Furthering the View

A Column by Cesar Herrera Ruiz

About The Column


This column focuses on creating conversations around contemporary culture, religion, and educational equity

About The Author


Cesar Herrera Ruiz

Columnist

I come from Riverside, California. I am a first year in Columbia College planning to study Economics. In High School, I attended workshops with the Press Enterprise (the main newspaper of my area of California), and was a part of a college access program at Pomona College for three years. These two experiences have impacted my world view significantly. Through these workshops, I learned how information that may often seem dry can be delivered effectively and precisely, while remaining interesting and engaging. My experiences at Pomona College have taught me to see things through a critical, but attentive lens. I hope to apply all of these experiences in this column.

The Column Posts


An article published in the Cheyenne State Leader in 1913 reveals the racist attitudes and propaganda surrounding the use and effects of marijuana at that time. (Wyoming Newspaper Project)

Article published by Cheyenne State Leader (1913) Wyoming Newspaper Project

The United States is the largest consumer of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and marijuana in the world. The United States also holds the world’s largest prison population, with almost 25% of the world’s prisoners, despite only making up about 4% of the total world population. Drugs have always been deeply rooted in America’s history, and, unfortunately, so has racism. Black and Latino Americans make up almost 80% the federal prison population and nearly 60% of state prison populations for drug transgressions. The numbers alone propose a problem in our nation’s past and current drug policies and legal attitudes, as a study conducted by Duke University professor of psychiatry Dr. Dan Blazer found that White Americans were more likely to abuse drugs than Black and Latino Americans. While many prominent political figures fail to acknowledge the explicit problems in our current criminal justice system, many social and political forces have been pushing to ameliorate our failing policies. Of the many proposed plans, the legalization of drugs has been a continued suggestion.

Learning from the United States’ disastrous Prohibition era, offering to legalize and regulate the sale and consumption of certain drugs as a solution is not a radical idea. Politicians on both sides of our bipartisan system have supported the legalization, or at least the decriminalization of, nearly harmless, marijuana. Eight states so far have legalized weed’s recreational use and commercial sale (Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts), and thirteen more states have decriminalized it (Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont). While altering the legality of marijuana may be a small feat in reforming our criminal justice system, it is without a doubt a step in the positive direction.

The prohibition of cannabis was unequivocally enacted under unscientific and misinformed foundations. Harry Anslinger, the man responsible for the illegality of marijuana, was a fierce prohibitionist. In 1930, President Hoover appointed Anslinger as the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics. From this point on, Anslinger began tackling drugs utilizing falsified information and with little regard to scientific and psychological studies. Anslinger often cited a fear-inciting story of the murderous effects of drugs (which is speculated to be fabricated or at least not completely accurate). In addition, Anslinger declared drug addicts to be “infectious,” stating that one addict worked to create seven others, according to the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drug written by Johann Hari. Anslinger progressed to utilize racism to shake up the American public to follow his zealous anti-drug ideology. It is often a point of contention, however, if whether Anslinger’s racism is what led many of his cruel declarations of drugs (being that many illicit substances came from the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas), or if it was his hatred for narcotics themselves that led him to use racism as a medium to shake up the American public. Nonetheless, racism became a prominent medium of anti-drug policies.

Anslinger’s vicious attacks on marijuana led to some of his most racist declarations. Unable to find instances of marijuana that could lead to mass fear in the public, Anslinger began using deep racism and xenophobia already ingrained in American society. Associating marijuana with people of color, Anslinger declared “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” He went even further asserting that the outlawing of marijuana was primarily due to the “effect on the degenerate races.” As Mexican immigrants began arriving in the United States to meet demands for labor, many brought marijuana with them, as it was a traditional part of Mexico’s social environment (much like what cigarettes were for White Americans mid-20th century). It is also worth noting that hemp had been used in American and European cultures for centuries. In Herodotus’ Histories, it is mentioned as a bathing agent,

“The Scythians put the Seeds of this HEMP under the bags, upon the burning stones; and immediately a more agreeable vapor is emitted than from the incense burnt in Greece. The Company extremely transported with the scent, howl aloud; and this Manner of purification serves instead of washing: For they never bathe their bodies in water” (381).

