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 Rant.com:

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?

10 Responses to “When Cannabis became “marihuana””

  1. 1 Goldie
    April 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Looks like you covered the whole enchilada pretty well.

  2. 2 Kym
    April 22, 2010 at 6:05 am

    I wonder how much of the Mexican Cartel in the national forest is somewhat due to racism. I do believe there are Mexican nationals there but are they a part of a cartel?

  3. 3 Mr. Nice
    April 22, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Kym, yes and no.

    Although the magnitude of the cartel problem is sensationalized by the DOJ literature, there exists cartels both Mexican and Asian growing in California. The dudes actually tending the crops are fall guys seeking big paydays from the organization as is the norm anyway with most significant grows.

    In the UK, people say the same thing about ethnicity to deny reality. They say the Chinese immigrants are just there randomly in huge grow houses coincidentally run by other Chinese immigrants and owned by absentee landlords who claim ignorance. In reality, all the money is being funneled up the ladder.

    In the case of the US, these types of profits go to buy off military and police. Not so much not to stop cartels, but to actively help them. No doubt, ain’t no 100% clean cops watching after that national forest grow mess. The top dogs gotta be corrupt. What’s their salary compared to one year of working for the cartel? Peanuts. Not those good Mexican peanuts, either.

  4. 4 Mr. Nice
    April 22, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    The thing in the woods is just the same as in places like Chinatown. Read about the fortune cookie factory and all their crop action. Those type of grows gotta be DTO run.

  5. 5 Goldie
    April 23, 2010 at 4:33 am

    Mr. Nice or anyone, Have you seen any evidence of the cartels in Humboldt, or heard of anyone who came across something like that? Generally if something exists I see some part of it but of the cartels I have no experience that I have recognized that ‘they’ are here.

  6. April 23, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Back in ’92 I was hiking in the SoHum area with two friends. We came upon a big grow. As soon as we realized what we had stumbled on we beat feet…but not before some people cursed at us in Spanish and fired a rifle for effect.

    It worked. We nearly flew out of there! Because I didn’t actually see anyone, I guess it could have been Gringos playing Mexicans, but I’ll never know for sure.

  7. April 23, 2010 at 10:54 am

    The undocumented Mexican national who was shot by a Humboldt Deputy Sheriff during that raid on a Larrabee Creek grow a few years back is a good local example that was linked to cartels. The bust last season on timber lands east of Schoolhouse Peak in Redwood National Park is likely another cartel garden,as it was littered with Spanish language porno and old plastic tortilla bags. The size of these gardens is another indicator that these folks aren’t from California: what Californian in their right mind would plant 16,000 plants in one outdoor garden? Stylistically, the cartel garden’s dead giveaway is that they are operated exactly like commercial gardens in Sinaloa, Sonora, and Durango. Guess who those gardens belong to.

    The one thing that definitely links gardens like these to the cartels is that very fact. They follow a well defined pattern. When police catch the tenders, they are always undocumented immigrants who relate how they were recruited in Mexico to come here and work in cartel gardens. Most of the Mexican drug operations are simply one arm of a larger criminal syndicate which also is heavily involved with bringing undocumented workers into the U.S. Undocumented immigrants often trade a summer of weed tending in payment for transportation from Mexico when they can’t come up with the cash for pasage. From their perspective, it’s probably not much different from working in the strawberry fields and they don’t have to come up with the four to ten thousand dollars for the coyote.

    This cartel thing is no joke and, In some other areas of CA, it’s become a huge problem and it’s not just racist finger pointing. My buddy who lives on an inholding in Sierra National Forest woke up one night several years ago to find a whole pack train of people walking across his meadow. They fled when he approached, yelling in Spanish and dropping things bags of ferts and drip line. These days, the cops in his neighborhood take down multiple gardens every year in an area that all fit the same basic profile: Huge, organized, well financed, and all composed of undocumented Mexican workers.

    You do the math.

  8. April 23, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Mexican cartels surely comprise one component of the marijuana industry in the U.S., but if you actually do the math (as Randy suggests) I suspect that you’ll find more white Americans growing weed in the U.S. than Mexican campesinos. That is almost certainly the case up here, imho.

