Marijuana is becoming legalised in more and more places across the world. In the UK, medical marijuana was legalised in November 2018 (but under strict regulations for now). With its effects being significantly less harmful compared to other legal and socially acceptable drugs such as alcohol, all this begs the question: why was it banned in the first place?
The answer may surprise you. There are lots of stories and theories in circulation with varying degrees of accuracy, but what is the truth about the war on weed?
Racism and Anti-Immigration
In America in the early 1900s, shortly after the Mexican Revolution, a number of Mexicans immigrated into southern states. The Mexican immigrants were commonly users of cannabis, which they called “marihuana”, and the plant was enjoyed as a relaxant and a medicine. The increase of immigration led to an increase of fear and panic among the Americans, and the media began to perpetuate falsehoods intending to smear the Mexican immigrants. This included the demonisation of “marihuana” use.
Funnily enough, the Mexicans and their “marihuana” were treated as morally corrupt, but the irony is that, at the time, many Americans were using medications that had cannabis as an ingredient. Since the word “marihuana” was foreign, this helped drive the public hysteria and media panic.
Texas was one of the states that saw an influx of immigration, so in an attempt to combat this, they needed an excuse to arrest and/or deport the feared Mexican immigrants. Using customs or culture as a reason to target groups was no new thing, either, as San Francisco did the same thing with the criminalisation of opium in an attack on Chinese immigrants in 1875 (just a few decades before).
Myths of Marijuana’s Effects
Marijuana use was sensationalised, and myths arose about Mexican farm labourers becoming violent towards white people as a result of using what was considered a cheap, Mexican alternative to alcohol. Cannabis was referred to as “Mexican opium”, and legislation against the drug was sometimes supported by no more than a racist remark or joke.
One purporter of the supposed damage of cannabis was Harry Anslinger, who headed the Department of Prohibition in Washington, D.C. in 1929. Up until then, he had repeatedly stated that cannabis is not harmful and does not cause people to be violent. With his new appointment into this position, he found himself looking for a purpose, and ended up announcing to the public that he had changed his tune.
Anslinger claimed that smoking cannabis would send its users into a “delirious rage”, and that the drug turned men into “wild beasts”. One particular case was brought up time and time again as an example of the influence of “the demon weed”, which was the case of Victor Licata. The 21-year-old murdered his entire family with an axe in Florida, which Anslinger attributed to marijuana. This stirred up fear amongst parents and families across America. Years later, it turned out that in Licata’s psychiatric files there was no evidence of him ever using cannabis, but he did have a history of mental illness.
Another claim that was brought up during hearings in the 1930s on cannabis law was that the drug would cause men of colour to become violent and seek sexual contact with white women. In Jim Crow America, this was a frightening thought to the public.
Around the time, Anslinger was desperately trying to gather evidence against marijuana, and was really grasping at straws. He wrote to 30 scientists about the issue, asking about the dangers of cannabis and whether a ban was necessary. Of the 30 he reached out to, 29 responded saying that it wasn’t dangerous and no ban was necessary. Anslinger cherry-picked the single respondent who matched his narrative, and presented him to the world alongside the case of axe-wielding Licata.
Alongside Anslinger, William Randolph Hearst campaigned for cannabis to be criminalised. He was the owner of major newspapers and magazines, as well as a timber mogul. During the Mexican Revolution, Hearst had lost 800,000 acres of timberland, fuelling his bigotry. Not only was targeting marijuana a means of targeting Mexican immigrants, but hemp threatened to be a major competitor to wood. It was affordable and practical on a small scale, and more natural than the petrochemical-based products, which risked billions of dollars of profit for business owners such as Hearst. The old-school businesses and supporters recognised that the benefits of hemp made it a strong contender, and thereby a threat.
After all, in southern climates, hemp was capable of yielding up to three crops a year. Only one acre of hemp can produce as much cellulose as four acres of trees. Cellulose is used in the construction of paper and other products, where materials such as timber might commonly be used. It is estimated that hemp can be used for 5,000 products. Hearst, with his financial interest in dismantling cannabis and his preexisting hatred for the immigrants that would be targeted by these laws, helped to create the smear campaign against marijuana. Hearst published stories on the Licata case and helped push the idea that marijuana causes one to become “pitifully crazed”.
This all led to America banning marijuana and demanding that other countries do the same. In 1937 Anslinger called for this total ban, stating under oath: “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effects of which cannot be measured”. The rest of the world followed, and the UK was one such country to introduce these laws to spite immigrant groups. In the 60s, cannabis laws were strengthened to combat people challenging the existing legislation, and in the UK particularly, in response to immigrants from the Caribbean and the hippie and counterculture movements.