Cannabis As A Social Justice Issue

The Racist Origins of Cannabis Prohibition

Why is there a “marijuana” prohibition on a several thousand year old plant?

This is a loaded question that will no doubt spark varying opinions from every individual presented with it. However, the fact is there are a number of compounding reasons as to why we’re in this mess in the first place - and the primary reasons are not pretty. There is much speculation behind many of these explanations and this section of this article aims to clarify several of the main reasons as to why we as a society are still in “marijuana” prohibition. 

Politcal History

First, we should look at the political reasons as to why this plant was put into it in the first place. Historians speculate that just before the end of alcohol prohibition which ended in 1933, newly appointed First Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA) Harry J Anslinger had support and funding from Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, the DuPont family, William Randolph Hearst, and more than likely numerous racist political entities in creating a mission to rid America of all drugs, starting with marijuana (more on all these assholes soon). Him and his staff knew beforehand that alcohol prohibition was coming to an end, but, with the intent of looking to keep the drug enforcement office going and to keep his job, along with his ulterior motives of disenfranchising people of color, black people and mexican immigrants especially, he did everything he could to associate hemp and cannabis with the slang term marihuana so that he could begin going after “drug dealers” and “drug users.”  

How and why did he get so much support? What exactly did he do?

Racist Propaganda 

In the 1930s, Harry Anslinger was openly racist against all people of color especially Mexican immigrants, and strangely enough, he also hated entertainers, musicians, and actors (who tended to be more liberal and progressive). Abusing his political power, he decided to work against these people for financial and political gain; after all he was friends with some very very wealthy lobbyists and cronies who shared his racism.  

With their powers combined, Anslinger, some of the wealthiest men in America including newspaper and lumber mill mogul William Randolph Hearst, and politically powerful Andrew Mellon, they acted in concert to confuse the general public in order to associate a Mexican weed called “marihuana” with cannabis and hemp. Being successful in this by utilizing yellow journalism (which Hearst was pivotal in helping with), they published numerous fake news about the plant. In 1936, the morality film Reefer Madness came out and it helped to solidify in the general public’s mind that marihuana was a lethal menace to society.    

With the American people blindly convinced of a threat looming over them and their kids, congress acted, created a heavy taxing system to prevent individuals from growing “marihuana,” and passed The Marihuna Tax Act of 1937.  Sadly, most of them didn’t even know they were effectively banning cannabis and hemp.

But why all the trouble to go after hemp and cannabis? There had to be more of a reason than racism and anti-immigration to try and wipe out a plant right?

Threat to Alcohol, Lumber, Petrochemical, Pharmaceutical, Textile, and Tobacco Industries

To quote Joe Rogan in one of his podcasts, “The only reason it’s illegal is because of economics. There’s like, a thousand different things that marijuana would fix and it would costs companies billions and billions of dollars.”

Overly simple statement? Not really; yes it’s a bit more complex than that previous sentence, but the point made is true. Let’s take a look at the many industries that felt threatened by the cannabis/hemp plant: 

DuPont Chemical Companies and other petrochemical companies (big oil) wanted to produce a number of textile and industrial products ranging from cloth, to plastics, to nylon, to various industrial use chemicals. Hemp, whose amazing versatile use is discussed in another section, was a dangerous competitive textile product especially with the new invention of the decorticator - a farming machine that could effectively and efficiently process the hemp plant and it’s valuable hurd.


As was covered in the previous chapter, Popular Mechanics even published an article titled, “Billion Dollar Crop,” which detailed how hemp could be a booming industrial giant across the country. Unfortunately, the industrial powers of the time favored products that could be made inside of factories utilizing chemicals, instead of supporting farmers and agriculture. 

We already mentioned William Randolph Hearst who felt that his lumber mills and paper companies were in danger from the competition possible from hemp. He really did a good job of protecting his interests and his efforts were effective across all of America by printing fake news.

Pharmaceutical companies began developing and experimenting with cheaper synthetic and opiate based medicines around this time as well. Cannabis medicine was also a direct threat to this and in 1942, was removed altogether from the US Pharmacopeia. 

Let’s also remember that tobacco companies benefited big by the banning of cannabis. They actually still do.

The La Guardia Report

Commissioned in 1939 in response to the Marihuana Tax Act, the New York Academy of Medicine was given the task by New York City Mayor at the time Fiorello LaGuardia to conduct the first United States based medical study on marihuana. 5 years later in 1944, after having studied cannabis use throughout America, they released their findings stating that marihuana did indeed have medical benefit, and that it’s demonization and prohibition was misplaced and erroneous. This matched a previous investigation into cannabis, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, which was done by the UK. 

This report infuriated Harry Anslinger who then condemned the study as “unscientific.” He began to arrest high profiled Hollywood actors throughout the 40s such as Robert Mitchum who promoted the plant in order to further deter and demonize those who consumed cannabis. 


