In the US, the history of cannabis is inextricably linked to the origins of cannabis in Latin America. While the plant has its own history within Anglo culture that goes back much further than the overtly xenophobic association with immigrants from south of the border, the modern notion of “marijuana” as a controversial, illegal, counterculture phenomenon has everything to do with our perception of the plant’s relationship with Spanish-speaking cultures.
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Prohibition and Propaganda
Harry Anslinger must have been feeling pretty good about the progress of his war on cannabis at the dawn of the 1960s. Despite some writers, artists, and jazz musicians going against the grain, the cultural and legal prohibition against cannabis use had really never been stronger. Simple possession was a crime punishable by decades in prison, and no doubt as a result of this, as well as decades of propaganda, drug use was not something to discuss at all in polite mainstream America.
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.
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.