Cannabis in America – Part 2

Posted: Jul 29, 2021

As we continue our series on the history of cannabis in America, we move into the culture of Jazz.

A photo of early American Jazz musicians during the ’40s.

Music and cannabis have been tied together throughout history!

In America, the jazz culture in New Orleans is another subculture known for its recreational use of cannabis. A culture that was made up of mostly black Americans, they coined popular terms that we still use today to describe cannabis, such as pot, grass, and even reefer. Famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong was a known cannabis user and said that “It’s an assistant and a friend.”

Despite two major cultures’ wide acceptance and open use of cannabis, the propaganda against the plant continued. Heading this battle was Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. 

Anslinger used racism to stoke the fears of white America by spreading the fear that black musicians in jazz clubs were using cannabis and jazz to seduce white women and get them hooked on strange drugs. Anslinger believed that cannabis was a threat to white women’s virtue, and that smoking pot would lead them down an awful road of drug addiction, despair, or even death. Ultimately, Anslinger was trying to find a legal way to suppress people of color, while simultaneously aiding in the protection of large industries that might be hurt by the legalization of cannabis.

A wildly inaccurate accusation considering the fact that cannabis and music have such a storied past.

A poster advertising ‘Reefer Madness, an anti-drugs exploitation film, dealing with the pitfalls of marijuana smoking, directed by Louis J. Gasnier, 1936. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Anslinger was quoted saying, “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”.

Anslinger, a master at PR and propaganda, used whatever he could to help progress his agenda. Anslinger would find brutal rape and murder cases and twist the story to make it appear as though cannabis was the critical factor. For example, in the case of Victor Licata. A man became known as the “Marijuana Maniac” after he murdered his father, mother, two brothers, and sister with an ax. The case was immediately linked to cannabis despite it being known that Licata suffered from schizophrenia. There was also no evidence linking cannabis to the murders, but Anslinger used this case for years to promote the idea that marijuana caused insanity. One of the many cases Anslinger falsely associated with cannabis.

In 1937, congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act. A piece of legislation that would criminalize cannabis and outlaw its possession and sale. Use would be restricted to individuals who paid an excise tax for authorized medical usage. The act was passed without any pushback. 

Following the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of NYC commissioned a full report on the medical efficacy of cannabis. The findings of the report would go against virtually every argument Anslinger made towards cannabis. The report concluded that there was no direct link between cannabis consumption and violence or insanity. The leading experts in science at the time knew then that there was nothing harmful about the cannabis plant. Leading experts even reported that in comparison to cannabis, alcohol consumption was much worse for the body. The report also found that people of color made up 78% of all arrests in NYC alone that were related to cannabis. This was true despite similar usage rates between all races. At every opportunity, Anslinger chose to ignore science in order to help further his agenda. And so, cultural resentment and the legal ramifications of cannabis continued to grow.

On a promise to reclaim law and order in America, Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States, in 1968. President Nixon, declared drug abuse to be, “public enemy number one.” And said that, “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” With this declaration, the war on drugs had officially begun.

Next week we’ll learn more about the war on drugs and how its contributions helped lead to the demise of the cannabis plant in America.


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