DEC 20, 2018 2:51 PM PST

Marijuana and Racism: A History

WRITTEN BY: Amy Loriaux

Various drugs have had various stereotypes over the years. Cocaine may be linked with highly-paid, white-collar workers while crack is linked to poor, disenfranchised black people. Ecstasy is used by young people for raves and parties. But marijuana, one of the oldest drug's on that list, has had a long sordid history with racism and the development of racist drug policies.

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Marijuana was actually used among the social elite as far back as the 1840s, Even the word "marijuana" hadn't been coined yet. It was referred to as cannabis at the time. However, during the1900s the social status of the drug dropped, a lot. It was used as a way to further harass Mexican and African Americans as a wave of Mexican immigrants headed north following the Mexican Revolution. With this change also came the word "marijuana" to mean cannabis to white America. Marijuana is simply the word for the plant in Spanish.  Yet changing its name from the Latin "cannabis" to the Spanish "marijuana" helped make the connection stick.

Using this racist fuel to pump up support for marijuana prohibition, Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, used this connection, and the perception that crime was linked to people of color, spearheaded an anti-marijuana campaign, which included using mass media to condemn marijuana. In 1936 the anti-marijuana movie "Reefer Madness" had come out. The Marijuana Tax Act came one year later and taxed the sale of the drug.

Other people of color targeted by the anti-marijuana campaign were African Americans. Harry Anslinger targetted them as well. He said of cannabis that it made black people "forget their place in society". Jazz music was created while high off reefer. These racist policies did not only influence perception but behavior as well. Within the first year after passing the Tax Act black people were about three times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than whites. And Mexicans were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.

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It is interesting to reflect now, where many U.S. States are loosening the harsh policies of marijuana (or cannabis) use. While not as overt, the racism is still there. Within white elite society, it is trendy to smoke weed, especially in a recreational state. Unfortunately, according to the ACLU, in 2010, black people were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. So the divergence still exists. With many celebrating the recreation of pot in various states, we should take time to think about how its reputation has been toyed with throughout the years.


Sources: YouTube,, - Harry J. Anslinger,

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I currently work at a small CRO involved in clinical trial management.
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