According to the ACLU in 2010, black Americans were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white Americans, with consumption rates roughly even between the two groups. In some states such as Iowa and Minnesota, black residents are about 8 times as likely to be arrested for cannabis. These same ACLU statistics show that decriminalization, in this case in Massachusetts, did not lower the racial disparity in cannabis arrests. 

Photo by: The Daily Chronic

Photo by: The Daily Chronic

Understanding these disturbing statistics requires an understanding of the history of cannabis propaganda and prohibition itself. When a set of beliefs and laws are built on a foundation of racism, it is impossible to pick this apart from the enforcement of the law. When the enforcement of cannabis prohibition goes hand in hand with racism, it is because the history of this prohibition was born out of racism. If such laws were put into place based on misinformation and propaganda, there is no way to really begin enforcing them as though carrying out prohibition is for the greater social good. Old biases are built in to this enforcement – rooted in old and deeply rooted propaganda. United States cannabis laws were at no point intended to interfere with the use of cannabis in wealthy, white homes and neighborhoods. Harry Anslinger himself, the first commissioner of the U.S Federal Bureau of Narcotics, admitted to supplying upper crust members of society with illicit drugs (Finley, page 28), including a high ranking naval officer, members of congress, and women in whom he had a romantic interest. Clearly this man’s crusade against cannabis was not truly out of any concern for American society. Harry Ansligner also is quoted saying:

“Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death — the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

In addition to demonstrating a poor understanding of the effects of cannabis, and the hypocrisy of America’s first “drug czar”, this quote shows a level of overtly malicious racism that even today’s racist politicians tend to shy away from in public. Questions are raised, such as: what led to a political climate in which such sentiments were not only acceptable, but helped prohibition laws gain the political traction they still largely enjoy today? How and why was cannabis associated with immigrants and minorities? What was white America’s relationship to cannabis prior to, and at the time of prohibition? How and why did propaganda affect these ideas?

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Cannabis in America, Before Prohibition

Without even delving into the near ubiquitous use of hemp fabrics, it is important to remember the status of cannabis in 19th century America when considering the story of prohibition. Primarily, cannabis was known to Americans as an oil available in most drug stores, also called “hasheesh”. An 1862 issue of Vanity Fair (page 134) contains an ad for “hasheesh candy”, describing it as “A most wonderful medicinal agent for the cure of nervousness, weakness, melancholy, Confusion of thoughts etc. A pleasurable and harmless stimulant. Under its influence all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy.”

Cannabis was seen as something of a natural cure-all - harmless, and good for treating mood issues and pain. This is part of the role cannabis is starting to play once again in the lives of Americans today. An 1890 report by J.B Mattison M.D discusses cannabis indica’s use as an “anodyne” (painkiller) and “hypnotic” (sedative). The same report contains a thorough dismissal of any notion of toxicity or potential for fatal overdose in the use of cannabis, going as far as saying “Hemp is not a dangerous drug, even the largest doses do not compromise life. No acute fatal poisoning has been reported.” – in a quote that echoes the conclusions of doctors today.

This attitude, in Anglo-American society, was fairly new in the 19th century. While hemp fiber had been used throughout the western world for centuries, the dominance of the church in European daily life had largely relegated knowledge of medicinal cannabis to the middle east and Asia. The cultural outlook began to change, as the church’s influence on culture loosened, and as Europeans as well as Americans were exposed to eastern attitudes and knowledge, by way of European expansion and trade.

Jack Herer calls cannabis the number one medicine in America, prior to the 1860s popularization of intravenous morphine. It remained the number two medicine in the country until aspirin took over in 1901. Cannabis was among the top 3 substances used in prescription and patent medications from 1842 until the 1890s, along with opium and alcohol – consumed orally in massive doses compared with modern standards, according to Herer. Sometimes cannabis even found use as a substitute for alcohol and opium, the addictive effects of which were fairly well known in 19th century America. 

Medicinal use had boomed in the 1840s, as a result of an 1838 medical study by W.B O’Shaugnessy, a British doctor working in the Bengal region of British India. O’Shaughnessy observed in India the use of cannabis for conditions then untreatable in the west, such as tetanus. Experimenting on local patients, animals, as well as himself, O’Shaughnessy wrote and researched a 40-page study - the largest yet done in western culture at the time. Within a few years, the study had, by 19th century standards, “gone viral” in Europe and America, reaching a high level of popularity. In the following decades many American doctors and novice users would report on cannabis experiences, noting its potential for both euphoria and dysphoria, increased appetites, and difficulty to predict dosage and effects. However, it was found effective, if unpredictable, at treating a wide variety of maladies.

A few years later in 1860, in what perhaps represented a high water mark of the acceptability of cannabis, the Committee on Cannabis Indica for the Ohio State Medical Society report stated that “High Biblical commentators believe that the gall and vinegar, or myrrhed wine, offered to our Saviour, immediately before his crucifixion, was in all probability, a preparation of Indian hemp.” – showing that cannabis had found acceptability even in protestant religious communities that centuries before, and a century later, totally rejected the use of cannabis on moral grounds.

The popularity and acceptability of cannabis would persist for a number of decades. Around the turn of the century, the popularity started to decline, in part because of the rise of other drugs and medications. In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed which, while focused on keeping food and drugs properly labeled, also listed cannabis as a “dangerous/addictive” substance, along with opiates and alcohol – which laid the groundwork for future drug laws. In 1914 the Harrison Act also laid a foundation for taxing and controlling drugs. However, the move towards total prohibition didn’t take off until the rise of xenophobia in America after the first World War.

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The Cultural and Political Climate Leading Up to Prohibition

The 1920s represented something of a perfect storm of factors that contributed in various ways to an increase in already widespread racism and xenophobia in America. Anti-German propaganda, necessary to convince Americans to fight overseas in World War I, contributed to anti-immigration sentiments in general. Immigration to America had increased greatly since the 1880, and while nativist sentiment was nothing new, it found fertile ground in the tense post war climate. Anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-Catholic sentiment was also on the rise since the war, evident in a resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan in this post war period. Concerns about national security, after the unprecedented scale of violence in the war, increased racism and xenophobia towards both non-European Americans, and foreigners in general. Americans felt threatened in this period, and lashed out as result. 

The popularity of eugenics theory had been on the rise of decades, a twisted and pseudoscientific interpretation of Darwin’s recent ideas about evolution. Eugenics promoted a Nazi-like scheme of genetic control, using methods such as forced sterilization of “undesirable” populations. As these theories gained ground in what seemed to be legitimate scientific circles, embraced by mainstream figures from Teddy Roosevelt to Alexander Graham Bell, racism found more fertile ground than ever in American culture. Anti-black sentiments reached a particularly active point in this period. 

The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, as well as other post-war legislation such as the 1917 Immigration Act, served to put these growing sentiments into law. These laws enforced literacy tests to keep out the poorest of immigrants – and in doing so kept out the most marginalized of ethnic groups. Quotas were established, based on existing population percentages in the U.S, designed to make sure that certain ethnicities would not grow to make up a larger percentage of the American population. The 1924 act was especially restrictive to (already limited) Asian immigration. These laws were passed to keep America white and European, and would exist largely unchanged until the immigration reform of the 1960s. Even President Calvin Coolidge said, in reference to the Johnson-Reed Act – “America must be kept American.”