Marijuana is a racist word 

The roots of cannabis' criminalization linger in modern day society

click to enlarge An example of anti-marijuana propoganda used in the 1930s.
  • An example of anti-marijuana propoganda used in the 1930s.

One of the big campaign topics in this presidential primary — although probably more on the Democratic side than the Republican side — is how to reverse the mass incarceration of minorities in state and federal prisons. An alarming number of people are behind bars because of drug-related charges. And looking at our nation's history — specifically at the criminalization of cannabis — it shouldn't come as any surprise that African Americans and Hispanics are the ones serving time.

A history of hemp in Indiana and America shows cannabis was perfectly acceptable as a textile crop throughout the 1800s. It wasn't until the end of the Mexican civil war that Americans learned cannabis had other uses.

The end of the war brought Mexican immigrants across the border looking for a new life. The immigrants brought elements of their culture with them, which included smoking the leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. The immigrants called it "mariguana" and used it for medicinal purposes and as a relaxant. Pharmaceutical companies, including Eli Lilly, began to grow and experiment with cannabis as medicine. In 1906, cannabis indica, more commonly known as Indian hemp, was patented as a legal drug for medicinal use.

The 1920s brought us Prohibition and with it a growing disdain for any and all hallucinogens and drugs. In 1930 a man by the name of Harry Anslinger became the first commissioner for the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was under the U.S. Treasury Department. As FBN commissioner, Anslinger began a rigorous campaign to make cannabis illegal.

click to enlarge harryanslinger.jpg

In order to make Americans fear cannabis, Anslinger did two very distinct things. He began referring to the type of cannabis that was being smoked by citizens as "marijuana," slightly altering the term that traveled across the Rio Grande. Marijuana sounded "foreign," making it easier to build suspicion around the growing and cultivating of the cannabis plant.

The second thing Anslinger did was prey on white America's segregation and mistrust of people of color by negatively associating marijuana with African Americans, Latinos, and other "dark-skinned" immigrants in America. He linked marijuana to all aspects of minority culture.

"Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind," said Anslinger in documented testimony before Congress. "Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage."

Anslinger continuously vilified marijuana as a drug more dangerous than heroin, especially in the hands of minorities.

"This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others," said Anslinger. "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."

Anslinger made "marijuana" a top priority because of what he believed was the drug's effect on the "degenerate races." He claimed the drug led to "pacifism and communist brainwashing. The continuous attack on marijuana made it "un-American" and therefore taboo, even though cannabis and been grown and used for medicine and textiles for generations. As the Jim Crow era evolved, drug laws became a part of the system.

Anslinger used unfounded and false research about marijuana to support his claims. Although in-depth research about cannabis dating back as far as 1939 refutes his claims, Anslinger stood by his accusations, instead calling the contradictory research "unscientific."

The FBN commissioner kept his position for 32 years, serving under five different presidents. He served until the age of 70, the mandatory retirement age for his federal post. Anslinger stepped down as the civil rights movement was in full swing. Although African Americans fought achieve equal rights as American citizens, the damage was done and the association of marijuana and "degenerate behavior" of the nation's minorities was set firmly in societal subconscious.

Can the case be made that the modern day mass incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics because of drug charges stems from the 20th Century campaign of one man to criminalize one drug?


The bigger question is: How do we as a society undo the damage already done?

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About The Author

Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns was born, raised, and educated right here in Indianapolis. She holds a B.S. in Communications from the University of Indianapolis (1995). Following a 20-year career in radio news in Indiana, Amber joined NUVO as News Editor in 2014.

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