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The Surprising Link Between U.S. Marijuana Law and the History of Immigration

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Whenever April 20 rolls around, as enthusiasts mark the 420 date by celebrating “Weed Day,” there are always calls for the U.S. federal government to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

But the debate over marijuana’s legality in the United States has never been about just one plant. As scrutiny of the U.S.-Mexico border reaches a new level in American politics, experts say it’s important to remember that it’s always been tied to concerns about immigration — though not in the way many people think.

“One of the really important things people often presume is that Mexicans have had a more tolerant attitude towards cannabis than Americans, and that’s just not the case,” says historian Isaac Campos, author of Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs. “Cannabis was demonized in other places as well, especially in Mexico. The history of these kinds of regulations is way more similar between Mexico and the U.S. than different.”

Hallucinogenic drugs like peyote had been used in Mexico for millennia but became extremely controversial during the colonial era when the Spanish associated them with communion with the devil and with madness. But it was the Spanish themselves who first brought Cannabis to Mexico, in the 16th century, for use as an industrial fiber. In the colonial era, the drug produced from that plant — marihuana or mariguana in Mexican Spanish and marijuana in English — eventually took on the same negative associations that other drugs carried.

“Cannabis came to gain this reputation in the 19th century, when it starts to appear as a recreational substance that’s smoked in cigarettes and is overwhelmingly concentrated in some of Mexico’s most marginal environments — prisons and soldiers’ barracks,” says Campos. “So you have this drug that’s kind of associated with danger and indigenous Mexico, then in these environments associated with violence and danger. Then this mixes with a bunch of other stuff — [such as] widespread anti-alcohol sentiment especially among the elites — and that led people to think a drug like marijuana could trigger violent, savage responses in its users. Then all of this mixes with sensationalism in the press, which was always excited to write about violent incidents with the lower classes.”

Before the 1930s, there were few regulations on the sale and use of cannabis in the United States. Major U.S. pharmaceutical firms were importing cannabis from India, in a format that was “ideal for smoking purposes” and that Campos says shows that pharmacists knew it was being used recreationally. “I’ve actually found evidence that Mexicans were crossing the border into the U.S., buying cannabis in pharmacies, and taking it back to Mexico probably to sell there,” he says. “So the smuggling was going in the other direction at that time because many states in Mexico had already prohibited it.” The Mexican government banned pot in 1920.

So marijuana had a bad reputation in Mexico before it got a bad reputation in the U.S. — and when Americans seized on that idea, they also picked up the side of it that had to do with not only what was being smoked, but especially who was smoking it.

The vast majority of immigrants were not using marijuana. In fact, there was very little evidence that they were using it very much at all,” Campos says. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment at that time to become part of the conversation.

The temperance movement, which succeeded in amending the Constitution to ban alcohol in 1919, dovetailed with a similar Progressive-era push to reform pharmacy laws to regulate opiates. Cannabis was lumped in with those concerns. And as nativist sentiment spread in the U.S. in the early 20th century, some Prohibition advocates framed drinking and drugs as something done by foreigners. Mexican immigration — which had spiked due to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, as refugees fled to the U.S. to escape civil war — was already a flashpoint, so Campos says that influx of immigrants would have contributed to the growing negative sentiment around marijuana. “When drugs are seen as foreign, they’re seen as more dangerous,” Campos says.

Emily Dufton’s book Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America quotes a 1917 Treasury Department report that noted that its chief concern was the fact that “Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites” smoked marijuana for pleasure, and that they could harm or assault upper-class white women while under its influence. And in 1911, a member of California’s State Board of Pharmacy wrote of the fear that a recent wave of immigration from India had brought with it a rising demand for pot, and that this “very undesirable lot” was “initiating our whites into this habit.”

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TIME published its first article about pot in the United States in 1931, explaining to readers that, “Marijuana is a variety of hemp weed (Cannabis sativa) long common in Mexico, lately becoming common in the U.S. Its leaves can be dried, ground and rolled into cigarets, which are bootlegged under the name of ‘muggles,’ ‘reefers,’ or ‘Mary Warners’… Smoking of marijuana cigarets produces a state of intoxication similar to that induced by alcohol, stimulates playfulness, suppresses fear. Thousands are smoked in Harlem, in New Orleans, in other nightlife centers. In New Orleans many a schoolchild is said to be an addict; prison authorities find muggle-smuggling a perplexing problem.”

The landmark federal drug law of the time, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, didn’t regulate marijuana, so states were passing their own laws banning it. And the immigration angle endured. “As marijuana penetrates further into the country, more cities and states start adopting prohibitions, and [they’re] clearly related to immigration, not only from Mexico but also from the Caribbean,” says Richard Bonnie, a drug policy expert at the University of Virginia School of Law and co-author of The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States.

For example, when Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, testified before Congress in support of a ban on pot, he quoted a letter he got from the city editor of the Alamosa Daily Courier in Colorado: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret 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 who [sic] are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”

Anslinger was “publicizing ideas that had come from Mexico about marijuana causing madness and violence,” says Campos. “It’s important to emphasize those ideas originally came from Mexico. It wasn’t just that there was racism against Mexicans, it’s that Mexican ideas helped inspire fear about marijuana in the U.S.”

Marijuana hysteria is often associated with the exploitation film Reefer Madness, which came out in 1936, the posters for which warned moviegoers of this so-called “drag of concentrated sin.” But this movie tends to get more credit for making marijuana taboo than it deserves, Campos says, as the fear was already there. (Rather, he explains, its public-health message was a way for it to get around Hollywood’s production code, which otherwise clamped down on sex and drugs on screen.) The following year, in 1937, Congress used its taxing power to make marijuana de facto illegal by making it very expensive to possess or transfer pot. Enforcement of marijuana laws was left up to the states.

In the post-war period, the idea that it was a so-called gateway drug began to spread, says Bonnie, who was associate director of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1971‑73) and secretary of the first National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse (1976‑80) during a period of bipartisan enthusiasm at the federal level for a public-health-focused approach to drug use. The commission’s first report indicated marijuana use was starting at a younger age, so a grassroots movement of concerned parents grew in the late 1970s and became galvanized in the 1980s as the crack epidemic prompted another increase in penalties. He sees the end of the health-focused era as “probably a contributing factor” in today’s opioid epidemic, but believes that “the pendulum has begun to swing in other direction with marijuana and drug policy more generally.”

Recent Pew polling says most Americans support the legalizing of weed for recreational use; 62% in 2018, up from 12% in 1969. And as fear has subsided, many who have looked back on marijuana’s past have seen the anti-immigrant elements of the legal history as just one more argument for decriminalization — but Campos says that perspective doesn’t tell the whole story. To him, to suppose that anti-Mexican sentiment created anti-marijuana feeling in the U.S. is to deny Mexico’s own history as a country struggling with the same issues.

“It’s a useful narrative for reformers who want to argue the roots of the drug laws are racist,” says Campos, “but finding any policy in the early 20th century that wasn’t tainted by racism is really hard.”

Correction, April 20

The original version of this story misstated
the title of Emily Dufton’s book. It is Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, not Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall of Marijuana in America.



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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com