How Cannabis Became Marijuana

Cannabis has been many things; from the most important agricultural crop in the world to the most vilified drug. Use of cannabis in the Americas for purposes other than industrial hemp production may have existed as early as the 16th or 17th century. It is reported that slaves taken from Africa to work on sugar plantations in Brazil in the 16th century brought cannabis with them. They were allowed to plant it between the rows of cane and they would allegedly smoke it between harvests. Over the centuries, the use of cannabis made its way up South America across Central America to Mexico. By the mid-19th century, its use in Mexico, particularly amongst the poor, was popular. While written of in popular media, it was rarely discussed in upper-class media.

Exactly where the term marijuana itself came from is open to debate. Some say it came from the Spanish words for "Mary Jane", popularized by Mexican culture of the time. Others point to the Portuguese word for intoxication, "marihuango" or the Mexican "mariguana", which also means intoxication.

The Mexican Revolution

Political upheaval in Mexico was the primary reason marijuana entered the United States over its southern border.

Following their 16th-century invasion and takeover of what became Mexico, the Spanish introduced an agricultural structure adapted from their feudal heritage. Called the hacienda system, it made virtual slaves of the workers, the peons. Peons were not allowed to own land. They worked the land for the owners much like medieval serfs. By the end of the 19th century, in an agricultural country of 10,000,000 people, only 500,000 owned more than one acre.

The excessive concentration of wealth and the suppression of civil liberties during the years of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship (1876-1910), known as the Porfiriato, polarized Mexican society and eventually led to bitter and destructive factional wars which began in 1910 and lasted a decade. Collectively known as the Mexican Revolution, these wars came about due to the unequal distribution of land in Mexico and the despotic rule of Diaz.

Francisco "Pancho" Villa was one of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution. He was born a peon. At age 15, he became an outlaw when he fled for his life after killing a landowner who had raped his sister. Over time, he developed a veritable army and he and his followers developed a political agenda. His supporters wanted land

Another recruiting technique was that Villa and his men would ride into a town, attack the jail and release the prisoners from captivity. Being mostly peons, many of them would join his army. He became a sort of Robin Hood in the eyes of the peon class, stealing from the rich and giving at least some of what he stole to the poor. He soon assembled an army that fought both for Villa and the Revolution.

In 1913, Villa seized 1,250 square miles of the Mexican State of Sonora that William Randolph Hearst had bought for pennies an acre. This land seizure probably didn't make Hearst feel particularly kindly toward Mexicans. Hearst, who is often characterized as a racist, had already shown a strong anti-Hispanic bias as evidenced by his papers' role in slanting the news about Spanish "atrocities" in Cuba to whip up enthusiasm for the Spanish-American War of 1898. For the next several decades, Hearst was only too happy to have his newspapers portray marijuana as making Mexicans lazy and vicious, causing Negro men to be sexually promiscuous and leading these "hophead" black men to rape white women.

Villa's followers were drawn from the poor and enjoyed marijuana. Their unofficial anthem and marching song was La Cucaracha. The original lyrics speak of a marijuana-smoking cockroach (hence the origin of "roach" as slang for a marijuana cigarette):

"La cucaracha ya no puede caminar, porque no tiene marihuana por fumar" or “The cockroach can't walk anymore, because he doesn't have any marihuana to smoke."

The revolution in Mexico continued after Diaz was deposed. It spilled over the border and General Pershing's army clashed with Pancho Villa. General Pershing and his men chased Villa around the Southwest. They marched to the tune, "that reflected America's attitude toward all Mexicans."

"It's a long way to capture Villa.

It's a long way to go;

It's a long way across the border;

Where the dirty greasers grow."

Sung to the tune of “It's a Long Way to Tipperary”.

The Invasion of Marijuana

The revolution in Mexico drove tens of thousands of Mexicans north into the United States looking for safety and work. While Mexico had a long historical presence from Texas to California in what is now the United States, marijuana was not much in evidence prior to this time. This is possibly because cannabis was used mostly by poor Mexicans and the upper and middle-classes looked down on it. A greater proportion of the Mexicans that fled to the United States during and after these turbulent times were poor Mexican workers. They brought not only the word "marijuana" with them, a term heretofore practically unheard of in the United States, but their recreational and medicinal use of the herb as well.

