If you follow the politics of cannabis, then you know that statistically, prohibition negatively impacts POC far greater than the rest of the population. According to one study by the ACLU, POC are nearly four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than their white counterparts, despite both groups reporting similar usage. For reasons like this, many criminal just reform activists consider pretty drug arrests a way for private systems to essentially continue the practice of chattel slavery.
But did you know that cannabis prohibition laws actually have racist origins that predate this whole conversation? Let’s take a look back at how marijuana first became illegal and the role that anti-immigrant sentiment played.
Cannabis In Early 20th-Century America
Before the 1930s, pharmaceuticals sold within the United States commonly contained cannabis, and while there was some effort on the part of state and federal regulatory offices to control who could purchase cannabis and what it could be prescribed for, any motivated person could easily get their hands on it by simply seeing a physician or going to a pharmacy.
All that changed in 1937, with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively made cannabis illegal, may imposing a massive excise tax on cannabis cultivators in the US. It’s long been accepted that the primary reason for this piece of legislation was to appease the logging and paper lobbies who saw hemp as a massive threat to their profits. It’s how they went about selling it, however, where the overt racism comes into play.
How The Marihuana Tax Act Of 1937 Was Sold To The American Public
Before 1937, the American farmer produced hundreds of hundreds of tons of hemp fibers annually. It was a major cash crop, so naturally, it would be a difficult sell to the agricultural community. The American Medical Association (AMA) also voiced their displeasure with the act, as the act would tax medical cultivators, pharmacies, and physicians themselves. As we mentioned earlier, large swaths of the population already used cannabis medicinally and wouldn’t be quick to give up an effective remedy.
So with all this opposition, how exactly did the Marihuana Tax Act get passed? You may have noticed that the word Marijuana is actually misspelled in the bill’s title. It’s some a minor clerical error but rather points to the insidious xenophobia that greased the bill through congress.
Where Does The Word Marijuana Come From?
Before the ‘30s, very rarely did you see the term marijuana. Cannabis was referred to as cannabis. However, as more immigrants fleeing the Mexican civil war migrated north into the United States, anti-immigrant politicians coined the term in order to associate the drug with people from Mexico. The way cannabis gets spoken about in this era is vastly different than descriptions of the effects of “Marihuana.”
For example, Henry Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau Of Narcotics and architect of many of the draconian drug policies that still plague this nation, read a letter during the congressional hearing to enact the Marihuana Tax Act, which read:
“I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”
When reading statements like this that were presented by a government official at a congressional hearing, it becomes clear that Anslinger and others intentionally stoked the coals of racial divide in order to further their own anti-cannabis agenda.