Happy 4/20 everyone! I hope you’ve been enjoying Weed Week here at MakeSandcastlesNotWar so far. Earlier this week we dived into a tour of the most common terpenes found in cannabis, discussed some Boston-themed strains (Golden Goat weed for the GOAT Tom Brady!), and even talked about the legendary godfather of cannabis legalization Dennis Peron. It’s been quite a long and hazy journey and April 20th is finally here.
For this special holiday, I saved the best topic for last – the history of cannabis prohibition. The complex history of cannabis prohibition is one of my favorite PR nightmares of all time, a nightmare initiated from a web of lies coming from figures in all walks of life. What started out as a drug propaganda initiative has now become a heavily damaged plant that people are reluctant to touch. What we learned in the D.A.R.E. program at grammar school was completely different from what we figured out as adults.
So how did this PR nightmare start? What notable figures caused prohibition to happen and what was their initial purpose? Why was cannabis/hemp made illegal in the first place? And what does the future hold for cannabis prohibition now that recreational cannabis use is legal in 1/10 of the country?
Well folks, it’s time to start the lesson that will be known as Cannabis History 101. Sharpen those pencils and crack open the notebooks, because it’s time to dive in what will be the most confusing and shocking PR nightmare of all time. It’s complex, shocking, and will leave you scratching your heads for quite a while. Get your pencils ready, because the history lesson is about to begin!
Cannabis History 101
Our history lesson takes us back to the 1930s – the Great Depression was hitting hard around America. World War I ended a decade ago, but the rising debt was too much for America to handle. More than half of the nation’s citizens became unemployed, with many people committing suicide during these hard times. Many men lost their job, prompting to become desperate for any position they could take. Most families barely ate enough, to the point where they almost died of starvation.
One successful man, William Randolph Hearst, was reaping in profits through his newspaper business. His newspaper was the first to introduce the term ‘Marihuana’ (spelled with ‘h’ rather than a ‘j’) into the English language. Marihuana was used as a Mexican slang term to confuse the general public that this ‘devil weed’ was very different from industrial hemp. Hearst sold lots of newspapers containing stories that depicted African-Americans manipulating white women through marijuana. These ‘dangerous’ marijuana users carried knives and would run rampant at any provocation. Racism ran high during the 1930s, which explained why people took the bait and followed along with these manipulating stories.
For the record, William Randolph Hearst KNEW that marijuana/hemp wasn’t harmful at all! Hearst knew that hemp could substitute for paper, thus the paper mills could be replaced with hemp mills. Replacing paper with hemp would have ran him out of business, so running these racist stories was crucial for keeping business alive. This strategy was what initiated the PR nightmare surrounding cannabis and hemp.
While Hearst damaged the reputation of cannabis and hemp through his newspaper stories, another anti-pot figure was making waves as well. On 1931, former prohibition commissioner Harry J. Anslinger was appointed as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was reluctant at first to extend his powers over marijuana, even though he thought it was evil and thought it was impossible to enforce prohibition of a plant that would grow wild ‘like dandelions’. Instead, Anslinger encouraged for State laws and anti-drug propaganda.
By 1935, Harry Anslinger promoted a federal law that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics could enforce. All positive evidence of cannabis was suppressed during the Congressional hearings. Organizations like the Oil Seed Institute and American Medical Association opposed the law, but were ignored. Anslinger would quote press cuttings as proof that cannabis would be ‘the most violence-creating drug on the planet’. The Marijuana Tax Act was initiated on October 1st 1937, which made it illegal to grow or transfer any forms of cannabis without a tax-paid stamp (which were NEVER made available for any private citizen!).
With the new Marijuana Tax Act put into place, Harry Anslinger utilized this opportunity to expand his bureau. His new target was jazz musicians through an ugly campaign against this ‘demon dope’. Through posters and films, Anslinger associated demon dope with jazz music, inter-racial sex, madness, and even death. A film titled Reefer Madness released in the late 1930s, which showcased average Americans consuming cannabis and running rampant. His theory was that jazz musicians were smoking the devil’s lettuce and manipulating white women into a life of madness.
African-American jazz musicians were smoking cannabis during the 20s/30s. It was called ‘jazz’ because the music would prompt shrieking women (known as jazz babes) to dance to the music. Jazz was known as ‘voodoo music’ because its tunes had this voodoo magic that would cause women to be swept off their feet. This PR tactic would be later used for rock N roll music where teenagers would be warned that rock music causes teen pregnancy and drug use.
Up until the 1960s, Harry Anslinger’s propaganda reigned the nation. Cannabis was an important plant during the counterculture movement and wouldn’t receive any more negative backlash until the 1970s when President Nixon came into play. President Nixon entered the oval office, shutting down the pot party and initiating what is known as ‘The War on Drugs’ (which has been a COMPLETE failure from the start). Nixon called for a war against public enemy one, a.k.a. marijuana. The proceed was to go after other drugs (cocaine, LSD, heroin, etc), but the main focus was to eradicate all cannabis plants in America.
Even after Nixon’s term was up, the ‘War on Drugs’ mindset reigned on in the 80s and so forth. Nancy Reagan continued the fight with her ‘Just Say NO’ campaign, especially after crack-cocaine was introduced to the public. From that point on, cannabis’s stigma was still heavily damaged and approval for cannabis legalization was low.
And there you have it – cannabis prohibition got its start through ingenious public relations tactics. Fear and ignorance fueled the PR nightmare that damaged cannabis’s reputation in society. These so-called ‘facts’ about things like cannabis destroying your brain cells were just simple pseudo-science that people believed in. Notable people like William Randolph Hearst and Harry Anslinger were pioneers in fueling the ‘reefer madness’ propaganda that is lingering on today. Even as cannabis legalization becomes a reality for most of this country, its reputation still needs to be salvaged before business starts booming.
It’s been decades since Nixon’s War on Drugs and so far drugs have been winning (FUN FACT: an aide of Nixon released a statement last year that the drug war purposely targeted hippies and African-Americans). This ‘War on Drugs’ has brought in more crimes, more violence, a shocking increase in prison construction, a huge rise in prison populations (with California’s prisons being dangerously overcrowded!), and more drug use. In this 21st century, the dominoes continue to fall and cannabis is continually becoming accepted in American society.
That my friend, is the PR nightmare that is cannabis prohibition here in America. I hope you have a glorious 4/20 celebration. It’s 4/20 somewhere!