At first, jobs in agriculture and industry were plentiful and Mexicans were willing to work cheaply. However, the numbers of Mexican immigrants in the Southwest increased and jobs became scarce during the 1913-14 recession. Problems kicked up. Small farmers and ranchers resented the big ranchers that hired large numbers of Mexican laborers to work cheaply. Cheap Mexican labor gave the large ranchers further economic advantage.

During this time, a number of Southwestern states passed economically and racially motivated anti-marijuana laws. Because cannabis was widely used among Mexican workers, enforcing these anti-marijuana laws was a way to force the cheap Mexican labor back across the border. Because most Mexicans were Catholic, this made it even more tempting to pass such laws. Able states, "Protestant America considered Catholicism a religion of dark superstition and ignorance."

As Mexican laborers in the West migrated farther north in increasing numbers, some of the laborers they met in the Mississippi Valley, largely Black field and factory workers, became familiar with marijuana.

As early as 1915, Hispanics were routinely vilified regarding the effects of cannabis. These were not only competitors for scarce jobs during a recession, but were Catholic and spoke Spanish. Thus they became grist for the drug "demonization" propaganda machine. It was widely reported in magazines and the press that marijuana drove Mexicans to rape white women or to go into a murderous rage.

Throughout this period, the Hearst newspapers were regularly demonizing cannabis as "marihuana" or marijuana. William Randolph Hearst, son of obscenely wealthy Comstock Load silver baron, George Hearst, was owner and publisher of a chain of sensationalist newspapers. Reporting on Spain's actions in Cuba in 1895, Hearst and his papers exhibited strong anti-Spanish bias. In the run up to the Spanish-American War (1905), Hearst's newspapers exaggerated the poor treatment and abuse the Cubans received at the hands of the Spanish in an effort to encourage U.S. war with Spain.

When immigration from Mexico to the United States increased after the start of the Mexican Revolution (1910), Hearst’s papers’ coverage of the phenomenon was based on sensationalism, exaggeration and distortion known as "yellow" journalism, named after the first comic strip character, "The Yellow Kid," which had started in a Hearst paper. Hearst-papers lambasted Mexican immigrants for laziness and contributing to crime. Rather counter-intuitively, the Hearst papers also raised concerns about Mexican immigrants unfairly competing for American jobs, and most significantly, introduced "marijuana" into the American lexicon tied to their negative portrayal of Mexicans. Hearst papers repeatedly painted a picture of Mexicans as lazy, pot smoking and criminally inclined.

In the ramp up to the 1914 Harrison Act, Hearst took a similarly racist approach towards reporting about Negroes and Chinese. He referred to the Chinese as "the Yellow Peril". Hearst's newspapers claimed the majority of incidents in which Negroes were said to have raped white women could be traced directly to cocaine. Then in the mid-1920s, after 10 years of claiming "cocaine crazed Negroes" were raping white women, the Hearst line morphed into "marijuana-crazed Negroes" raping white women.

What Hearst's motives were for the sensational hysterical stories on cannabis appearing in his newspapers are speculative. They range from nothing more than a desire to sell more newspapers, to fear of competition from hemp paper to anger at Pancho Villa, who had appropriated over 1,000,000 acres of his land in northern Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, or just the same old anti-Hispanic racist bias already exhibited by Hearst. Whatever his reasons, his papers printed many lurid cannabis horror stories, many written by Harry Anslinger, that later were called "the gore files". Anslinger introduced these newspaper articles at the congressional hearings regarding the Marihuana Tax Act as "evidence" of the evils of marijuana. Upon closer historical examination, few if any of these tales proved to be true.

