Racism Led to Marijuana Prohibition. Inequality Remains Despite Medical Marijuana Legalization.
The Racially-Charged History of Marijuana Prohibition
It’s easy to take for granted that medical marijuana is legal in a majority of the United States. As of last year, 39 American states and Washington, D.C. have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. Another 18 states have passed legislation making recreational marijuana legal. U.S. citizens have more access to cannabis than ever before.
But, Missouri residents shouldn’t take their medical marijuana card for granted. It wasn’t that long ago that marijuana was banned throughout the country. A false stigma that’s existed since before the days of Reefer Madness has created an unfounded negative perception of marijuana users are still battling to this day. And it all began with racial intolerance.
A History of Injustice
From the early days of cannabis prohibition to the more recent War On Drugs, which disproportionately targeted people of color, the history of marijuana laws in the U.S. is tarnished with racism. Even as we enter a new era where cannabis is becoming legalized throughout the nation, people of color aren’t getting a fair shake.
Many unjustly-targeted African Americans continue to serve time in jail for victimless marijuana crimes, serving sentences in states where marijuana has become legal. And, as the legalized cannabis industry rakes in billions of dollars, a mere fraction of marijuana entrepreneurs are people of color.
Early Marijuana Use in the U.S.
Marijuana was perfectly legal in the early years of the United States. Cannabis was being used medicinally as early as the 1830s, and by the late 19th century, cannabis extracts were widely available in pharmacies as a treatment for headaches, insomnia, stomach aches, inflammation, and more.
Cannabis products were even advertised in magazines, such as an 1862 ad for “hasheesh candy” that appeared in Vanity Fair, calling it a “pleasurable and harmless stimulant.” The ad goes on to state that “under its influence, all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy.”
Marijuana wasn’t some illicit secret in those days. Cannabis products were readily available for purchase by any member of the public without any negative stigma attached. So, what happened?
Up in Smoke
Around 1910, during the time of the Mexican Revolution, immigration to the United States from Mexico had a large increase. Up until this time, most cannabis products in America were extracts. Mexican immigrants brought the concept of smoking the flower of the marijuana plant to America.
The racist sentiment of anti-Mexican xenophobia contributed largely to the initial cannabis prohibition movement. Americans began to associate the act of smoking marijuana with Mexican immigrants.
In an article Dan Schlosser wrote for The Atlantic in 1994, he details American sentiments of fear of Mexican immigrants and their association with marijuana. He states, “Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”
From 1914 to 1925 twenty-six states passed legislation prohibiting cannabis. Anti-marijuana sentiment became so high that the laws passed, for the most part, with an absence of legislative debate or public notice. Of course, the immigrants didn’t have a say in the conversation.
In the 1930s, marijuana was on the receiving end of a smear campaign whose effects are still felt to this day. A man named Harry J. Anslinger took over as head of the Narcotics Bureau (a division of the U.S. Treasury Department), and began to publicly defame cannabis as a nightmare drug.
In addition to penning an article for America Magazine titled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” Anslinger further contributed to national anti-cannabis hysteria when he testified before Congress, stating “How many murders, suicides, robberies, criminal assaults, holdups, burglaries and deeds of maniacal insanity it causes each year can only be conjectured.”
The fear mongering surrounding marijuana use was common fodder for articles and opinion pieces in an era when fact-checking wasn’t readily available, as evidenced by a piece of anti-cannabis fodder written by Annie Laurie for the San Francisco Examiner in 1930, in which marijuana is referred to as “murder smoke.”
In the article, Laurie describes cannabis smokers as people who will “cut and stab, and beat and shoot, to satisfy the tortured hunger created by the drug.” If anyone could use a little mellowing out, it was surely the author of that article.
Perhaps the most notable relic of this era of uninformed anti-marijuana sentiment was the film Reefer Madness, which was released in 1936. The film’s ridiculous propaganda includes a plot where cannabis use leads to manslaughter, suicide, conspiracy to murder, and ends in a hallucinatory descent into madness.
While the plot is certainly an easy target for big laughs to anyone who has actually experienced the calming effects of cannabis, the damage it caused is very real, and the stigma cannabis users must face to this day can be traced back to the propaganda utilized in this film.
Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.
