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by Heather Occhino


The Conflicted & Ugly History of Cannabis in America

by Heather Occhino

The Conflicted & Ugly History of Cannabis in America

by Heather Occhino

The lawful regulation of marijuana use has a conflicted history behind it. In the late 1800’s, Americans and Europeans were allowed to purchase cannabis extracts for pharmaceutical purposes in order to help alleviate painful or uncomfortable physical ailments, like stomach aches, migraines and insomnia. Later on in the 20th century, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 banned the use of marijuana across America and this act was legislated a year after the ‘Reefer Madness’ film, warning parents of drug dealers luring their children to smoke ‘reefer’ at parties, was released. The New York Times reported that “During the mid-1970’s, virtually all states softened penalties for marijuana possession”, despite law enforcement strengthening its cannabis-related restrictions until the late 1960’s. 

An important thing to bring up is that the hardening of cannabis-related laws slowed down around the time when these laws began to affect the demographic of white, upper-class college students smoking the substance. The following decade, in the 1970’s, the penalties for the use and possession of cannabis became less harsh and this correlates with the historical time when “many Americans’ attitude towards cannabis shifted at the turn of century. This was at least partly motivated by Mexican immigration to the U.S. around the time of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, according to Eric Schlosser, author of ‘Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market’ (Little, 2018, para. 4). The exploration of American prejudice toward immigrants in the U.S. from the early 1900’s leads to the connection between this prejudiced-based fear and an accompanying suspicion of the Mexican “traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana, Schlosser wrote for The Atlantic in 1994.”

The author for the novel ‘Reefer Madness’ includes the citation of how “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” (Little, 2018, para. 5). Today, the federal government continues to back law enforcement regulations related to cannabis “to a policy that has its origins in racism and xenophobia and whose principal effect has been to ruin the lives of generations of people” (Little, 2018, para. 9). 

As can be shown from the references made from, Texas was one of the earliest U.S. states to enforce laws against marijuana, such as when the notable Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was legislated. According to NORMAL, the article “The Deep Roots of Marijuana Prohibition and Racism” states that documents and segments from newspapers demonstrate that the first states to set forth anti-marijuana laws, which includes Texas, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico, have also been found to have lawful struggles with Mexican migration in the nation. Part of the laws in Texas, as legislated by the Senate, made the declaration that, “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff (marijuana) is what makes them crazy”. 

Also, another statement is recorded in Montana that echoes a similar anti-Mexican sentiment, saying, “Give one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette and he thinks he is in the bullring at Barcelona'' (Chad West, PLLC, “Unfortunate Timing”, para. 4). The despairing racist and xenophobic attitude influencing legal drug policies, having its origins traced back to the early 20th century, can further be revealed in another example, such as in one of Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ commissioner Harry Anslinger’s racist rants. He claimed that “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S. and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swimming result from marijuana use.” 

Anslinger has a record of setting out to debunk the platform of Black musical stars, such as Billie Holiday. Anslinger further continued to claim that, “This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and many others…Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”  (Chad West, PLLC, “Jumping on the Bandwagon”, para. 6 ). 

Anslinger, who served as a head narcotics commissioner for 30 years in the U.S., is also known to have been behind the cause of the infamous trial and subsequent arrest of singer Billie Holiday, which ultimately rendered her receiving an overbearing sentence of 366 days in prison. How did he lead for such a harrowing case to occur? It’s important to note that Anslinger was well-known for not only, of course, openly expressing his racist beliefs-which is rooted in his opinion of anti-draconian drug laws-but also for holding a particular grudge against Jazz musicians. He kept a file titled under the name, “Marijuana and Musicians”, which was filled with personal details about some of America’s most famous Black stars. 


Billie Holiday is a famously-recognized musician known for having opened up about her collectively-shared experience being an African-American woman, as expressed in her songs, like in her defining, 1939-released “Strange Fruit”, which speaks about the lynching of Black people in the South. Anslinger was so sought on silencing Holiday to the extent that he forbade her from performing this touching, powerful anthem shining light on racial injustice. When Holiday refused his attempt to stop her from performing “Strange Fruit”, he plotted on her downfall-coming up with a plan to stop her by sending men working for him, including Jimmy Fletcher, to frame Holiday by selling heroin to her. Eventually, she was caught and was sentenced to prison for a year and a half and authorities refused to have her cabaret performer’s license reissued after her release in 1948.

It was known that Harry Ansliger firmly believed that Black jazz singers who smoked marijuana created “the devil’s music” and he attributed the use of marijuana as a root of bad things, which he further irrationally blamed people of color in American society for. The jazz genre is the first form of Black music which grew successful and gained mainstream coverage in the U.S. 

While the horrendous use of language as said by Anslinger has been taken away, the foundation of racism is still present to this day. Black people in Texas are arrested at more than twice the rate of whites for marijuana possession, even though whites and Blacks use the substance at fairly equal rates, nation-wide, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (Chad West, PLLC, “Racism Still Exists”). A graph on NORMAL also shows the statistics exemplifying that Blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested, through the numerical rates represented of high arrest rates made in multiple counties in Texas, with Van Zandt having a rate of Black arrests being 34.7 times more than that of whites and Cooke holding a rate of 24.7. Van Zandt and Cooke County in Texas have also been ranked in the Nation’s Top 5 for Racial Discrimination, with Van Zandt holding the stature of being number one while Cooke County is ranked at number 4 (NORMAL, Chad West). 

As updated in December 2021, there are 18 states allowing recreational marijuana use, nine states legalizing its use for medical purposes, and seven states fully illegalizing the substance, in the U.S.  It also has been updated recently from November 2021, that GOP lawmakers, as well as Republican voters, are pushing for the support of the country and state-wide legalization of weed. Congress members from predominantly Republican states, such as South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, has been advocating for the decriminalization of marijuana. Mace proposed the first Republican bill in Congress to decriminalize weed, as well as to tax and regulate the cannabis industry and officially get rid of certain marijuana-related records from last month. As pointed out by Mace, over 70 percent of Americans support this idea. Earlier this year, North Dakota’s House passed a marijuana legalization bill that was introduced by two Republican lawmakers. As pointed out by cannabis advocate and former Maryland GOP state delegate Don Murphy, “Every two years, you get a new crop of members from both parties, but certainly from the Republican Party, who don’t have to defend the drug war…,” (Politico, Fertig and Zhang, 2021). 

Over the years, the Republican party has joined in campaigning for the legalization of marijuana use-and the majority of Americans support the potential nation-wide federal legislation. As mentioned prior, an important aspect in the legislation of marijuna legalization that’s been proposed is the expunging of criminal records, which has been implemented through policies, such as in the MRTA. This legislative act strives to push the message of social and economic equity by placing focus on expunging the marijuana-related records which have been used to punish communities of people of color who smoke marijuana, at a disporpoinate rate. Another main goal of the MRTA is to support independent licensed cannabis businesses run by minorities, women, economically disadvantaged farmers and service-disabled veterans.