Corporate Greed, Corruption & Racism: Marijuana Became Illegal

The marijuana legalization movement has blazed a forward path by slowly
opening minds and challenging archaic laws and regulations. Much work is
still needed to redeem this useful plant from the toxic mythology that
grew up around it, however. A little bit of history can illuminate just
how that mythology took root.

Jack Herer, an iconic figure in the marijuana legalization movement,
wrote a fascinating history of the marijuana plant and its political and
social history. It’s an interesting story and, like many American
stories, we find it tracking along the lines of corporate conspiracy,
political corruption, social propaganda and a legacy of racism and
criminalization. We’ve summarized some of the key plot points below. Be
sure to check out the whole story on his
website.

Farming and Industry

In 1938, two innovations stood poised to shake up markets, transform
industry and bring a new economy to the fore. Industrial hemp
decorticating devices designed by scientists at the US Department of
Agriculture in 1916 were both fully operational and economically
feasible. It seemed the plant was poised to revitalize the American farm
and transform both agriculture and industry. The plan involved not just
the green buds, but utilized the pulpy stalks to make paper, an
exploding market back at the beginning of the mid-20th century. The
economic and ecological benefits resulting from the cultivation and
production of pulp paper might have saved countless forests from
decimation, preserved ground water from contamination, and softened the
impact of the great depression. What happened?

Barriers to Market

At the same moment, the Dupont family had patented an industrial process
for making plastics from coal and paper from wood pulp. Eager to corner
the paper market and to fend off competition for a whole host of
synthetic products made of nylon, the company realized that hemp, once
it was converted into an industry of scale, would be one of its largest
competitors. One of Dupont’s largest investors, Andrew Mellon, was
serving in the Hoover administration as the Secretary of Treasury.
Mellon tapped Harry J. Anslinger, his soon-to-be nephew, to run the
Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Interestingly,
Anslinger had already served as prohibition commissioner in the era of
alcohol prohibition.

Enter sensational newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who had
invested heavily in timber and had a vested interest in keeping hemp off
the market. A propaganda
campaign

ensued, and the toxic misrepresentations still haunt us today. Anslinger
and Hearst begin to produce
films, stories and other
sensational
reports

that maligned marijuana users as deranged and violent. It targeted
Mexicans, Chinese and black Americans as the bad guys. They tied
marijuana use to everything the public
feared

most and branded its users as rapists and beasts out to destroy white
culture. Sound familiar?

It didn’t take long, between regressive taxes and vicious propaganda,
for marijuana to become associated in the public mind with every kind of
deviance and violence. Anslinger testified before Congress that
marijuana was "the most violence-causing drug in the history of the
world." The marijuana tax of 1937 regulated the plant and made its trade
and possession illegal. The economic and ecological benefits that hemp
had promised vanished almost overnight.

Since that time, marijuana has continued to be a potent weapon in the
hands of policy makers and politicians who need a scapegoat. The
original campaign against marijuana provided a template for forwarding
social and economic agendas.

The 60’s and the Rise of Stigma

In the 60s, marijuana use was associated with the rising anti-war
movement. Although marijuana became more openly acceptable in some
circles, publicly it was demonized, often in association with other
dangerous compounds and synthetic drugs. As the streets became saturated
with heavier drugs such as heroin and cocaine, marijuana was considered
guilty by association and framed as a gateway drug. In the meantime, the
war against drugs was often posited in nationalistic and geopolitical
terms.

Today, these associations linger. People still believe that marijuana
use is responsible for empowering Mexican drug cartels, instead of
understanding how legalization and thoughtful regulation policies would
make the import of marijuana from Mexico completely irrelevant. In fact,
the growth of powerful cartels was a result of the criminalization of
marijuana, and their decline can be linked to our changing
policies.

An autopsy of our history of marijuana policies reveals a tortured logic
that tries very much to shape itself as a moral authority but fails at
every turn. Even a surface glance reveals some painful contradictions.
As marijuana entrepreneurs experiment with marijuana extracts in
high-tech labs, many others, often individuals of color, have forfeited
their futures to the American justice system and are living out life
sentences in prison. Opportunities to correct these injustices are
manifest, but the federal government has declined again and again to
pass comprehensive laws that would limit selective punishment and make
marijuana an opportunity for all. Whether pursuing the plant from the
business side or as a medicine that has been shown to mitigate
suffering

without the harsh side effects of synthetic drugs.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, the criminalization of marijuana came about because the
financial potential of hemp was too threatening to captains of industry
threatened by competition. In the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, who had
just lost his position running the defunct alcohol prohibition agency,
was appointed to oversee the enforcement of drug laws. He was appointed
by a powerful relative a huge position in Dupont, which saw hemp as a
danger to its profits. Meanwhile, William Randolph Hearst, the
inspiration for Citizen Kane, had investments in timber to keep the
presses rolling at his sensationalist newspaper. Despite the lack of
scientific studies, the public perception of marijuana as a gateway drug
remained in the public eye. This year, the Supreme Court upheld
Colorado’s thriving cannabis ecosystem against its punitive-minded
neighbors, but the official federal policy hasn’t changed. What the
nation needs is for marijuana to be regulated sensibly and fairly, as a
national resource, and not demonized or used as a tool for moral panics.

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