There is a heated debate in America at the moment over legalizing marijuana. Colorado and Washington state have already made recreational use legal, and several other states have legalized medical marijuana. Many people who once balked at the idea of legalization have realized that the criminal penalties a person faces for possessing or using marijuana are far more damaging than the drug itself. As we debate the pros and cons of legalization, it seems appropriate to take a look back at the reasons marijuana prohibition came about.
People have used marijuana since before the beginning of recorded history. It is known to have been used thousands of years before the birth of Christ and its use was legal for the vast majority of that time. It was legal in the United States until the early 1900's, when a campaign of lies and propaganda brought about its prohibition. Recent polls show most people believe the time for legalization has come.
Many Americans have come to realize that if marijuana were legalized, regulated, and taxed many of the problems caused by its prohibition could be erased, and tens of billions in revenue could be generated. Thousands die yearly in accidents or due to health related problems resulting from the use of alcohol, yet it is legal, and it should be. It is the responsibilty of those who choose to use it to do so responsibly. Shouldn't the same common sense rules apply to marijuana?
Why, exactly, was marijuana was outlawed in the US? One might imagine that solid scientific evidence was used, or that factual accounts of criminal activity attributed to its use and a legitimate concern for public safety may have compelled our government to criminalize marijuana. Not so. In fact much of the so called evidence that was used had no basis whatsoever in fact. Racist propaganda was used to stir up anger. Incompetent and corrupt politicians and government officials spurred by greed, the prospect of personal gain, and the hope of career advancement were a major force behind the movement to ban its use, posession and cultivation. Horrible tales of ruthless violence, including brutal murders and vicious gang rapes were totally fabricated in order to frighten the public and gain support for anti-marijuana laws.
The first marijuana law in America was passed more than 150 years before we declared our independence, but it wasn't intended to restrict marijuana. In 1619 a law was enacted at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia that actually required farmers to grow Indian hempseed. Over the next 200 years there were several laws passed making its cultivation mandatory. In fact between 1763 and 1767 you could be jailed in Virginia for not growing it.
Of course it was not being grown just so early settlers could get high. Hemp had many uses at the time. It was used for rope, clothing, and food, among other things. The census of 1850 showed there were more than 8,000 hemp plantations in the country that grew a minimum of 2,000 acres of the plant.
It was the early 1900's before marijuana began to be seen as a problem. California was the first state to pass a law outlawing the "preparations of marijuana, or loco weed." At the time there was tension near the Mexican border due to the revolution in that country. Violence as a result of the revolution sometimes spilled over the border. Many people in the American west were also angry that large farms were using cheap Mexican labor which hurt smaller farms. The fact that many Mexicans smoked marijuana was used to help pass the law in California, not based on facts or science, but on the anti-Mexican sentiment that existed among many people at the time. The law was intended more to target Mexicans than to protect the public from marijuana's "harmful" effects.
At around the same time Utah also outlawed marijuana. According to Charles Whitebread, a Professor of Law at the University of Southern California Law School, Mormons returned to Salt Lake City from Mexico with marijuana in 1910. Church leaders were not at all happy with its use by members of the Mormon Church. Whitebread speculates that may be one of the reasons Utah outlawed marijuana, althought some members of the Mormon community dispute his theory.
Several other states used the racial prejudice towards Mexicans to help pass laws against marijuana. Wyoming was first in 1915, followed by Texas in 1919, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Arkansas in 1923, and Nebraska and Montana in 1927. In Texas a State Senator promoted the outlawing of marijuana by saying, "All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff is what makes them crazy." The Butte Montana Standard quoted a Montana lawmaker's statement on the floor of the Montana Legislature: "When some beet field peon takes a few traces of this stuff... he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts out to execute all his political enemies."
In the eastern states racist statements were also used to turn public sentiment in favor of making marijuana illegal. It was said by one newspaper editorialist to "influence black men to actually look into the eyes of white men, and look twice at white women." Oh, the travesty!
In the 1931 New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, Dr. A. E. Fossier wrote that "Under the influence of hashish those fanatics would madly rush at their enemies, and ruthlessly massacre every one within their grasp." Within a very short time, marijuana started to be linked to insanely violent behavior.
In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established as a new division of the Treasury Department. Harry J. Anslinger was named as its first director. Anslinger's ambition rather than facts was behind his campaign to outlaw marijuana. He saw it as an issue that could be seized upon to further his own career. Anslinger knew he could create a national crisis by using racism and claims of brutally violent crimes to draw national attention to the "horrific problems" caused by using marijuana.
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US," said Anslinger, "and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others." This wasn't Anslinger's only completely ludicrous statement. He also claimed that "Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind." If you do a little research into Anslinger you will find many such ridiculous statements.
As late as 1961 Anslinger spoke about his efforts to outlaw marijuana, and still used propaganda andcompletely false stories to justify them:
"Much of the most irrational juvenile violence and that has written a new chapter of shame and tragedy is traceable directly to this hemp intoxication. A gang of boys tear the clothes from two school girls and rape the screaming girls, one boy after the other. A sixteen-year-old kills his entire family of five in Florida, a man in Minnesota puts a bullet through the head of a stranger on the road; in Colorado a husband tries to shoot his wife, kills her grandmother instead and then kills himself. Every one of these crimes had been proceeded by the smoking of one or more marijuana "reefers." As the marijuana situation grew worse, I knew action had to be taken to get the proper legislation passed. By 1937 under my direction, the Bureau launched two important steps. First, a legislative plan to seek from Congress a new law that would place marijuana and its distribution directly under federal control. Second, on radio and at major forums, such that presented annually by the New York Herald Tribune, I told the story of this evil weed of the fields and river beds and roadsides. I wrote articles for magazines; our agents gave hundreds of lectures to parents, educators, social and civic leaders. In network broadcasts I reported on the growing list of crimes, including murder and rape. I described the nature of marijuana and its close kinship to hashish. I continued to hammer at the facts. I believe we did a thorough job, for the public was alerted and the laws to protect them were passed, both nationally and at the state level. We also brought under control the wild growing marijuana in this country. Working with local authorities, we cleaned up hundreds of acres of marijuana and we uprooted plants sprouting along the roadsides."
Randolf Hearst, owner of chain of newspapers, also campaigned against marijuana. While Anslinger's motive was ambition, Hearst's was profit and bigotry. It is fairly well known that Hearst held strong anti-Mexican views. This was probably due to his loss of more than 800,000 acres of timberland to Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution. He had also invested heavily in the timber industry to support his newspaper chain and wanted to stop the development of hemp paper. Spreading terrible lies about Mexicans, and claiming marijuana caused extreme acts of violence sold newspapers. That not only made him money, but helped insure that hemp production would be halted.
Some of Hearst's newspapers made ridiculous claims about marijuana. One column in the San Francisco Examiner said that "Marihuana makes fiends of boys in thirty days, Hashish goads users to bloodlust. By the tons it is coming into this country, the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms.... Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him...."
Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that the claims made by Anslinger and Hearst are far more dangerous than marijuana could ever be. Such statements themselves encourage racist views and could have, and probably did, incite acts of violence against blacks and Mexicans. Since it is impossible to overdose on marijuana, and not a single death has ever been cited as the medical cause of any person's death, there is one absolute and undeniable certainty: More violence has been caused, and more lives have been destroyed by the campaign against marijuana, and the laws that came about as a result of it, than by the drug itself.
If you want to point to the crime and violence surrounding the drug trade in America, you can trace it all right back to the beginning of the war on marijuana that was started during the first half of the 20th century by dishonest politicians, corrupt government officials, and the greed and racism of figures in the corporate world.