Being an effective propagandist, Hearst did not use the term "cannabis" in discussing this issue. Cannabis was a word very familiar to most Americans. Cannabis and hemp were found in many commercial products—rope, paper, birdseed, paint and medicine. Since the word "cannabis" was not foreign sounding nor fear evoking to the ear of 1937 Americans, some other name, a more fear-invoking word was needed. It turned out the word was "marihuana" or marijuana, a slang term for cannabis used by far less than 3% of the 1930s American population.

Marijuana and cannabis were not presented to Americans as equal and identical because this would have connected marijuana to the well-known ingredient of the numerous familiar and easily obtainable popular patent medicines. Cannabis was a popular ingredient in patent medicines. Familiar cannabis-containing potions were produced by such well-known companies as Eli Lilly, Squibb, Merck and Smith Bros. These medicines had been available for nearly a century and apparently harmed no one and provided others with relief. In the late 1800s, cannabis was the third most commonly used medicine in the United States after opium and alcohol. It's hard to demonize what people have seen for decades with their own eyes to be essentially harmless and with practical value.

Harry Anslinger

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs (FBNDD, aka just the FBN) was formed in 1930, shortly before Prohibition came to an ignominious end. The FBN was responsible for enforcing federal drug laws against heroin, opium and cocaine. Harry J. Anslinger, an agent in the federal Prohibition bureaucracy, was appointed the FBN's first director.

Anslinger had married Andrew Mellon's niece. Mellon was a wealthy financier and, not so coincidentally, the DuPont family's banker. Mellon was also secretary of the U.S. Treasury. It was in this capacity that he appointed his niece's husband, Anslinger, to be the first director of the FBN. This was a post that Anslinger held until President John F. Kennedy accepted his resignation in 1962. Some reports say JFK fired him in 1961 but then re-hired him for a few months.

In 1933, Anslinger launched a national propaganda campaign, speaking across the country and writing many commentaries in newspapers and magazines—with assistance from the Hearst syndicate—against what he called the evils of "marihuana" or marijuana. Anslinger asserted a bogus relationship between marijuana (but not cannabis) with murder, mayhem, Mexicans, Negroes, jazz and sex. This became his mantra. This racist PR assault culminated in the enactment of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

The United Nation’s Single Convention Treaty of 1961 required all signatory countries to adopt and maintain domestic legislation and penal measure against cannabis and other drugs. Although Anslinger wasn't an official U.S. delegate to the convention at the time (he was appointed by JFK in 1962), he was heavily involved with drafting and lobbying for the Single Convention's section on marijuana. This was Anslinger's last hurrah as FBN chief, and he believed it would make it impossible for the U.S. government to relax its marijuana policies. However, Anslinger later turned against ratification of the treaty because it permitted the continued use of cannabis for "medical and scientific purposes."

Anslinger worked hard to associate the word "marijuana" (that foreign, Mexican word) with depraved behavior and heinous acts. He was a great publicist. These alleged drug-crazed acts were trumpeted in lurid magazine articles he authored, including "Youth Gone Loco" and "Sex Crazing Drug Menace". His most well known article was probably "Marijuana, Assassin of Youth", which appeared in the America Magazine in 1937. In it Anslinger wrote, "No one knows when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveler in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher or a crazed killer."

Anslinger claimed that marijuana "can arouse in Blacks and Hispanics a state of menacing fury or homicidal attack. During this period, addicts have perpetrated some of the most bizarre and fantastic offenses and sex crimes known to police annals."

Even doctors open to the possibility that marijuana could lead to uncontrolled madness were disappointed when they attempted to confirm this allegation for themselves. Ernest L. Abel describes a 1922 site visit to a Texas jail by an American prison physician, Dr. M. V. Ball, one of America's few authorities on marihuana. He made this trip representing the American Medical Association to get a firsthand look at the alleged dangers of marihuana. The warden gave an inmate a marihuana cigarette to smoke so that Ball could see for himself what it did to a man. To the surprise of the American prison physician and the jailer, who assured him three wiffs would drive fellows so wild they become exceptionally difficulty to subdue, the smoker remained calm and unperturbed.

This is an excerpt from my book Drugs Are Not the Devil’s Tools. The first edition is available now on Amazon and the second edition will be released in the Spring of 2017.

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