Just How Racist Was Reefer Madness

By David Jenison

Just How Racist Was <i>Reefer Madness</i>

Historians who researched the rise of cannabis prohibition know about its racist roots. Famous examples include the posters and movies that became all the rage in the Reefer Madness era of the 1930s. Cannabis historian Dr. Barney Warf, a professor in the Geography and Atmospheric Science department at the University of Kansas, had this to say about reefer racism.

“There were other movies and posters besides Reefer Madness,” said Dr. Warf, referencing the most famous of the propaganda films. “There's one called Assassin of Youth that was very similar. What Reefer Madness did, and what many of these posters did, was hyper-sensationalize cannabis and, in particular, tie it to sexual deviance. Nothing gets good WASP morals aflame more than the idea that evil men were using cannabis to seduce women. In particular, black men doing it to white women. That's a mainstay of white racist discourses and hyperbole. Reefer Madness... this woman takes one hit of it and she's instantly incapacitated for life. It's just ludicrous. That's why it's a cult classic today because it's so not grounded in reality.”

The professor also believes that prohibition itself is rooted in racism. 

“Cannabis—I'm not talking hemp, I'm talking about smokable cannabis—entered U.S. in large quantities right after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1911," he continued. "It was shortly thereafter that some towns in Texas began to make it illegal. It was made illegal because it was seen as a Mexican drug and a ‘colored peoples’ drug. There were sailors using it in New Orleans, for example, but for the most part, it was seen as a Mexican drug, and then African American communities who interacted with Mexicans far more than whites began to pick it up. Particularly musicians. It became a mainstay of the jazz circuit in the 1920s…. [Prohibition] was based purely on racism, and wars against drugs have always been based on racism, like the war against opium in the 19th century was a war against the Chinese. The war against crack in the '80s was a war against young black men. Ditto with cannabis. It was a war against Latinos and blacks.”


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