Archive for April, 2010


When Cannabis became “marihuana”

Responding to my earlier post on the racial subtext underlying the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, Goldie asked:

When did a plant named cannabis, which sounds like hibiscus, or camellia, get turned into a substance called marijuana, which sounds foreign, sneaky and dangerous?

I started to answer, but then I re-read her post and realized that she already knew the answer.  Still, as she points out, it’s the telling point behind the modern practice of assigning blame to specific racial groups that I addressed.

Spyrock just posted a whole bunch of good historical information from Wikipedia on the racism underlying the official U.S. responses to cannabis on Ernie’s Place, and a lot of what he’s written resonates with me.  First, it’s worth remembering that cannabis was once legal and widely used across the U.S., and that wide-spread use caused no social problems, created no social or moral hazards and threatened no children.  Peter Guither (and Spyrock) points out, far from discouraging its use, the first U.S. law on marijuana actually compelled farmers to grow.  As he writes on Drug War

America’s first marijuana law was enacted at Jamestown Colony, Virginia in 1619. It was a law “ordering” all farmers to grow Indian hempseed. There were several other “must grow” laws over the next 200 years (you could be jailed for not growing hemp during times of shortage in Virginia between 1763 and 1767), and during most of that time, hemp was legal tender (you could even pay your taxes with hemp — try that today!) Hemp was such a critical crop for a number of purposes (including essential war requirements – rope, etc.) that the government went out of its way to encourage growth.

The United States Census of 1850 counted 8,327 hemp “plantations” (minimum 2,000-acre farm) growing cannabis hemp for cloth, canvas and even the cordage used for baling cotton.

Of course, hemp isn’t marijuana, and the U.S. government wasn’t exactly insisting that everyone with land smoke weed. But it is the same plant, and it’s pretty clear from that historical overview that all of the paranoiac hyperbole and invective that’s been spread over the spread of the weed since that time had to be manufactured wholecloth (so to speak).  In other words, there’s nothing natural or obvious or essential to the claims of marijuana’s social harms.

Rather, those paranoid ravings had to be manufactured for an uneducated and easily manipulated public out of something powerful enough to cause a nationwide freakout.  Racism has always the handiest tool for those tools intent on scaring the shit out of people, but when it comes to scaring people about the dangers of weed it wasn’t always the racism that we know.  In fact, back before cannabis became “marihuana,” it first became hashisch.  Oh, and no surprise here – it all started in California.

Here’s the backstory on weed and your great-great-great-grandparent’s racism.  “Indian Hemp” was already a commonly-used term during the colonial period, but as that above-cited law from 1619 suggests, the “Indian” in the hemp wasn’t always percieved as a bad thing.  That changed in the early part of the 20th century, as the practice of associating cannabis with a foreign threat emerged as a populist political strategy – obviously, the “indian threat” here is Asian, not Native American.

In 1911, Henry J. Finger, a California pharmacist who was posing as the U.S. “expert” at an international conference in The Hague, Netherlands, offered this surprising rationale for controlling “Indian Hemp:”  He argued that Cannabis should be lumped together with opium and other narcotic drugs because of “San Francisco’s concern over the large influx of Hindoos who were introducing whites into their habit.”  Read the whole irrational claim here.

Given the cultural animosity directed against Asia during the early 20th century, it isn’t too surprising that the drug threat was first identified as coming from the East.  There was already a recognition of abuse buried in the term, haschish – part of the orientalism of Europe, and part of our cultural legacy – so that was a pretty easy strategy to employ at a time when anti-Asian racism was at its height.  And it’s not just the “Hindoos” in the cross-hairs, either.

The anti-asian sentiment comes across loud and clear in Dr. William C. Woodward’s testimony before the House of Representative during the 1937 hearings – testimony, it’s worth pointing out, opposing the government’s attempts to criminalize marijuana.  Reflecting the long regulatory tradition of damning by association, the threat of marijuana in the U.S. was linked to a perceived Japanese strategy of undermining China by promoting the use of opium.

During his testimony, Dr. Woodward addressed the use of the term we now commonly accept, stating:

The term “marihuana” is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of Cannabis preparations for smoking. It is not recognized in medicine, and I might say that it is hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department.

