The Racist Roots of Marijuana Criminalization

How the nation came to criminalize drug use dates back over two hundred years ago, and according to a report by Business Insider, racism and xenophobia were major contributors.

Marijuana, which was originally spelled “marihuana” has been around for centuries. The report says that there were no laws in the US that banned the sale or possession of marijuana even as early as the 1800s. 

The cannabis plant’s fibers were even used in producing materials like paper, rope, and clothes, and occasionally for medicinal purposes. 

Marijuana’s recreational use increased in popularity because of a rise in immigrants from Mexico in the early 1900s, according to the report. 

In 1936, the propaganda film Reefer Madness was released. It depicted a gruesome series of events including murder, hallucination, and attempted rape, after a group of teens smoked weed for the first time. 

Media followed up the film’s depiction and labeled marijuana a “gateway drug” that would cause its users to turn to harder drugs. 

The year following the film’s release, the Marihuana Tax Act passed, imposing a tax on every sale of marijuana. 

The Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger looked more closely at marijuana after alcohol prohibition ended in 1933 in the US. 

His fervent focus on marijuana and coordinated fear mongering led to not only the passing of the Act but also made room for racism and xenophobia to set the tone around marijuana. 

Anslinger promoted an unscientific claim that marijuana induces violence in users, connecting racist ideologies about Black and Hispanic people as proof for the baseless claim. 

Anslinger achieved this by purposefully emphasizing the use of Spanish word “marijuana,” instead of cannabis to draw a line between the new immigrant population and the feared drug. 

His claims about marijuana included that it made Black people "step out of their place" in society. He even went as far to claim that jazz was evil and created by people who used marijuana. 

With Anslinger’s claims, the disproportionate criminalization of Black and Hispanic people’s drug use began. The Marijuana Tax Act led to Black people being arrested three times the rate of white people on drug charges during its first year as a law. Mexican people were arrested a rate nine times that of white people for the same drug violation charges. 

The Boggs Act of 1952 created mandatory sentencing for drug convictions, that came with steep fines and long sentences. 

This legislation paved the wave for the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 passed under Richard Nixon’s administration. 

This act repealed the Marihuana Tax Act, but labeled cannabis as a schedule I drug, which likened it to drugs like LSD and heroin.

In her seminal work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander gives readers an in-depth overview of the nation’s history with crime, race, and drugs.

The "War On Drugs" launched by the Nixon administration created a vacuum that increased prison sentences for Black and Hispanic people in the US. A web of targeted legislation keeps populations in contact with the criminal justice system in ways that have ravaged entire communities for decades. 

The documentary film 13th by Ava DuVernay draws lines from slavery in the US to the prison population demographics seen today. 

Even with this year’s election that legalized marijuana use in several states, the nation needs to reckon with the damage racist and xenophobic rhetoric caused for a lot of people and communities. 

As states continue the move to legal marijuana and the cannabis industry booms, real discussions of restorative justice, like expunging records and providing equity in cannabis dispensary licensing, need to be had. 

Photo: Getty Images

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