Prior to the wave of anti-immigration hysteria in the 20s, America was actually in a golden age of immigration. Between 1820 and 1930, the United States was the destination for 60 percent of the worlds immigrants – during the period of 1870 to 1930 this added up to about 30 million immigrants from all over the world. Of particular importance for the story of cannabis prohibition, the early 20th century saw a growth in Mexican immigration to the U.S. This began as a result of the growth of industrial, especially mining jobs in the southwestern U.S in the 1890s, and then surged after 1910 as a result of the political chaos surrounding the Mexican revolution at that time. Prior to this time there had actually been more migration from the U.S to Mexico than the other way around. This immigration increased further in the late 20s, when many Mexican Catholics revolted against their new federal government, as it placed a number of restrictions on the role of the church in public life. As discussed in part one, while Americans used cannabis medicinally, purely medical use wasn’t really on Americas radar in the 19th century. Recreational cannabis, however, was used in much of the rest of the world – including Mexico. Mexican immigrants in this period introduced recreational cannabis to an American culture, which by its own account at least, knew nothing about using cannabis this way. This is important to the story of cannabis propaganda, because as one of the earliest large groups of non-white, non-European immigrants, these groups were met with prejudice, fear and racism. Fear-mongering began at this point, hand in hand with racism and attempts to control the immigrant population. A number of states would begin passing anti-cannabis laws in this period, with enforcement often geared towards the Mexican immigrant population. 

American society, with its cultural roots firmly based in puritanical strains of English and German Protestantism, had more trouble with the idea of a recreational plant consumed by Mexicans, than it did the same plant, used medicinally (even with well-known euphoric side effects) and prescribed by largely white pharmacists. The same bizarre logic can be seen today in the ongoing over prescription of opiate painkillers, and the lack of substantive response to the resulting epidemic of addiction.

As the twenties rolled on, recreational cannabis use spread to other marginalized groups in the United States, including the, primarily black, emergent jazz scene. African Americans at the time, as well as to this day, have faced some of the worst scapegoating white America has to offer. Despite having ancestry in America going back further than the new waves of white European immigrants at the time, black America was seen as a threat to white society throughout American history – and the early 20th century, with the popularization eugenics theory, and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, saw some of the worst of this. 

Jazz 1920s black musicians

In the 20s jazz scene, clubs called “tea pads” started appearing throughout the southern part of the country, and by 1930 as far afield as New York City – these were clubs in which cannabis was used for both creative and recreation value. Within the jazz world, cannabis use spread in this fashion from the southern United States to the rest of the country. Out of longstanding xenophobia and racism, propaganda campaigns arose in these southern states, often beginning with politicians trying to appeal to this hysteria. In particular, politicians including Harry Anslinger himself focused on spreading the use of the word “marijuana” (or marihuana), imported from Spanish, as a way to associate the use of the plant with Mexican immigrants and perceived criminality. This use of marijuana as a “weasel word” served also to insert a historical break in the perception of cannabis use. This trick used racism to make the country focus on negative associations with this new population, instead of the verifiably harmless, almost century long American tradition of medical cannabis.

The news media began to spread stories of recreational cannabis turning immigrants into criminally insane, deranged, murderers. In 1925, the New York Times printed a story that read - “Crazed from smoking marihuana, Escrado Valle, 27 years old, a former member of the marine corps of the Mexican Army, ran amuck today in a local hospital with a butcher knife and killed six persons before he could be subdued.” Another New York Times story in the same year claimed “Marihuana leaves, smoked in cigarettes, produce murderous delirium. Its addicts often become insane. Scientists say its effects are more terrible than those of any intoxicant or drug.” This media hysteria ignored entirely the history of medical cannabis use in the U.S.

This was the golden age of anti-cannabis propaganda. Films such as 1936’s now infamous Reefer Madness (Tell Your Children), in which “drug pushers” ruin the lives of naïve, unsuspecting American youth, abounded and ramped up an atmosphere of fear regarding the use of cannabis. Racism had been the springboard for anti-drug hysteria, but now it was starting to take on a life of its own apart from direction associations with Mexican immigrants or other minority groups. Other films would promote the same message as Reefer Madness – that cannabis is a dangerous and degenerate influence on American youth. 

Marijuana Prohibition marihuana reefer madness

In this period of history, from 1914 to 1937, 27 different states would pass anti-cannabis laws – some instituting prohibition, some regulating its use. Finally, in 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This was actually a tax act which instituted a requirement for all cannabis sold to have a government issued stamp. Unfortunately, the government would not issue any of these stamps, which resulted in de facto cannabis prohibition. Congress spent only two hours, as opposed to its normal weeks or more, debating the Tax Act. Anslinger himself served as witness to the harmful effects of cannabis, stating that “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” The American Medical Association testified to the well-established harmlessness of cannabis, but were dismissed offhand. Anslinger would begin a campaign of arrests throughout the country, including a number of high profile movie stars and celebrities. Between 1937 and 1947, 270 million dollars were spent enforcing cannabis prohibition. Further efforts were made after New York City mayor LaGuardia’s 1944 study declared cannabis to be harmless, to impede access to cannabis for research purposes. Anslinger’s anti-cannabis machine was now in full effect, it’s fear-mongering now a self-fulfilling prophecy – no longer needing to even feign the support of the scientific community. Cannabis was now considered to go against the grain of basic American morality. 

Propaganda and political posturing had relegated cannabis to a marginal, threatening foreign influence, during the Great Depression which was a period in which many Americans were desperate for a scapegoat. By the time the Tax Act was on the table, it would have been political suicide for anyone in congress to stand their ground on the cannabis issue – despite the century’s worth of evidence refuting the claims of addiction and insanity.