100-year Marijuana Criminalization Born Out of Fear and Hatred of Mexican Immigrants
California is one of 28 states in the U.S that have to some degree decriminalized the use of marijuana, or at least certain medicinal products derived from it. Most of these legal statutes were put in place by a majority of voters, using the initiative referendum process. In other words, the will of the people.
This is the first in a series of 3 articles with which El Guardian will give our readers 1) The background and history of marijuana prohibition and decriminalization.
2) Details of what is now legal under California Proposition 64, which was approved in the November 8 election, and 3) Speculation about what the Trump administration might do in an attempt to strike down what the voters have approved.
In part 1 of our 3 part series, we will explore the question of, what events and public attitudes caused the use of marijuana to become a criminal act? How did 100 years of condemnation of marijuana as a dangerous drug, or “devil weed”, get started?
It's a tactic as old as civilization: If you want to keep a wave of immigrants under control, invent a myth that these new strangers are doing something evil. Over the course of a hundred years, you can put thousands of them in jail and many people will still believe that a benign plant, such as cannabis sativa, is a poisonous threat to law and order.
Just to start with some basic facts, marijuana is the mixture of dried, shredded flowers and leaves that come from the hemp plant (known to scientists as Cannabis). For more than 200 years, hemp fibers were essential to making rope, sails, and clothing, so the American government encouraged its production. Cannabis was also used for its powers as a sleep and mood aid, for rheumatism and digestive complaints such as poor appetite and nausea. By 1900, cannabis preparations were being sold, over the counter, all across the U.S.
In 1910, the beginning of the Mexican Revolution brought waves of Mexican immigrants into border states such as Texas. These newcomers also used cannabis for medicinal purposes. They also enjoyed smoking it for relaxation, at the end of a hard day in the fields. This recreational use of Cannabis was a new concept for white Americans, who were already suspicious of these incoming strangers. This unfamiliar herb called “marihuana”, conjured up fears of a devil weed.
Scare stories smearing Mexicans as rapists and “bad hombres” are sadly familiar to us today, but they got their start during the Revolution, which brought an influx of refugees north across the Rio Grande. In these scenarios, of “crazed Mexicans”, raping white women and being driven to all manner of violence by marijuana. As with today, cheap Mexican labor was welcomed, but the people who did the work were distrusted. In 1915, the City El Paso, Texas, became the first city to ban marijuana, and quickly started round up immigrants for deportation.
After that, things got worse in America for marijuana users, before they ever got better. Resentment and fear of Mexican immigrants escalated during the massive unemployment of the Great Depression. Marijuana continued to be linked with crime, social deviance, and "racially inferior" people. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana.
At that same time, decriminalization of alcohol was gaining acceptance, and the man in charge of the Department of (alcohol) Prohibition, Harry Anslinger was looking for a new prohibition, and found it in cannabis. He initiated a heated campaign of anti-marijuana propaganda, in spite of research showing that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol. All research was dismissed, and with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, it was illegal.
This was bad for Mexico, which saw no problem with marijuana and even acknowledged its benefits. Mexico decided its drug policy should be run by doctors. Their medical advice was that cannabis didn’t cause these problems, and they refused to ban it. The U.S. was furious. Anslinger ordered them to fall into line. The Mexicans held out — until, in the end, the U.S. cut off the supply of all legal painkillers to Mexico. People started to die in agony in their hospitals. So with regret, Mexico launched its own drug war.
Reason and science tried to influence law during the 100-year period of marijuana prohibition. Harry Anslinger wrote to the 30 leading scientists on this subject, asking if cannabis was dangerous, and if there should be a ban. Twenty-nine wrote back and said no. In 1944 the New York Academy of Medicine issued an extensively researched report (The LaGuardia Committee was the first in depth study into the effects of smoking marijuana in the United States) declaring that, contrary to earlier research and popular belief, use of marijuana did not induce violence, insanity or sex crimes, or lead to addiction or other drug use.
Flash forward to 1972, when President Richard Nixon directed the bipartisan Shafer Commission, to consider laws regarding marijuana. They determined that personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized. Nixon rejected the recommendation, but over the course of the 1970s, eleven states decriminalized marijuana and most others reduced their penalties.
That all got washed down the drain with the rise of Ronald Reagan, whose Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 raised federal penalties for marijuana possession and dealing. For example, possession of 100 marijuana plants received the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. Later a "three strikes and you're out" policy was added, requiring life sentences for repeat drug offenders.
Sorry if we're giving you a little whiplash, but this flash forward is into the world of sanity. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215 allowing for the sale and medical use of marijuana for patients with AIDS, cancer, and other serious and painful diseases. This law stands in tension with federal laws prohibiting possession of marijuana. (It may be insignificant, but this took place during the Presidential administration of Bill Clinton, who declared when asked about marijuana, “I tried it but I didn't inhale.”)
Be sure to pick up the January issue of El Guardián.us (in Spanish), or visit
El Guardian.us English on Facebook for details about what is now legal under California Proposition 64, which was approved in the November 8 election.