This Is Why Marijuana Is A Racial Justice Issue

How xenophobia and racism contributed to the marijuana prohibition in the United States.

As of May 2021, the United States continues to have the highest incarceration rate in the world, with almost half of all offenders serving time for drug offenses. Marijuana has been a key driver of this mass criminalization in this country, as hundreds of thousands of people – the majority of whom are Black or Latinx – have their lives impacted by a marijuana arrest each year.

Although cannabis use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, Black Americans are over three times more likely to be arrested or cited for cannabis possession as compared to whites, according to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) review of government data conducted in April 2020.

Additionally, although the total number of people arrested for marijuana possession has decreased in the past decade, law enforcement still made over six million arrests over that period, with the racial disparities in arrest rates remaining in every state.

ACLU’s report, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, which details marijuana possession arrests from 2010 to 2018, presents disturbing findings which show that, despite several states having reformed marijuana policies over the last decade, far too much has remained unchanged when it comes to racial disparities in arrests.

Cannibis Greenhouse
Cannabis greenhouse. Photo by Richard T on Unsplash

Here is the history of marijuana, and its racist and xenophobic roots.

As early as the 1800s, there were no federal restrictions on the possession or sale of cannabis in the United States. Hemp fiber from the cannabis plant was used to make rope, paper, and clothes, and, even occasional used for medicinal purposes. A New York Times article dating back from 1867 cites the positive use of cannabis for medical use. Rarely was it used as a recreational drug.

In the early 1900s, an influx of Mexican immigrants came to the United States seeking refuge, fleeing political unrest in their home country. With them, they brought the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally, gaining popularity across the country quickly. The Spanish word for the plant, marihuana (spelled with an “H” rather than a “J”,) became well-known and used, and as a result, propaganda about the drug began to appear in the media.

Nearing the Great Depression in the 1920s, as massive and widespread unemployment, hunger, and social unrest took place, the United States government needed something, or rather someone to blame. With the influx of immigrants, the federal government began treating marihuana as a foreign substance brought in by Mexicans, and as a result, many U.S. citizens stoked great resentment towards this population, as they were blamed for the “uncontrolled evil weed.”

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and Harry Anslinger

Passed in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act didn’t exactly ban marijuana, but it did impose what was later deemed an unconstitutional tax on everyone involved in marijuana commerce. In practice, this act resulted in the criminalization of marijuana, and within less than four decades between 1900 and 1937, essentially all drugs ranging from alcohol, morphine, and marihuana were deemed illegal or were now under government jurisdiction.

Marihuana revenue stamps, 1937. Wikipedia

This act was passed as a “public effort to decrease drug use and protect Americans from drug addiction and dependence,” but in actuality, the Marihuana Tax Act was fueled by widespread racial discrimination against Mexican-Americans and Black Americans.

Although hemp and cannabis extracts, morphine, and alcohol had been used together in medicinal practices since the late 1900s to help alleviate a variety of ailments around the world, and the medicinal benefits of cannabis specifically were starting to become understood, there was a strong distinction between the American public’s understanding of what cannabis and marihuana were.

Harry Anslinger, a huge instigator of the fear-mongering behind marihuana at this time, not only helped shape the law, but single-handedly changed the public’s perception of marihuana in the United States.

Anslinger, an infamous anti-cannabis prohibitionist, was named the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the Prohibition Era, but once Prohibition did end in 1933, and the FBN was on the brink of being shut down, Anslinger shifted his focus on marihuana and racial minorities.

This is when racism and xenophobia manifested into American lives and attitudes.

Anslinger took the scientifically unsupported idea of marihuana as a violence-inducing drug, connecting it to Black and Hispanic people, all the while creating the perfect package of terror to sell to the American public and media.

Harry Anslinger (center) discussing marijuana control. Wikipedia

By emphasizing the Spanish word marihuana instead of cannabis, Anslinger created a strong association between the drug and the newly arrived Mexican immigrants. Similarly, Anslinger pushed the idea that the popular music form, jazz, was evil music created largely by the Black population under the influence of marijuana. Anslinger’s main efforts during the 1930s and 1940s were to arrest as many Black jazz musicians as he could in a massive bust, though the plans never came into fruition. Nonetheless, Anslinger’s racial biases continued to be intertwined with his motivations.

Discrimination and the Public’s Perception

The racist ideologies held by white Americans presented Anslinger with the perfect foundation to use xenophobia and racism to openly promote his and the media’s flawed propaganda against marihuana.

These racist and stereotypical ideas didn’t just influence the public’s perception and media’s portrayal of the drug, but also the discrimination they encouraged was evident in real numbers.

In the first full year after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, Black people, specifically Black men, were about three times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than white people were. More disturbing, Mexicans were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.

The 1944 La Guardia Report conducted a study on the drug, which proved that the dangers of marijuana were not as harmful as the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had claimed. Ironically, by the end of the 1940s, during World War II, the U.S. government incentivized the majority-white farmers to grow hemp to support the war effort, a complete contradiction of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Harry Anslinger’s early war on drugs showcased that even despite false evidence and claims, racism and xenophobia trumps facts. It also proved to be a road map for future anti-drug campaigns.

The effects of this racist victory are still felt today and continue to manifest in laws and the prison industrial complex, as marijuana remains federally illegal.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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