Race and Cannabis in America

By Mac Weeds February 26, 2021 

The United States of America is a weed nation. Love it or hate it, you or someone you know inevitably has a deep tie to the ubiquitous herb. And with more than a few states now declaring recreational pot legal and many more supporting medical marijuana, weed's set to become not just an unavoidable illicit experience, but an integral and nonchalant part of our culture. Given its prevalence in modern life, it's only natural that we assume the magic weed's been a part of our American culture for ages, just now coming into the light. Sure, it's not an indigenous American crop (weed originated somewhere in Central Asia, then spread across the Old World over thousands of years), but it's easy to think that it must have come to America in days of yore and taken root from there.

It's important, first of all, to differentiate between the different types of cannabis. There are four species within the genus. One is cannabis sativa L, and that's what we call hemp. That's what was grown in both the British colonies on the East Coast and by the French in Quebec. But hemp is less than one percent THC, so you really can't get stoned off of hemp. It was used for bales and ropes and sometimes paper and clothing and things like that [and that's all]. 

The other species of cannabis the one most Americans love is cannabis sativa (without the L), which is much higher in THC and has become much more potent over the years. [Then there's] cannabis indica, also an American favorite, especially for those seeking a relaxed buzz. And last but not least … cannabis ruderalis , the last of which was discovered by a Russian scientist in 1923. 

 

So yes, there was hemp grown in the early American colonies. But as far as I know we can't say George Washington was smoking blunts.

The introduction of smokeable cannabis to the US largely begins after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1911. There were a number of refugees crossing the border from the violence of the revolution at the time, and they brought smokeable cannabis with them. There had been a long tradition of smokeable cannabis in Latin America and networks of "marihuaneros" in Spanish-speaking countries.

 

The immigrants fleeing the violence in Mexico brought cannabis into the southwestern US, particularly Texas. It was there that the first backlash against cannabis began. The Texas city of El Paso became the first city to have an ordinance against it in 1914. The City felt that it had to put a stop to this wave of weed coming into our county. These Mexican roots of American smokeable cannabis are important because it was known as a colored-people's drug well into the 1960s when the baby boom discovered it and white college kids began to smoke it and it lost its racial connotations. There was also cannabis being brought into places like New Orleans by sailors and sometimes by immigrants from the Caribbean [around the same time]. The black community also began to pick up on cannabis, so that reinforced this racial stereotype that brown and black people smoke cannabis and white people did not.

 

Because it was used by black Americans and Mexican Americans, it helped to feed into the racist fears and stereotypes that were used to make it illegal in the 1930s. 

When Harry Anslinger, who was leading a federal agency that would later become the Drug Enforcement Agency, was confronted with the end of prohibition in 1933, he panicked because he and his man were charged with enforcing prohibition… He was worried that he didn't have a mission in life, that he and his men would be out of a job. That's when he began to lead the crusade against marijuana. They very deliberately, systematically chose marijuana as their new whipping boy.

 

When Anslinger was participating in federal hearings that would eventually culminate in the passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937, which essentially made marijuana illegal, the arguments against marijuana use were not at all grounded in scientific evidence. They were grounded in hearsay and stereotypes: That this was a drug black men used to seduce white women. That it was a drug that led Mexicans to murder their white neighbors.