Why was marijuana made illegal in the first place?

Why was marijuana made illegal in the first place?

We began outlawing marijuana in the United States in the 1910s. For Western states, a driving reason was a fear of Mexican immigrants who used the plant. In Eastern states, it was fear of African Americans and jazz musicians who used cannabis to “take advantage of white women.” Making marijuana illegal was essentially a way to outlaw being an immigrant or not white.

Check out this racist quite from the authority on drugs in 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the original DEA):

“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.”

“Facts” like this became a staple for marijuana prohibition, as Congress and the rest of the country assumed that this guy actually knew what he was talking about.

The hateful and fear-induced views exemplified in Anslinger’s quote were an instrumental part in the prohibition of marijuana (and are still alive in scary drug stories like ‘crack babies‘ and the ‘Miami Face-eater‘). The propaganda film Reefer Madness came out around the same time (1936 to be exact). The film depicts high school students partaking in a hit and run, manslaughter, attempted rape, and then simply going insane. Maybe the most ridiculous depiction was later found in the colorized version, in which the marijuana smoke is green, possibly to differentiate it from “harmless” tobacco smoke people were familiar with.

William Randolph Hearst was another factor (among many) behind marijuana’s prohibition. The newspaper mogul and yellow journalism purveyor of the 1930s capitalized on the reefer hysteria to sell sensational headlines and dramatic stories.

Unfortunately, we didn’t know enough at the time to question the idiot known as Anslinger and the uninformed propaganda he and Hearst were peddling, so we believed the hype. we criminalized the plant along with everybody who used it (but especially nonwhite people).

Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor at Columbia University, wrote a book last year entitled “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society” While he makes very intriguing points about many substances other than marijuana, there’s one point that he stated about the plant that is crucial to this topic. Hart had discovered that the drugs that are vilified and possibly outlawed are the ones that people know the least about, and are the least aware of who uses the drug, especially when race was a factor. Marijuana is a perfect example, he says, because the drug was outlawed in part because people didn’t know enough about it. It was too foreign to them. In 2014, much of the country has experienced cannabis directly or indirectly, so it’s easier for us to imagine a world where cannabis is legal and the sky doesn’t fall down. Combine ignorance with bigotry, and you get a society unaware that most of the people who use this plant are, shockingly, not bad people.

There have been many reasons cited for marijuana prohibition over the years (saving our children, preventing the ‘gateway effect,’ etc.) but when you look at the facts, you can see that it’s actually prohibition that’s causing the problems, not the cannabis. Marijuana prohibition was, and in many ways still is, about nothing more than racism, prejudice, and misinformation.

For more on the history of marijuana prohibition, I highly recommend that you read this piece from Peter Guither at Drug War Rant.