. Hearst at one time owned 8 million acres of Mexican land and he had the tools in his media empire to sensationalize both the Mexican and marijuana threats.

In 1920 the U.S. joined several other countries, including Norway, Finland and Russia, in banning alcohol. This grand experiment failed and was reversed in 1933, both because of the public’s widespread disregard of the law and state governments thirst for new tax revenue during the Great Depression. The Federal Bureau of Prohibition’s assistant commissioner, Harry Anslinger, became commissioner of the new Bureau of Narcotics in 1930  and initially had little appetite for leading a campaign against marijuana. He went on record saying that cannabis was not a problem, did not harm people, and “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea it makes people violent. Racial prejudice, propelled by fear of Mexican migrants taking scarce jobs during the depression) soon changed his mind. William Randolph Hearst paved the way for Anslinger’s conversion to anti-marijuana crusader by publishing a steady stream of stories about marijuana’s evils that reached 20 million daily readers during the 1930s. He needed to sell papers, and lurid racially charged descriptions of crimes caused by this killer weed sold very well. Truth was trampled by pursuit of readers and the profit and power this brought.

Anslinger hated jazz music. It was too wildly primitive, too frenzied, and too much the product of marijuana smoking blacks from New Orleans. He sensationalized axe murders without any evidence marijuana use was involved. Hearst claimed without any proof that three-quarters of violent crime was marijuana related. And Anslinger pointed directly to “Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans and Negroes” as races enslaved to a drug that caused sexual degeneracy and insanity. Marijuana was consigned to being “other” than the dominant white cultures just as much as black and brown races were considered the “other” by most Americans. Anslinger’s arguments that marijuana should be prohibited were not subtle. In 1937 possession and sale of cannabis became illegal nationwide. The very word “marijuana” was charged with racial overtones.

Given this history, it is no wonder that thinking objectively about marijuana is not easy. When marijuana use crept into white culture, first among beatniks during the 1950s and then exploding during the massive cultural shift of the ’60s to become a seemingly permanent part of American life, it seemed to scrub racial slurs from the word marijuana. The truth was that racial overtones sank into less visible undertones. Although the rate of marijuana use among whites and blacks since the ’60s has been roughly the same, most whites are surprised to learn this fact. In a cynical political move, President Nixon declared a war on drugs, which was essentially a war on drug users whom he identified as marijuana smoking Vietnam War protesters and heroin using inner city blacks. Again, marijuana and racial minorities were considered as “others” and contrary to America’s interests. As the war on drug users heated up in the 1980s and fused with the country’s craze for “getting tough on crime”, America eventually housed 25% of the world’s prison population despite having only 5% of its population. Racial undertones guided much of America’s drug war. Despite only 13% of drug users being black, reflecting their proportion of the population, blacks have been four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and 13 times more likely to be sent to state prison. Law enforcement still systematically perceives an essential racial link between blacks and marijuana. The white majority are barely aware of this bias and mounts little effort to reverse it. There should be little wonder that dialogue about cannabis continues to be dominated more by opinions about social values, with all their hidden unconscious underpinnings, than about objectively verified facts. Crime stories often carry more weight with the public than scientific facts despite the fact that science is an agreed upon method for removing bias and mere chance from what we think we know. It relies on total transparency and group consensus that is tested again and again against undeniable, observable and measurable realities.

American needs to increase both its scientific literacy and its understanding of civics if we ever hope to achieve a deeper understanding of cannabis and an approach to racial justice that heals centuries old wounds. This can begin by no longer intertwining issues of race and cannabis into a mutually reinforcing prejudice.