For a good chunk of American history, marijuana and hemp were legal and even in over the counter medications. However, in 1930, Harry Anslinger became commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. In this position, he decided to go after groups on the fringe of society such as minorities (mainly African Americans and Hispanics) and jazz musicians. As a way to delegitimize these groups, he painted marijuana, a drug that these people used, as something that would cause people to lose all inhibitions and turn into immoral and violent beasts. Anslinger passed many laws during his thirty-year reign to harm these people including the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which added a $100.00 per ounce tax on drugs and made it so that any sale or transfer of marijuana that wasn’t approved by the Bureau and/or didn’t have proper registration was illegal. When a report by the New York Academy of Medicine came out saying that marijuana did not cause violent tendencies and other things that Anslinger claimed, Anslinger wrote that it was “a government printed invitation to youth and adults-above all to teenagers-to go ahead and smoke all the reefers they felt like”. Overall, Anslinger’s target audience was the youth such as college students. He spread anti-marijuana propaganda all over America with a famous example being the 1936 film Reefer Madness which was about a group of teenagers and their downfall after using marijuana.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others”-Harry Anslinger (in front of Congress, 1937)
Nonetheless, Anslinger left office in 1962, and with that came a new era. The 1960s were a time of free love and marijuana, but it didn’t last forever. In 1969, Richard Nixon came into office. Right off the bat, Nixon made marijuana a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substance Act of 1970. After that, when Ronald Reagan essentially piloted mandatory minimum sentencing, he placed marijuana as a Schedule I drug in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This further incriminated African Americans and Hispanics. The interesting thing about these two presidents is that they were the target age during Anslinger’s reign. Perhaps this means that Anslinger’s propaganda did have an effect on the youth, and Anslinger unknowingly helped set America’s weed legalization on a very dark course.
At this time, not everyone was against marijuana. The group NORML, which was found in the 1970s, advocated for marijuana legalization. Unfortunately, NORML was the only major group of the time that advocated for marijuana legalization. Even though NORML was well known, they did not accomplish much until later in its history. Today, NORML is still fighting for complete marijuana legalization in the United States.
The Current Problem:
Although much has improved for minorities and marijuana legalization since the 1930s, 1970s, and 1980s, we still have problems today. For marijuana legalization specifically, we have made a lot of progress, but there is much to do. Only ten states plus the District of Columbia have fully legalized marijuana. That leaves 40 states that either have marijuana partially legalized or completely illegal altogether and this, unfortunately, leaves a lot of space for racist cops to heavily arrest minority marijuana users and even sellers. On average, African Americans are around 3.73 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possessions than white people in the United States, however the difference per state values greatly. In 2010, African Americans were 7.5-8.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Iowa, Washington D.C., Minnesota, and Illinois. In California, even though African Americans were 6% of the state population, they were 21% of the marijuana-related arrests in 2008. In New York, African Americans were 4.52 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. These are only some of the marijuana arrest rates for African Americans. For many, these numbers are still a reality even though in some of these places marijuana is completely legalized.
Racism is not just found in marijuana arrests, it’s also found in the prison system. First, let’s look at the arrests itself with stop-and-frisk. In 2011 during the peak of Stop and Frisk in New York City, 53% of the people who were stopped and frisked were African American and 34% were Latinx. For reference, in 2011 the population of New York City was 29% Hispanic and 23% African American.
You can see this in the prisons as well. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in March of this year, 37.5% of inmates were African American and 31.9% were non-white Hispanic. In contrast, 62.4% of the prison staff were white. There is a clear racial power dynamic in the prison system. To add, at the end of 2015, 9.1% of African American men ages twenty to thirty-four were incarcerated which is 5.7 times higher than the Caucasian percentage of 1.6%.
The unfortunate part is that people are practically led to this system. In 2009, the New York Times reported that “nearly one in four young black male [high school] dropouts in New York City [were] incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized on an average day…That compares with about one in 14 young, male, white, Asian or Hispanic dropouts”. To add to that, 2010, one-third of young black men who dropped out of high school were incarcerated.
What also matters is where you live. Chicago makes an excellent example. In Chicago, 32% of the population is white, 33% is African American and 29% is Hispanic (The Century Foundation). However, public schools tell a different story. Out of the 392,285 enrolled Chicago Public School students, 39% are African American, 46% are Hispanic and less than 10% are white (The Century Foundation). For the most part, these people do not have the means to go to better schools considering the fact that 80.4% of them are eligible for federal meal programs (The Century Foundation). It doesn’t help that the students who go to these schools are in a violent community as well. In one Chicago public school, between August 2011 and June 2012, “27 students — former and current — were shot, eight of them fatally. Across the district, 319 students were wounded or killed by gun violence” (College Stats). Ultimately, the point to be made is that in impoverished areas with minority majorities, there is practically a conveyor belt to prison. With one Chicago public school having a 50% or more fail rate (collegestats.org), poor outcomes are inevitable. With students attempting to learn in a difficult environment, it’s impossible for some to not turn toward pathways such as drugs or gangs and get caught in the web of prisons. It’s easier to get trapped in the system when you can’t even learn properly in high school, the place where your future should really begin. Marijuana is just an example of how the system traps minorities after public high schools fail them. The American system breeds young minorities into “criminals” as a means to get more cheap labor out of them.
On the positive side, there are more groups fighting for marijuana advocacy and against racist arrests. There are many marijuana advocacy groups that ride alongside NORML such as the Marijuana Policy Project and the National Cannabis Industry Association. As for racist arrests, groups like the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union fight for the civil rights and liberties of all Americans
Where We Go Now
As you can see, Harry Anslinger has left quite an impression on America when it comes to marijuana and brought race further into implicating minorities in crimes, however, we can fix the problems Anslinger creates. There are a few ways that we can go to solve these problems. For the problems of marijuana legalization, and the funnel that minorities go through into the prisons, everyone can call or email their congressperson and ask for a bill for marijuana legalization or more public school funding and show your support online. On a more major scale for marijuana legalization, what’s needed is to get private prisons and the pharmaceutical industry on your side. Each group is motivated by the fact that keeping marijuana illegal is better for their business. The best strategy would be to make both industries pro-marijuana. To get the private prisons on the legal marijuana side, an option is to transform parts of prisons into rehabilitation centers. This way the prisons still make plenty of money, but in a more socially productive way. Another option is to become a Trojan horse and change it from the inside by joining the board of directors, for example. A similar route can be used for pharmaceuticals: if they can get just enough control over the marijuana market or make enough money from it, they most certainly would support its legalization. As for the pipeline that goes from low-income schools to prison, there are two major solutions choices as well. The major solutions would be to offer trustworthy therapists at the schools and create more paths for these students such as normalizing and offering more vocational schools and making more low-income scholarships available in schools of all levels.
Thank you for looking at Catalyst for Change webpage! In the comments below, I would love to know your opinions about marijuana legalization and the possible solutions I offered. This topic has become very dear to me and people are satisfied with what change has happened so far when we are not even close to done. We must come together and not stop fighting until it is federally legalized because people need this and we cannot continue to conform to Anslinger’s racist ideas. We need to stop being still and go at warp speed. To do this, I want you to also think of your own solutions in the comments below as well and spread the message that we are not done.