Neglecting historical reality, anti-drug advocates began using marijuana to demonize Mexicans. Anslinger stated that marijuana consumption caused Mexicans to rape and murder white Americans. Newspapers all over the country ate the xenophobic rhetoric:

“Was it marijuana, the new Mexican drug, that nerved the murderous arm of Clara Phillips when she hammered out her victim’s life in Los Angeles? … THREE-FOURTHS OF THE CRIMES of violence in this country today are committed by dope slaves— that is a matter of cold record.” – Annie Laurie, columnist – Hearst Newspapers

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 used the frequented schema of men of color harming white women. As drugpolicy.org explains, “During hearings on marijuana law in the 1930’s, claims were made about marijuana’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women.”

Evidently, the legalization of marijuana has actually taken far too long. Positive effects of regulating and taxing the commercial sale of marijuana have been seen in states and cities that have legalized recreational marijuana. Colorado has experienced an incredible decrease in crime and sharp increases in tax revenue for public education. As a man of color, the legalization of a substance that has been historically used to criminalize us, demonstrates that as a society, we are moving towards having a nation that protects the humanity of all its inhabitants.

(If one is curious about how marijuana consumption affects the body, a simple Google search and a critical comparison between alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana will help).

Nicki Minaj, one of the greatest minds of the 21st century, states in her lyrical masterpiece, “Moment 4 Life”, that she is not “lucky”, she is “blessed”. Frequently, this word “Blessed” is thrown around everywhere in hip hop culture. Big Sean, Chance, Kanye (pronounced GOO-AT), DJ Khaled, all use some variation of the word. You find it in Instagram captions that read, “I’m blessed to have such great parents,” from that one friend who hasn’t stopped calling herself broke since you met her, but her parents bought her a new Mercedes Benz last week. The core of our country’s very own nationalism stands on a phrase that centers on this word: “God Bless America.” So often it is repeated that we fail to hone in on the concepts that surround “bless”. If we stop and think about the actual meaning of the word (of course excluding when this word is used jokingly, i.e. #BlessUp), we find that it serves a rather negative purpose.

Variations of the word “bless” are undoubtedly used in a religious context. You wouldn’t find Emma Watson’s twin, Richard Dawkins, throwing the word around very frequently. In Western-Christian tradition, to be blessed is to acquire a good or a service from the big man himself, usually implying that you are somehow in God’s favor or “mercy”. Meriam-Webster defines “bless” as to “provide (a person, place, etc.) with something good or desirable.” * In contrast, the lack of material or social goods implies that something along the way happened to cause that situation. For example, if a child was born sick or to an impoverished family, religious figures would often declare that child cursed due to the actions of his mother, father, grandfather, etc. The thing that was important is the fact that the somehow God was not to blame, human’s “inherent wretchedness” was (as we will learn/have learned from our friend Augustine of Hippo). In essence, when people use the word “blessed” in a serious manner, they declare that they (or someone around them) did something to be in god’s eye or favor. And here is where the statement begins to get problematic.

To assert one is “blessed” delivers snippets of entitlement, that suggest somehow one deserves what they have. Because one was born in a first world country, to a middle class family that values education, does not mean one is “blessed” (for one did nothing to deserve such honor), it means one just got lucky, randomly chosen. And if the argument is made that it is simply God’s “mercy”, then why do children in Malawi not qualify for the same compassion? As we move towards a more logic-driven world, we can see that the idea that somehow we did anything to deserve what we inherently have or have had is preposterous.

I don’t write to ask everyone to feel guilty about their circumstance, but rather to be conscious. To understand that one is simply “lucky”, randomly assigned to have their social and economic climb be somewhat easier compared to others (and this applies to everyone, for there is always someone that has it harder). I challenge us to rethink our progress. To wonder if we truly would have learned to code at age 12 without our parents being able to afford a computer, or if we could have read every work of Shakespeare ever written had our household not valued the arts. Obviously there is still much work to be done, and simply deeper thinking of our diction may not solve all our problems, but it will definitely change conversations, and hopefully alter our focus to make it more inclusive.

*”Simple Defintion of Bless.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.

Cesar’s column, Furthering the View,  runs alternate Tuesdays. To submit a response to this piece, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Interested in joining The Lion team? Email team@columbialion.com