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).