The civil rights era of the 1960’s created a resurgence in marijuana culture. For a very long time, cannabis was a hidden drug. But, the civil rights movement of that era, spawned partially by anti Vietnam war sentiment, caused a new generation to begin to question the narrative surrounding cannabis use.
During this era, marijuana began to find a new place in society, among a culture dedicated to peace, love, and communal existence, with cannabis smokers enjoying marijuana out in the open. Many of the most legendary artists of this period celebrated marijuana. It was still illegal, and still part of the counterculture, but for the first time, on a grand scale, many people began to question the narrative they were being given surrounding cannabis use.
The War on Drugs
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” This war really ramped up in the 1980’s, during the Reagan administration. During this time, Americans got an entirely new batch of anti-marijuana propaganda. It was as if Reefer Madness got a fresh new reboot. Cannabis was being lumped in with all other drugs - heroin, crack, cocaine - and marijuana - were all seen as equals.
Nancy Reagan started the “Just Say No” program. The D.A.R.E. program was launched as police officers entered public schools and gave out T-shirts marijuana smokers would wear ironically for decades to come. After school specials and “very special episodes” of popular sitcoms unjustly portrayed marijuana as an epic destroyer of lives, and major celebrities were convinced to do bizarre anti-drug PSAs.
Worse than the propaganda-driven pop culture injections of the war on drugs were the criminal convictions that specifically targeted lower income neighborhoods and people of color. The pervasive targeting of potential criminals and high-crime areas saw African American men being incarcerated at a rate that was four times the rate of black men imprisoned in South Africa during Apartheid.
The racial targeting was bad enough that the American Civil Liberties Union referred to the War on Drugs as “The New Jim Crow.” Perhaps worse than the convictions of people of color for non-violent crimes is a system that so heinously disenfranchises former felons.
Once a citizen pays for their crime, they are reintroduced to a society that is biased against them. They may be out of prison, but their sentence follows them, making it difficult to get a job, an education, affordable housing and many of the things that ordinary citizens take for granted, which often leads felons back to jail because the system was designed for them to fail.
According to a report from the ACLU, marijuana use is roughly equivalent between black and white Americans, yet black citizens are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Forbes magazine reports that, as of June 2020, more than 40,000 Americans are currently imprisoned for marijuana-related crimes. Most of these crimes are non-violent and victimless. If we’re going to make changes for marijuana moving forward, shouldn’t we go back and fix the mistakes that were made in the past, specifically those mistakes that continue to incarcerate people for acts that are no longer illegal?!
An Unbalanced Industry
While the marijuana business is booming, that cash is not funneling out in an equitable way. In 2021, the legal cannabis industry in the U.S. made approximately 90 billion dollars in revenue. That’s a lot of money.
Unfortunately, black business owners only make up about 4 percent of marijuana entrepreneurs. This is due to a combination of factors, including an uneven economic playing field, the bias that black business owners face in raising start-up revenue, and the negative imprint left by the war on drugs.
Luckily, there are some nonprofit marijuana-based organizations out there looking to make a difference, such as Hood Incubator, which offers apprenticeships and a business accelerator program to create opportunities for people of color.
The Truth About Marijuana
Marijuana has been fighting for validation since the early 1900s. The truth is that cannabis is medicine. It can help patients with hundreds of medical conditions. It is a wonder-plant that can help focus, decrease anxiety, inflammation and pain. Marijuana can improve your overall wellbeing, from the inside-out.
Today, we look at the shameful history surrounding marijuana prohibition, because, as the old adage goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s time to change the narrative surrounding marijuana use so that everyone feels free to get safe, legal, natural relief.
There’s never been a better time to get relief.
Aren’t you glad to live in an era in history where you have access to the natural, healing relief of cannabis? All you need is a valid Missouri Medical marijuana card. If you haven’t gotten a card yet, we can help you with that.
Our doctors are standing by to take you through a quick and easy evaluation to see if you qualify. Schedule an appointment with a marijuana physician online by CLICKING HERE, or give us a call at (877) 303-3117 to talk to a patient support representative.
Doctors Who Care.
Relief You Can Trust.
At Missouri Marijuana Card, our mission is helping everyone achieve wellness safely and conveniently through increased access to medical marijuana. Our focus on education, inclusion, and acceptance will reduce the stigma for our patients by providing equal access to timely information and compassionate care.
Call us at (877) 303-3117, or simply book a medical marijuana evaluation to start getting relief you can trust today!
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