The racist motivations behind cannabis prohibition

The process of criminalization of marijuana, 100 years ago, was influenced by a combination of factors, including social, economic, racial, moralistic and political considerations. Lobbing of lumber and paper industries give some help, too. But the first one was the racial prejudice against Mexicans and African immigrants.

Aug 28, 2023 - 23:13
The racist motivations behind cannabis prohibition
Image by Dad Grass / Pixabay

In the early 20th century, there was significant racial bias and xenophobia in American society. Marijuana was associated with Mexican immigrants and African Americans, and racist propaganda often portrayed it as a threat to white communities. This racialized fearmongering contributed to the push for its criminalization.

The lumber and paper industries were concerned about the competition posed by hemp, a plant related to marijuana. Hemp was a versatile material that could be used to make paper, textiles, and other products. The fear of losing market share led these industries to support efforts to criminalize marijuana, which they saw as a way to curb the growth of the hemp industry.

The early 20th century saw the rise of anti-drug campaigns driven by moral and religious groups, as well as temperance movements. These groups were concerned about the perceived negative societal effects of drug use, and they often conflated marijuana with other substances like opium and cocaine. Their lobbying efforts contributed to the broader movement to criminalize drugs.

On the other hand, sensationalist media coverage, often fueled by racism and exaggeration, portrayed marijuana as a dangerous drug that led to violence, insanity, and criminal behavior. These media portrayals influenced public perception and generated support for stricter drug laws.

Politicians looking to capitalize on public fears and concerns saw the criminalization of marijuana as a way to appear tough on crime and to cater to the desires of certain interest groups. As such, they were often receptive to lobbying efforts by groups advocating for stricter drug laws.

The United States was a signatory to international treaties like the 1925 International Opium Convention, which aimed to regulate the use of various drugs. These treaties pressured countries to adopt strict drug control measures, including criminalization. The U.S. government's efforts to comply with these international agreements contributed to the push for marijuana criminalization.

The American Medical Association initially opposed the criminalization of marijuana, citing its potential medical uses. However, some pharmaceutical interests were concerned about the potential competition posed by non-pharmaceutical alternatives, leading to conflicting lobbying efforts within the medical community.

The early 20th century was a time of moral reform and social conservatism in many parts of the world. This atmosphere contributed to the willingness of lawmakers to enact stricter laws against behaviors deemed socially undesirable, including drug use.

All these factors were often intertwined, and the criminalization of marijuana was the result of a complex interplay between various social, economic, political, and racial influences. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 in the United States was a pivotal moment in this process, effectively criminalizing the possession and sale of marijuana, and it was influenced by many of the factors mentioned above.


A victory of lobbying and morality

While the influence of the lumber and paper industries on the criminalization of marijuana is often cited, the extent of their direct influence in the process is a subject of debate among historians. There is evidence to suggest that these industries had some involvement in lobbying efforts, but their influence may have been one of several factors that contributed to the broader push for marijuana criminalization.

The lumber and paper industries were concerned about competition from hemp, which could be used to produce paper, textiles, and other products. Hemp is derived from the same plant species as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, but it contains very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC that gives marijuana its intoxicating effects. Nonetheless, these industries saw hemp as a potential economic threat.

In the context of this concern, some proponents of marijuana prohibition might have highlighted the supposed dangers of marijuana in order to indirectly undermine the hemp industry. However, motivations behind marijuana criminalization were complex and multifaceted, involving not only economic interests but also racial prejudice, moral and social concerns, and political agendas.

Moral judgments played a significant role in the process of criminalizing marijuana. The era was marked by a strong sense of moral and social conservatism, with concerns about maintaining social order and upholding traditional values. These moral judgments were often driven by perceptions of drug use as a threat to the fabric of society, and these attitudes influenced the push for stricter drug laws, including the criminalization of marijuana.

Many moral and religious groups saw drug use, including marijuana, as indicative of moral decay and a departure from traditional values. They viewed drug use as a threat to the moral fabric of society and sought to combat it through legal measures.

Drug use, including marijuana use, was often associated with vice, deviant behavior, and criminality. This association reinforced the idea that drug users were morally corrupt and posed a danger to society.

Racist and xenophobic attitudes played a significant role in shaping moral judgments against marijuana. The demonization of marijuana was often tied to racial and ethnic groups that were considered "other." This stigmatization fueled fears of the influence of these groups on society and added to the moral arguments for criminalization.

Moral concerns about the impact of drug use on young people and families led to arguments for stricter drug laws. Advocates argued that criminalizing marijuana was necessary to protect children from the perceived harms of drug use and to preserve the sanctity of the family unit.

Moral judgments about drug use were closely tied to the desire for social conformity and control. Policymakers and moral reformers believed that criminalizing marijuana would help maintain societal norms and discourage behaviors that were considered morally objectionable.

In many cases, these moral concerns were amplified and perpetuated by sensationalist media coverage, which framed drug use in the most negative light and often relied on racial stereotypes and exaggerated claims. This media portrayal further reinforced the perception that marijuana use was a grave moral issue requiring strict legal measures.

Overall, moral judgments against marijuana and other drugs played a significant role in shaping public opinion and influencing the policies that led to their criminalization in the early 20th century.

Camila Cienfuegos Member of EA Coordination Team