As more states legalize medicinal and recreational cannabis, it is important to look at the policy's political history. Though many arguments for or against the drug engage with biology, discussion often ignores the policy's large-scale consequences.
Until the early 1900s, cannabis was unregulated. In 1850, the US had over 8,000 cannabis plantations, primarily for textiles. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution crossed the Texan border, bringing recreational cannabis use to the United States. In 1913, California passed the country’s first prohibition law, and others followed.
These laws were targeted at Mexican-Americans.
“When some beet field peon takes a few traces of [marihuana] … he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies," a Montana legislator argued.
The South and West targeted Mexican-Americans; elsewhere, it was African-Americans.
“This marihuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes … The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races," Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, said.
In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act — a misnomer, since it fully criminalized possession. The committee hearings were tragically short.
Dr. William Woodward, Legislative Council for the American Medical Association, reproached the Bureau of Narcotics for distorting AMA statements that had nothing to do with cannabis. He dismissed the “evidence” presented, arguing the data showed no such events, and presented a critical letter from the AMA.
The committee dismissed his claims and passed the bill to the floor of the House. With a naked lie, the plant was made illegal.
Racist drug laws are an American tradition.
Historically, cocaine was enjoyed by the upper echelons of society, including Pope Leo XIII and Sigmund Freud. In the late 1800s, black dockers in New Orleans used cocaine to keep active; by 1900, it spread to plantation workers. In 1910, A State Department official said “cocaine is the direct incentive to the crime of rape by Negroes.” In 1914, the New York Times published a headline with the phrase “Negro cocaine fiend,” arguing it caused hallucinations, murderous rages, and an invulnerability to bullets. By December that year, it was a controlled substance.
Cannabis is a smaller health risk than alcohol by every metric. It has many medical uses, including treatment for epilepsy, depression, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy side-effects, and it reduces opiate addiction. However, biology without context whitewashes racial discrimination.
To this day, African Americans are over three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possessions than European-Americans, despite similar usage rates. Any discussion must start by addressing this fact.
Leo NC is a senior from Leawood studying philosophy and cognitive science.