So, not a Mongol threat, but “mongrel” threat.   And he’s not talking about dogs, either.  “Mongrel” was one of the terms  that Anglo-Americans commonly used in the early 2oth century to imply their own racial superiority over creole peoples around the world, but primarily in Latin America.  Claims to racial purity have fallen out of favor since the end of WWII, but the social prejudices underlying that usage hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been transformed into more socially-acceptable categories.

And that brings us back to the racism we know.   From Cannabis to Indian Hemp to Haschish to Marijuana.  We’re not much worried by the Hindoos anymore, and we’re not feeling threatened by any secret plots coming from Japan, but you don’t have to keep up with the news much to re-connect with the longstanding practice of blaming American problems on Mexico.  Arizona just passed the most restrictive DWB law (driving while brown), the Tea Partiers have recently been shifting their anger from Obama’s Fascist-Marxist-Communist plan to steal America for the Kenyans to being outraged about the national threat represented by the poor immigrants who pick our crops and clean up after us (again).  The Feds are about to take on the immigration issue again, so we’ll certainly be seeing an increase in nativist rage soon enough.  And even though almost all of the growers I’ve met up here look pretty white, the tee-vee keeps telling me that its the Mexican mafia who’s growing weed up in this area.

So to answer that question I started out with – the plant that once sounds like a plant became the social problem we recognize today when straight-up racism collided with irrational conservatism, turning sweet-sounding cannabis into “Killer Weed.”    The best source I’ve seen on how that occurred is in “Anslingerian Politics,” an academic paper by Jesse J. Ransom of the  Harvard Law School, fortunately now available online.  Here’s the money quote:

There is evidence that the phenomenon of marijuana use by socially marginal groups…was a major contributing factor in fostering the anti-marijuana sentiment that led to the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act. During the years before the Act’s passage, marijuana was widely associated with African-Americans, Mexicans, and other socially marginal groups that were prejudicially perceived as prone to aggressive and violent behavior.   Some historians have argued that marijuana’s association with these supposedly violent groups led to its association with the fostering of violent behavior in the minds of the non-marginal population.  This association in the minds of the general population of violent behavior with the “violent”
Mexicans may or may not have been a significant public concern in the years leading up to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act.
There is still some debate as to whether or not the public’s fear of the “violent, doped-up Mexican” was actually widespread, significant, or even genuine.  What is not generally open for debate, however, is that the claims (true or not) of public officials that the public was highly concerned about “violent marijuana smokers” certainly contributed significantly to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act.  (17-18)
The politician didn’t do all the heavy lifting themselves, though.  As Greg Pivarnik wrote in his college newspaper

The second leg of marijuana prohibition involved yellow journalism, mainly under the leadership of William Randolph Hearst, the owner of one of the largest newspaper chains in the United States.  In many stories, writers often tied marijuana to violent crimes, including rapes and murders, earning its reputation as the “killer weed.” Often these reports were unsubstantiated.  There was never any scientific proof cited that marijuana caused the violence.  Many of the culprits tried to pin their behavior on their marijuana use, claiming it made them crazy.  This was good enough for many reporters despite the lack of scientific evidence.  This could allow states to rationalize the deportation, imprisonment, and immigration quotas of Mexican workers.

The stories of minority perpetrators often added to the marijuana hostility by whites.  In 1935, a Sacramento, Calif. reader wrote to The New York Times stating “Marijuana, perhaps the most insidious of narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration .  Mexican peddlers have been caught distributing marijuana cigarettes to school children.” Harry J.  Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the organization in charge of instituting marijuana prohibition, presented a letter he received from the editor of a Colorado newspaper as part of his testimony in favor of the Marihuana Tax Act.  The letter described an attack by a Mexican-American under the influence of marijuana on a girl in the region and went on to state, “I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents.  That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of whom are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”