Hemp for Victory

Now, despite all the strong efforts into demonizing and banning the cannabis plant, the United States Department of Agriculture actually released a short film, “Hemp For Victory” in 1942, in order to encourage farmers across America to grow the hemp plant for the wartime effort. The US Navy and the rest of the army needed hemp for cord and other reasons. The film, which is a little over 14 minutes, goes into great detail as to why the military needed farmers to grow hemp, as well as provided detailed methods on how to efficiently grow and harvest the plant. This was essentially a double standard by the US Government, and as strange as this all is, it’s actually true. You can watch the whole documentary by clicking the link above!

Now, what happened to cannabis and hemp after World War 2 was over? Not much, it remained in prohibition and it was still illegal to grow, traffic, and smoke the plant. Law enforcement across the country had other issues to worry about at the time, however, and college kids, musicians and entertainers, and individuals associated with the “Beatnick” generation continued to experiment with and recreationally use cannabis. Soldiers in the Vietnam war would even popularize its use.

While it remained illegal, efforts by the major entities who put the plant into prohibition in the first place were nowhere near as bad in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s - some speculate that those said entities had already won and were well on the way to growing and keeping their financial and political powers. It wasn’t until Nixon’s War on Drugs where the image of cannabis would again be heavily demonized.

Nixon’s War on Drugs 

In the 1970s, the War on Drugs enacted by President Nixon was primarily due to racism against Black People and because Nixon didn’t like peace loving weed smoking hippies who were against the Vietnam war (and in reality some of the soldiers in Vietnam were actually smoking the plant and finding that they were no longer willing to fight).


It’s no secret that Nixon was a paranoid racist president. In fact, he is quoted saying, "You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?" he said to top aide H.R. Haldeman. "What is the matter with them? I suppose it's because most of them are psychiatrists." 

With that said,  he intended to do just what the above image describes. He wanted support and to go ahead with his drug war despite the recommendations of another study and commission called the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (that he himself appointed), also known as the Shafer Report. Released in 1972, former Pennsylvania governor and head of the commission Raymond Shafer presented his report, “Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding” to Congress and the general public. It actually favored ending prohibition and recommended alternative ways of discouraging the plants abuse. The report also stated, that while public sentiment tended to view marijuana users as dangerous, they actually found users to be more timid, drowsy, and passive. It concluded that cannabis did not cause widespread danger to society. It recommended using social measures other than criminalization to discourage use. It compared the situation of cannabis to that of alcohol. 

Nixon, like Anslinger, was infuriated by his own commissioned report, had copies of it confiscated and destroyed, and he went full steam ahead with the War on Drugs. Since this time, prison populations began to grow and inevitably skyrocketed as marijuana offenses were easy to find and come by. 


Money for the Law Enforcement and Private Prison Industries + Prohibition crimes 

The US has the largest prison population in the world. You the reader might want to check out the amazing documentary, “13th” on Netflix. It discusses the Private Prison Complex and how the prison systems have become a legal equivalent form of slavery and super cheap labor for big business. Unfortunately for the people of our country, there is a direct correlation with minority crimes related to marijuana arrests and the rise in the number of people we incarcerate.


 This is harmful to our communities in several egregious ways. For simple marijuana possession and convictions, our law enforcement can separate parents from their kids, creating voids in the family homes and creating even more poverty in poor communities, which statistically correlates to increased crime (Black and Brown communities have been severely affected by this). By wrongfully demonizing this plant, we have created a negative image of marijuana drug offenders, which makes it difficult for them to find stable jobs, support their families, and to be normal functioning members of society - this forces individuals to go back into the world of crime. 

This vicious cycle is furthered by the continued misinformation being perpetuated by prohibitionists, ignorant politicians who are in power (look up Jeff Sessions), and by our own communities - people are still stuck in their old views despite the fact that those said views were the result of lies, propaganda, and brainwashing by old racist politicians.  

The solution? Amnesty and rehabilitation for individuals wrongfully disenfranchised by the drug war. There are legal states like California and Colorado where this is being put into effect - cannabis drug offenders are seeing sentences reduced or cleared altogether, and there are local efforts in the form of startups and nonprofits that aim to help these particular individuals get back into society. It’s only fair, and we’d be helping out our communities across the nation, This sensible and compassionate approach is one that should be adopted throughout the United States. Why keep people imprisoned when they were imprisoned by a lie in the first place?



Ignorance and because people don’t like to admit when they’re wrong (probably one of the main reasons we’re still in prohibition)

News flash dear reader, no single human being is going to be right 100% of the time. This includes your parents, your past teachers, and everyone you love. Being wrong is an experience that you cannot avoid. Learn to deal with it. Besides, that sickly uneasy feeling of being wrong opens the door to truth. It’s a choice, a moment that is presenting you with an epiphany - embrace it, and accept that there’s always more to learn - in all things. Sounds a little too general and cheesy but it applies to this. The author really does want you to know that if you were against cannabis, were an ignorant hater, and a staunch prohibitionist, it’s totally okay! Without you, I would never have written this article.

