Marijuana, Proposition 19

Proposition 19 Op-Ed

The week before the people of California voted on 2010’s Proposition 19 to tax and regulate cannabis, I sent off truncated versions of my “Marijuana and the West” paper (from my first blog post) to several publications, in hopes the history of marijuana prohibition could be thrown into the debate. I was unjustly, insultingly, embarrassingly and regrettably rejected by every publication I submitted to.

Alas, those who can’t get published, self-publish.

What you are about to read is approximately 7500 words condensed to 893. It’s probably better like that. (And it could be better yet, if I could get rid of the silly “pot-smokers, hehe” joke in the first sentence.)

As cannabis supporters champ at the blown-glass bit awaiting the result of Proposition 19 next week, lost in the debate over the proposition are the regional racist motivations that formed marijuana prohibition as we know it today.

California’s first ban on marijuana passed in 1913, semi-clandestinely through the State Board of Pharmacy. This initial ban appears to have been motivated by a single board member’s distaste for Indian immigrants in San Francisco, who used the plant as a medicine. In a 1911 letter, board member Harry J. Finger (who authored California’s laws regulating the sale of poisons at the time), wrote that a “large influx of Hindoos,” were demanding “cannabis indica,” and that he feared they were “initiating our whites into this habit.” His letter spawned legislation. With this Hindu-targeting legislation, California was unique and ahead of the curve.

The majority of early non-Californian anti-marijuana legislation in America was almost exclusively propagated in the western states between 1915 and 1930, coinciding perfectly with the arrival of nearly 600,000 Mexican immigrants entering the country through those western states as farm laborers.

At the time, marijuana use was sensationalized as inducing white-targeting violence in the Mexican farm laborers who used it as a cheap alternative to alcohol, and most anti-marijuana laws swept through state legislatures without debate – either because the drug was unknown and thus seemed harmless to legislate against, or because the only people known to be using it were Mexicans. On occasion, marijuana bans were supported by little more than racist jokes. A 1929 account from the Butte Montana Standard shows the level of debate on early marijuana legislation in Montana:

There was fun in the House Health Committee during the week when the Marihuana bill came up for consideration. Marihuana is Mexican opium, a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated for sale by Indians. ‘When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff,’ explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, ‘He thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.’ . . . Everybody laughed and the bill was recommended for passage.

While Montana’s example is remarkably sans bluff, it is not atypical for the time.

Interestingly, before it became associated with Mexicans in the beginning of the 20th century, white Americans considered cannabis a useful medicine. Between 1839 and 1900, more than 100 scientific journal articles were published touting the health benefits of the plant, and its medicinal use was widespread. In 1913, the same year that California’s State Board of Pharmacy passed its first anti-marijuana law, the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry announced that it was finally growing domestic medicinal cannabis of equal quality to Indian imports.

The western anti-Mexican sentiment of the early 20th century put the kibosh on all that, though. Marijuana was no longer medicine. It was a drug being abused by non-white immigrants. The bans swept through the Mexican-heavy western states, who would come to spearhead the movement toward the 1937 Federal ban.

America’s anti-marijuana policy remained firm until white American’s perspective on marijuana began to shift in the 1960s, as their sons and daughters embraced the drug as part of the counterculture movement.

Between 1962 and 1967, marijuana arrests in California increased sevenfold, mostly because of increased usage. Roughly three-quarters of those arrested for marijuana possession during this period had otherwise clean or minor records, and an increasing number of these arrestees were white kids. Suddenly, white Americans found themselves uncomfortable with the consequence of banning such a substance. Namely, that their kids were going to jail.

In this period, states throughout the nation responded in part by easing marijuana-related penalties. Laws were relaxed, use was decriminalized in several states, and marijuana came close to full-blown legal acceptance during this period. President Carter even put forth the idea of removing all federal penalties for the drug (he was, of course, unsuccessful).

In the 1980s, America reversed course in the face a drug panic. This panic was primarily motivated by the crack-cocaine epidemic in the nation’s black communities. The marijuana decriminalization movement came to a standstill, and some states re-criminalized marijuana use.

In part, the racial component of the crack-cocaine crisis led to a decade of reactionary drug policy. Any talk of a relaxed drug policy – even for marijuana – was put on the back burner.

Marijuana is not the only drug whose fate has been subject to racist leanings of the white majority. Early opium laws, the nation’s first drug prohibitions, were aimed at the Chinese Immigrants of the west coast. Cocaine laws were aimed at the Black Americans of the southern states. Peyote laws were aimed at the Native Americans of the southwest. Alcohol prohibition was aimed at the European Immigrants in the Midwest.

Most shifts in American drug policy have had racist undertones, if not overt motives. The success of the medical marijuana movement can be looked at as due at least in part the racial neutrality of its health benefits.

Surely, such is the consequence of living in a country with racist history and an ethnic majority. The passage or failure of Proposition 19 will neither erase this notion nor confirm it, but it does put a perspective on it that is worth considering as we go forward with the debate – that is, how we got here in the first place.

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