Racism makes for good politics, then and now.  We don’t have to look very far these days to see that.  The truly fascinating part, though, according to Ransom, is that the law preceded the social behavior it was designed to prevent.  Got that?  Here’s what he writes:
Contrary to lamentations of much of the anti-marijuana propaganda of the late 1930’s, use of marijuana among adolescents did not become a prevalent phenomenon until the 1960’s, long after the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act.
Quite some time ago, Michel Foucault argued that societies create the categories of criminality that they want, rather than the other way around.  Though dense, Discipline and Punish (his seminal study on the rise of the prison system) is worth the effort it takes to read it, if only because it so persuasively  supports that seemingly counter-intuitive behavior.  But to make a long answer end:
Q:  How did a flower turn into a moral hazard, and then a social problem, and then a century long excuse for bad behavior?
A:  Racism, stupidity, mass media populism, political opportunism.
I wonder when we’ll see those elements come together again?

R.I.P. Jack

Links on HighBoldtage:  Hemperor’ Jack Herer Passes Away at 70


Another brick off the wall

Maryland Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Bill.   Read the story here.

The real story, though, is the margin.  The bill passed the MD senate 35-12.    That’s not opposition; that’s just a speed bump.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Ryan Grim points out the national context:

The medical marijuana movement is surging across the country. This year, more than a dozen other states, including New York, Illinois, Delaware, South Dakota, Arizona and Kansas, are considering medical marijuana laws. If present trends continue, more than half the population will soon live in states where medical marijuana is legal.

As more and more states adopt a California-style medical marijuana approach and find that the sky doesn’t fall as a result, it’s going to get harder and harder to make the argument that the sky will fall if pot becomes legal.  The tipping point is probably already somewhere behind us, rather than in front of us.  At this point, it would take active federal opposition to stop this movement, and I don’t see that happening.  Obama hasn’t wanted to show support for legalization (for obvious reasons), but he’s given no indication that he’s going to waste political capital trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.  And fortunately, his opposition is so cartoonishly absurd that he doesn’t need to posture against marijuana to look serious about governing.

What’s more, the states that continue to treat marijuana as a problem are going to look increasingly foolish, backwards and cruel as more and more of their neighboring states call off the dogs.  Some may decide to hold the line against legalization, but that sort of organized foolishness produces its own politics.   After all, you can still finds dry counties across the country – though mostly in the South – where prohibition rules, but you don’t hear anyone bragging about it.


Stepping away from our Mexican standoff

Jennifer Bernal-Garcia offers some analysis of our current episode of drug prohibition that smacks of our last one, though in her interpretation of the 21st century prohibition, the foreign enemy shifts from Canada to Mexico.   Failure is always the subtext, but it’s really the price tag for our failed war on drugs that she underlines in her article on Foreign, writing:

While the failure of the “war on drugs” is an oft-rehashed theme, the NDTA goes into specifics. The availability of most illegal drugs — heroin, marijuana, meth and MDMA — throughout the country is increasing, mostly as a result of ramped-up production in Mexico. Apparently the costs resulting from lost productivity associated with drug abuse, the burden on the justice system, and the environmental impact of drug production are a staggering $215 billion.
$215 Billion is a lot of dollars, but it’s a little misleading to trot out that number as though we could get it all back if we just changed our drug laws.  The people getting those dollars won’t give them up without a fight, after all.
Beyond the proposed costs or potential savings, it’s the emphasis on race that I find so odd.  She’s writing about the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, posted here.
The report does use racial categories to define the problem – Mexicans, Asians, etc.  The funny thing is, after reading the report, it’s pretty clear that Mexico isn’t identified as the central threat she suggests  it is – Mexico and Mexican traffickers are just a piece or two in a much larger pie.  Or melting pot, to use the more common racial metaphor.
The report does say that more weed is coming across the border from Mexico now than in the past, and that marijuana production in Mexico has risen, but it also balances that point by saying that domestic production is “very high.”  High – get it.  A little bureaucratic humor there, no doubt.
And who’s to blame for all this production?  Turns out, it’s white people.  This is from the marijuana distribution section:
Marijuana is produced in the United States by various DTOs [Drug Trafficking Organizations] and criminal groups, including Caucasian, Asian, and Mexican groups, but Caucasian independents and criminal groups are well established in every region of the country and very likely produce the most marijuana domestically overall.
I’m not saying that drugs like meth and heroin don’t bring problems, but when I consider the ways those problems are discussed in the public sphere, it makes me wonder about the addictive qualities of racist thinking.