    My overall point (in my rant, above) is that we don’t actually do the math. What we tend to do – and by we, I mostly mean the hysterical end of the cultural/political/media arm of the U.S. – is to look for a “problem” in a particular area of society that is already perceived as problematic; then, we blow that “found problem” entirely out of proportion. Were the Chinese opium dens of San Francisco really a threat to the well-being of the nation in the 1880s? Or did it just look that way to racist Anglos who hated and feared Chinese-Americans so much that they were willing to pass whatever goofy laws crackpot politicians dreamed up to facilitate the harassment of said Chinese-Americans?

    Mr. Nice is surely correct about being able to find crime in Chinatown. I suspect, however, that we could find crimes of equal or greater numbers in any number of Anglotowns, too. Anglos don’t exactly fit the preconceived stereotypes of dangerous criminals threatening our very existence (for the majority of Anglos who own and operate large media outlets, watch those outlets, vote in elections, etc.), so they are not perceived as a threatening racial group w/r to marijuana, and so their ethnicity doesn’t automatically become a reason for suspicion.

  9. 9 Mr. Nice
    April 27, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Uhhh alright

    DTOs don’t exactly advertise.

    Both Mexican and Asian DTOs are constantly under pressure from the DEA and FBI in Humboldt County and other big cartel grow areas (everywhere with dirt and sun).

    What makes cartel grows different from redneck grows is the organization. Your average domestic grow is organized in the traditional landowner -> contractor -> fall guy scenario. The Humboldt Slide refers to the sliding scale at which each person in the small organization is paid. Typically, the landowner allows the contractor to grow in exchange for 50% of profit. The contractor rents/uses the backhoes, installs the water system, hauls the gardening supplies, etc. In an indoor scenario you would add wiring and either subtract excavation or it would be in the form of a bunker. In return for 50% of the 50%, the fall guy(s) grow the actual weed with the contractor only returning to expand the garden or bring supplies. This scenario may be different depending on the scale of the operation. For smaller operations, the landowner may be the contractor and receive 75% (or more) of the profit. In the “mom and pop” situation, the landowner(s)/contractor(s)/fall guy(s) are the same person(s).

    OTOH, a cartel grow is organized in much different fashion. On the surface, the same type of sliding scale of pay/responsibility exists. However, DTOs typically control operations remotely with lieutenants in charge financing contractors for multiple large-scale grows.

    DTOs located in Mexico work with domestic DTOs in a profit-sharing situation. Domestic DTOs work with domestic gangs in the form of both taxation for use of distribution lines (Nuestra Familia in the N. Cali area) and for labor acquisition (border-based human smuggling gangs). The fall guy leaders in this case are often well-paid professional guerrilla marijuana farmers contrary to the popular belief of operations being 100% kidnapped slave laborers lacking marijuana experience.

    Domestic DTOs have adopted a decentralized chain of command much like the Gulf Cartel in Mexico as well as Nuestra Familia in the USA. Decentralization works well to hide money and avoid any one arrest/assassination from disrupting overall operations. Regimental banks handle proceeds from trafficking and distribution of payroll after receiving product is usually the norm as opposed to paying a cut after selling the product through an agent. Drug smuggling/distribution is one of the few businesses in the world where a full 25% of product can be lost (in the form of police confiscation) without any chance of “company” bankruptcy.

    Asian DTOs are organized in much the same way with the exception of their distance and use of direct contracting with domestic gangs. This is due to the difference in structure of distribution hierarchy with the power players not safely in prison but at large communicating from foreign countries (with financial agents in countries lacking extradition treaties). San Francisco is a hub of such activity. A difference between a mom and pop indoor grow and the fortune cookie factory is the fortune cookie factory is A. A front business for a mafia and B. A drop in the bucket among thousands of other similar locations.

    The biggest and most important contrast between cartel grows and redneck grows is vertical integration. When dealing with a large DTO situation, the profit is not handled like a cottage industry, it is laundered into a larger criminal business organization.

    Don’t think for a second that these grows are not operating in our forests. The reason the police cannot pinpoint and announce the source of such activity is due to DTOs being highly sophisticated and employing strict secrecy. Redneck grows take no such measures and identifying the landowner and contractor is far easier to do even if prosecuting them is quite difficult. Also, the DOJ will rarely talk about a organization that they cannot infiltrate and cannot get the prosecuted shot callers to admit the organization exists nor get them to stop working just because they are in maximum security prison.

    The way I see it, legalized marijuana would do nothing but take the edge away from DTOs and put it into the hands of legal entrepreneurs. Prison and military murder obviously have done nothing but give the criminals strength.

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