The fight to legalize cannabis has been going on for nearly 100 years. As difficult as it is to believe, cannabis and hemp were not always illegal in the United States. In fact, many of the founding fathers grew hemp because it had a number of industrial uses. Hemp fibers could be pressed into paper, sewn into clothing and prior to the industrial revolution, that made it an incredibly valuable commodity in America.
It wasn’t illegal to grow hemp or its psychoactive cousin, cannabis in the United States until 1937. Up until that time, growing or smoking cannabis was perfectly legal. It was an unfortunate combination of political circumstances, economic necessity and racism that led to cannabis being more commonly known as Marijuana.
In 1910, a civil war erupted in Mexico, which is on America’s southern border. A large influx of Mexican immigrants crossed the border into the southwestern United States (which used to be part of Mexico). After World War One broke out a few years later, many of these Mexican immigrants were employed as guest workers to replace the Americans who went to Europe to fight for their country.
Like all immigrants, these Mexican workers brought their own traditions, one of which was smoking “marihuana”, or cannabis as it was known in the United States. This happened at the same time as jazz music began captivating America’s urban cities. The jazz musicians of the day were mostly African American and they also enjoyed smoking cannabis. Much to the chagrin of many Americans, a shared love for jazz music began uniting white and African Americans in a way that had never before been seen.
When the war ended, there was no longer a need for the Mexican guest workers and many people in America tried to find a way to send them home. That’s when the head of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), headed by Harry Ainslinger, stepped into the picture. Ainsliger was not only opposed to cannabis use, he was rumored to have negative racial attitudes towards both African Americans and Mexicans.
He realized that if he could stigmatize cannabis use as something “bad” that Mexicans and African American jazz musicians did, he could make it illegal. Once that was accomplished, there would be a legal rationale to deport any Mexican in possession of cannabis. So, Ainsliger went on a public relations tour and began associating cannabis with Mexicans by calling it “marihuana”. Unfortunately, it worked like a charm.
Ainslinger, aided the conservative media of the day, passed the “Marihana Tax Stamp Act of 1937”, which stated that cannabis (or hemp) could only be grown by someone in possession of a “tax stamp” by the FBN. Since Ainslinger was head of the FBN, there was basically no way to actually get a tax stamp and grow it. So, cannabis not only became known as marijuana, it also became illegal with one stroke of a pen.
The FBN would eventually become the Drug Enforcement Administration. They have spent the past 80 years enforcing the strict prohibition of cannabis (or marijuana) throughout the United States.
So, ironically, the prohibition of cannabis (or marijuana) in the United States has much more to do with America’s troubled racial past than it does with any desire to ensure public safety.
Thousands of people have been put in jail and even more lives have been ruined by this policy. It is a bitter irony that both in spite of posing a much greater danger to public health and killing tens of thousands of Americans every year, tobacco and alcohol remain legal at the federal level while cannabis is still prohibited. Thanks for nothing Harry.
G13 Club is a private social club for medical and recreational cannabis users based in Barcelona. It is also a space for musical and artistic development that promotes a multitude of activities focused on the expression and exhibition of urban, hip hop, reggae and skate culture.