Marijuana is just a word, so it is not inherently racist, but a strong case can be made that prohibitionists specifically used the word to exploit racism and rising xenophobia.
In the early 1900s, the Mexican Revolution sparked a mass migration north, and individuals of Mexican heritage in the United States increased from 100,000 in 1900 to 1.5 million in 1930. During this time, anti-Mexican sentiments spiked in the U.S., highlighted by the illegal Bisbee Deportation in 1917 and the government-backed Mexican Repatriation in the 1920s and ʼ30s that forcefully returned people of Mexican descent—many of whom were U.S. citizens—to Mexico without due process. The Great Depression only made matters worse as American workers competed with Mexican farm laborers who often agreed to work for lower wages.
Against this background, prohibitionists like Harry Anslinger—a former alcohol prohibitionist who ran the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962—started to use the term “marihuana” instead of cannabis while spouting outrageous claims about this new public menace. Anslinger feed the media endless crazy marihuana-related stories about axe murderers and rapists (almost always non-white) from his Gore Files, and media tycoon William Hearst—whose anti-Mexican sentiments likely stem in part from looting and lost family lands during the Mexican Revolution—was happy to spread the tall tales through his various newspapers. Hearst is, after all, one of the godfathers of yellow journalism in which publishers sensationalize the news in heinous ways to drive up circulation.
The commonly accepted theory is that Anslinger utilized the term marihuana to make the plant sound foreign, stoke already simmering anti-Mexican racism and avoid any associations with cannabis. The general public did not have televisions or internet, just newspapers that often printed yellow ink, telling them about a new Mexican drug that made people go crazy. Naturally, even people who took cannabis for medicinal reasons turned against the new Mexican menace.
In 1937, Anslinger went before the Congressional Ways and Means Committee, chaired by his buddy Robert Lee Doughton, a Confederate Army captain’s son who also wanted to prohibit cannabis. During his testimony about marihuana use, Anslinger said, “Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes,” while Doughton called the “menace” an “evil” that made people “become criminals.”
The one person who disagreed with these assessments was Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association, who argued against cannabis prohibition in the 1937 hearing. Highlighting the irregular vernacular, he stated, “I use the word ‘cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana’ because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products. The term ‘marijuana’ is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning... It is not recognized in medicine, and hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department. Marihuana is not the correct term. It was the use of the term ‘marihuana’ rather than the use of the term ‘cannabis’ or the use of the term ‘Indian hemp’ that was responsible, as you realized probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hemp seed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day.”
As noted by the only doctor in the hearings, people who embraced marihuana prohibition often had no idea it had anything to do with cannabis or hemp. Anslinger and Hearst arguably embraced the xenophobic aspects inherent in the term, giving it a racist intent, but the use of marihuana also disguised exactly what it was the prohibitionists wanted to ban.
Even if the word “marihuana” (or the modern “marijuana”) is not racist itself, cannabis prohibition is indeed rooted in racism, yellow journalism and semantic trickery. At least the alcohol prohibitionists had enough class to say they wanted to prohibit alcohol.
Photo credit: Tony Hernandez.