The Prejudices Of Pot Prohibition: Tracing the Racially-Charged History of America’s Drug War

One of the more disturbing developments of Donald Trump’s presidency has been his appointment of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions—a man who once joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana”—to the post of Attorney General.

It’s alarming to think of our nation’s chief law enforcement officer espousing such antiquated prejudices, but perhaps not altogether surprising—for race has always been a central feature of America’s marijuana prohibition.

“Rarely do you see that kind of candor about it, though,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes says of Sessions’ Klan remarks. A primary sponsor of Washington’s Initiative 502 to legalize recreational cannabis, Holmes recognizes that the federal government’s ongoing war on drugs has had questionable, even sinister, motives dating back to its inception.

Pharmaceuticals are a valuable crop for industrial use. Though oriental-style hashish parlors already flourished in major cities on the East Coast, recreational use was most common among Mexican immigrants, whose numbers multiplied following the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

El Paso, Texas became the first municipality to criminalize marijuana in a 1914 ordinance, not unlike an 1875 anti-opium law designed to target Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. Both provided law enforcement officials with a convenient excuse to detain, deport and otherwise persecute these new citizens.

Sensationalist newspaper stories meanwhile painted marijuana users as violent criminals, helping to galvanize public opinion against Mexican immigrants and their “marihuana”—a simple colloquialism used to talk about cannabis or hemp. “Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife,” read one New York Times headline from 1925.

Many of these stories ran in newspapers published by William Randolph Hearst, famous for his alarmist “yellow journalism,” whose motives were likely economic rather than racial. Holmes, like many others, believes Hearst’s goal in demonizing cannabis was to hurt the hemp industry, a potential competitor to the many paper mills he owned.

“Hearst’s first order of business probably wasn’t to be racially discriminatory, but it sure was an easy means to serve his purposes,” Holmes says, illustrating the complicated motivations that can manifest as discriminatory laws.

Much of the anti-drug propaganda, however, came from the federal government itself—specifically from Harry J. Anslinger, the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, created in 1930. Throughout his 32-year tenure, Anslinger spread many fabricated police reports depicting violent crimes supposedly perpetrated by marijuana users, many of them with none-too-subtle racial themes.

“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy,” a typical report reads.

The unemployment and economic upheaval of the Great Depression only increased white Americans’ fear of their Spanish-speaking neighbors, likely accelerating the nation on its path to federal prohibition. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed cannabis, and in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act criminalized recreational use at the federal level while imposing an excise tax on industrial hemp.

“[Nixon] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The war on drugs as we know it today began in 1970, when the Marihuana Tax Act was replaced with the Controlled Substances Act, which ranked substances according to their harmfulness and potential for addiction. Marijuana was placed as a Schedule I drug by the DEA, the most restrictive category, ignoring the findings of the Shafer Commission, which recommended decriminalizing marijuana.

 


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This continued hostility towards cannabis users was more than just willful ignorance—rather, it was a political smokescreen for then-President Richard Nixon’s true aims. Former Nixon aide and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman memorably described the former president’s motives in 1994, saying:

“[Nixon] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Of course, many of the officials tasked with enforcing the war on drugs aren’t aware of its racial underpinnings, but that doesn’t change the ways these laws disproportionately affect minorities.

“With drug policy, you have to look at the impacts,” Holmes says. “There is no rule that says, we should have a disproportionate number of blacks incarcerated in our prisons, but we know that’s the effect.”

Indeed, 13 percent of black American men have lost their right to vote as a result of drug incarceration, despite the fact that they use drugs at approximately the same rate as white Americans. In 1986, a black American was six times as likely as a white American to be jailed for drug-related offenses, and in 1996, twenty-two times as likely.

The war on drugs originated as a camouflaged cultural war, and it continues today as an ever-expanding waste of taxpayer funds, with more than $40 billion spent on enforcement annually, and of human life, with more than 92,000 prisoners currently serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. The waste won’t end under Sessions’ rule, but hopefully that won’t stop Americans from pushing for a sensible drug policy, one without prejudice.

Jeffrey Rindskopf

Jeffrey Rindskopf is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, born and raised in southern California. He attended film school at Chapman University before beginning his career as a freelancer in 2014, writing fiction and articles covering travel, food, and culture. When he isn't writing, Jeffrey likes to travel or simply melt into the couch while consuming some of his favorite media.

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