For those who might say, NO IT’S NOT OK!!! Well, what are you gonna do? Change the past? You can’t. What we all can do, is work now and change the world for a better future, for you and any possible kids you might have, nieces and nephews, young loved ones - it’s better to move forward now that you are better equipped with the truth. Truth can help release wrongfully imprisoned nonviolent individuals and we can stop wasting time and valuable resources in disenfranchising people who love the cannabis plant. 

Ignorance, while it sucks, can be educated. No shame in being wrong, you were simply given the wrong information growing up. Now, if you don’t find yourself changing your mind given the facts surrounding this plants history and controversy, and you still want to hold onto your ignorant hate, I really don’t know what can be done for you. 


It’s ok, you were lied to, we ALL were, including your parents and teachers. Welcome to the world we live in. Let’s move on and look at how we can build a better future! 

If you find this narrative a little hard to believe, here are some articles and research that you can freely investigate:

Prohibition and War on Drugs Research

Prohibition, Regulation, or Laissez Faire: The Policy Trade-Offs of Cannabis Policy

Rogeberg, Ole.

International Journal of Drug Policy. 2018 Jun, 56: 153-161. 

Marijuana Legalization by the Numbers

Struyk, Ryan.

CNN Politics. 2018 Mar 30, online article. 

Marijuana

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Britannica.com. 2018 Mar 13, online encyclopedia page. 

The Racist Origins of Marijuana Prohibition

Pagano, Alyssa.

Business Insider. 2018 Mar 2, online article.

From Prohibition to Progress: What We Know About Marijuana Legalization in Eight States and D.C.

Davies, Jag and Forman, Jolene.

DrugPolicy.org. 2018 Jan 19, online article.

Following Marijuana Legalization, Teen Drug Use is Down in Colorado

Ingraham, Christopher.

WashingtonPost.com. 2017 Dec 11, online article. 

Marijuana Policy in Thailand and the Argument for Decriminalization 

Terdudomtham, Thamavit.

Rangsit Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities. 2017 Dec, 4(2): 9-14.

How to Win a War on Drugs: Portugal treats addiction as a disease, not a crime

Kristof, Nicholas.

New York Times. 2017 Sep 22, online article.

16 Years Later: What Happened After Portugal Decriminalized Drugs in 2001?

Desiree, Serene.

Leafly.com. 2017 Jun 13, online article.

In Portugal, Drug Use Is Treated As A Medical Issue, Not A Crime

Frayer, Lauren.

NPR.org. 2017 Apr 18, online article. 

Alcohol and cannabis: Comparing their adverse health effects and regulatory regimes

Hall, Wayne.

International Journal of Drug Policy. 2017 Apr, 42: 57-62.

Marijuana

The Writers and Staff of History.com.

History.com. 2017.

Portugal: Country Drug Report 2017

The Investigators of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. 2017, 1-21. 

So Far, So Good: What We Know About Marijuana Legalization in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C.

The Writers and Staff of DrugPolicy.org.

DrugPolicy.org. 2016 Oct 12, online article. 

A Brief History of Medical Cannabis: From Ancient Anesthesia to The Modern Dispensary

Bushak, Lecia.

MedicalDaily.com. 2016 Jan 21, online article. 

The Cannabis Encyclopedia

Van Patten, George F (aka Jorge Cervantes)

2015 Copyright, Van Patten Publishing, USA.

For Marijuana Legalization, Lessons From Prohibition

Peck, Garrett.

New York Times. 2013 May 22, online article. 

High Time for Change: A Sound, Humane, and Fiscally Responsible Marijuana Policy for Canada

Ciuriak, Natassia.

Queen’s Policy Review. 2011 Nov 1, 1(1): 59-77.

What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?

Hughes, Caitlin-Elizabeth, and Stevens, Alex.

The British Journal of Criminology. 2010 Jul 1, 6(1): 999-1022.

NORML Report on Sixty Years of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S.

The Staff of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Norml.org. 2003 Jul 12, online article.

Hemp: American History Revisited: The Plant With a Divided History

Deitch, Robert,

2003.

The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding (The Shaffer Report)

Schaffer, Raymond, et al.

1972.

Marijuana in Medicine

Mikuriya, Tod H.

California Medicine. 1969 Jul, 110(1): 34-40.

The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York (Full Report)

(Conclusions of the La Guardia Report)
Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana, the New York Academy of Medicine.

The City of New York. 1944. (Rehosted on DrugLibrary.org)

Written by Danny Gagaoin

Cannabis Education and Research Director