Marijuana has been illegal for a long time. A very long time – far longer than alcohol during Prohibition. States started banning weed in the early 1900s, and the FDR administration followed with a total ban in 1937.
Years later, cannabis was placed atop the government’s list of prohibited substances.
By now, we all know the typical excuses for marijuana prohibition: preventing underage use, drug violence, and addiction. But why was pot criminalized in the first place? Why did we have to wait 75 years before the first two states re-legalized it?
The answers are murky at best, but one thing was clear from the beginning: The early debate over “devil’s weed” was less about the public health or welfare than it was about race.
Over the course of American history, different substances have been associated, usually unfairly, with certain ethnic groups. Any group not in favor – and that included most of them – was stuck with its own inebriated stereotype.
The first to suffer this abuse were Irish-Americans accused of hereditary drunkenness. Chinese-Americans who immigrated to the Western United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced similar mistreatment because of their use of opium. In 1875, San Francisco passed the first anti-opium law in the country, banning the drug – but only in opium dens, which attracted mostly Chinese patrons.
The federal government first banned “smoking opium” in 1909, driven by decades of prejudice against Chinese-Americans. The law didn’t apply to substances derived from opium, including heroin (which was outlawed in 1924).
The same thing happened with cocaine. The drug, derived from the coca plant, made its way to America in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the height of the Jim Crow era, in the early 1900s, that it was tied in the popular imagination to African-Americans. In 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Act, which banned cocaine, largely out of widespread fear of “crazy” coked-up black men.
And when marijuana first came to the attention of state lawmakers, it was associated with Mexican-American immigrants .
Actually, cannabis has a much longer history in America, dating back to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both grew fields of hemp, though there’s no evidence they smoked any of it.
A half century later, marijuana was a “fashionable narcotic,” according to one listing. It was included in patent medications, and hashish dens proliferated across the country.
But it wasn’t until the drug became popular with Mexican immigrants that politicians started to ban it. The first jurisdiction to do so, in 1906, was the District of Columbia. Massachusetts followed in 1911 and California in 1913.
In California especially, Mexican-Americans migrant laborers were typically the scapegoats of unfounded fears about marijuana. Other immigrants were blamed, including those from the Middle East.
From there, it was just a matter of time. State after state banished weed and criminalized tokers, sending untold numbers to jail or prison over the last century. By the mid 1930s, every state had adopted a law banning or regulating cannabis.
Finally, in 1937, the federal government stepped in to stamp out pot. Racism played a big part again, but it wasn’t the only culprit behind the Marihuana Tax Act. Greed was also a key factor.
Around the time the law passed, the feds launched a massive anti-marijuana campaign in the press (think “Reefer Madness”). A leader of the effort was newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who owned major timber holdings threatened by the advent of cheap hemp paper.
So there you have it: Nearly 80 years of stupidity and destruction, all because of racism and avarice. Thank God we’re finally coming to our senses. One can hope.