Blog watch – The “Tax Cannabis 2010” Campaign

Lazy and busy is never a good combination, but I have just enough time and motivation to share two good posts from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish:

First, a report on last week’s Pew poll, showing overwhelming national support for legalizing medical marijuana, and increasing support for legalizing marijuana period.  The time may not be now, but it’s soon:


Second, a link to Chris Good’s excellent report on the “Tax Cannabis 2010” initiative on November’s ballot.  Good’s bottom line is that this isn’t your grandparents’ grassroots-style initiative:

In short, this will be a legitimate campaign operation. Tax Cannabis is already airing a radio ad in the state’s largest and most expensive media markets, L.A. and San Francisco, featuring a former law enforcement official.

“This isn’t some…whim of a couple of hippies,” said SCN’s Dan Newman, who is handling communications for Tax Cannabis. “It’s a serious, well crafted, well funded campaign that was put together very carefully and professionally run and hopes to win.”

The campaign will do “everything that a winning campaign does,” Newman said. That would mean radio ads, TV ads, volunteer and/or robo- phone calls, door-to-door canvasses, and direct mail. Newman would not specifically say which of those Tax Cannabis will do.

Messaging will focus heavily on invoking the support of former law enforcement officials, plus the argument that has driven so much media coverage around this push: estimates that legalizing and taxing marijuana could help California’s crippled state budget to the tune of $1 billion, including tax revenue and less spending on law enforcement.

The Emerald Triangle counties probably won’t see or hear many of those ads, since we’re not a high-density market, but I’d bet that this first radio ad will be effective.  I hope the ones that follow are as good.   They’ll have to be to stand out, and the mere fact that they’re talking about marijuana won’t be enough to guarantee the audience’s attention in those high-density markets – when I left L.A. last year, radio spots for marijuana business classes were pretty common, and that trend must have increased since I’ve been gone.

In fact, one of the most surprising cultural differences I’ve noticed since I’ve been up here is just how quickly the veil of secrecy was lifted in L.A., compared to how persistent it remains up here, especially in the public sphere.

It’s taken me a while to realize this, but I’m pretty sure that every one of my neighbors is growing.  That wasn’t true in L.A.  And based on the way people drive up here, I’m pretty sure that most of the people I see on my daily commute imbibe.  Again, even though I knew plenty of Angelenos who did toke up from time to time, it wasn’t the sort of universal practice that I’ve witnessed up here.

And yet, the culture of secrecy is such that people up here aren’t as open about their views on marijuana, compared to L.A.  – where people encounter marijuana almost exclusively as a commodity.  Maybe that’s the difference.

Sure, there are plenty of people who grow in L.A., and probably in greater numbers than up here, but not as a proportion of the total population.   For the vast majority of Angelenos, marijuana is a simply a product to be purchased.  In the past, when that product had to be purchased illegally, the veil of secrecy existed in pretty much the way I imagine it existed up here – breaking the law is not something that you speak of openly or with people you don’t know very well.  Over the past few years, though, with the exponential growth of dispensaries, the visible store-fronts, the ubiquitous radio ads, the storms of windshield flyers advertising the ready supply of medical marijuana, the veil came down. Almost overnight.  Not so up here.  The difference between high density and low density, I suppose.  It’s pretty odd, though, especially considering the local history.


And now for something completely predictable…continued

Surprise!  California GOP opposes the Tax Cannabis Act.  They make it so difficult to dislike the democrats.

Around the country:  Hawaii just killed a medical marijuana dispensary proposal that looked like it was heading for the governor’s desk, and Vermont did the same a few days ago.

Meanwhile Obama approves offshore oil drilling, the Catholic Church continues to hide its little boy problem, and the mainstream media is focused like a laserbeam on…what?  Sandra Bullock and Jesse James?  Sarah Palin?  I keep forgetting to pay attention.  Situation normal…

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This blog is for entertainment purposes only. We neither engage in nor endorse any illegal activity; any and all indications to the contrary are purely fictional. Purely fictional.