Breaking the Stigma

Breaking the Stigma

Where did the cannabis stigma come from?

As early as the 1800s there was no law against the use or sale of marijuana, and at the start of the 20th century, marijuana was legal, sold in drug stores, and even prescribed by doctors as medical treatment. There was even a New York Times article found from 1896 citing the positive use of cannabis to reduce swelling. It was used medically but recreational use was not widespread. Even though at the time recreational use was not overtly popular (especially with white people), the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930 with Harry Anslinger, an infamous prohibitionist, as its Commissioner. He used anti-cannabis propaganda to capitalize on the economic tension between immigrants and white people at the height of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, anti-marijuana ads started to become prevalent in newspapers and media outlets which showed cannabis users as rapists, murderers, and heavy drug addicts. The most popular form of anti-marijuana propaganda at this time was the movie Reefer Madness. One year after this movie came out, The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 officially made cannabis illegal in the US, and people were arrested the next day.

Prohibition of alcohol and Harry Anslinger

When the prohibition ended and the ban on alcohol was lifted, Commissioner Harry Aslinger turned his attention to cannabis. The media began to center around marijuana being this “gateway drug” and as mentioned in the above paragraph, the Marijuana Tax Act passed because of the fear mongering going on, which was spearheaded by Aslinger himself. This is when racism and xenophobia really were prominent, so Aslinger took the scientifically unsupported notion of marijuana as a violence inducing drug and connected it to Black and Hispanic people. This allowed him to create a “perfect fear package” to sell to the American public.

He even went as far as to create this narrative that marijuana “made Black people forget their place in society”. He not only went after Black people, but also art, stating that jazz was “evil music created by high people”.

The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 passed under Nixon repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and instead made marijuana a Schedule 1 drug (along with heroin, ecstasy and LSD; Schedule 1 drugs are considered to have a high possibility of abuse/addiction without any medical use). To this day cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug whose criminalization still disproportionately affects marginalized groups. The laws against marijuana weren’t meant to prevent addiction or prevent kids from doing drugs, it was done in racially biased panic.

Criminalization of cannabis use also serves to further instigate violence across the nation. For example, if someone were to steal liquor from the liquor store, the clerk could simply call the police to arrest them. Cannabis sellers have no sort of protection in a lawful sense and have to rely on the creation of an intimidating and fear inducing reputation so people do not steal from them. This creates a market that can only be regulated by violence and where it is rewarding to be more violent to maintain their business.

In addition to this, during the alcohol prohibition, beer and wine were the most popular drinks before and after prohibition started and ended, but during prohibition, moonshine and whiskey were most popular since they were stronger. It was more “bang for your buck” to smuggle in more potent products than weaker products. The same applies to cannabis today. Milder forms of the drug are not common, and while many people do not want strong stuff, that is all that is available now. The theory that laws against marijuana keeps drugs out of kids hands is another false narrative. One example of this includes the story of a kid who unknowingly went to an undercover officer and asked him to buy alcohol for him. The officer turned him down of course, but the kid simply turned around and bought drugs from a dealer nearby. Making marijuana illegal doesn’t keep drugs out of kids’ hands, all it does is create an unregulated, unmonitored environment that increases chances of harm for children.

Using the word “marijuana” instead of “cannabis” to associate the word with Mexican immigrants

In the early 1900s, an influx of Mexican immigrants came to the US fleeing political unrest in their country. With this came the normalization of the recreational smoking of cannabis. At this time, the use of the Spanish word “Marijuana” was used instead of  “cannabis” and negative headlines began to emphasize this in order to correlate marijuana use with Mexican immigrants.

The discrimination was evident in real numbers:

  • In first full year after The Marijuana Tax Act black people were 3x more likely to be arrested and mexicans were 9x for likely for the same charge
  • In 1952 the Bogs Act passed, making sentencing for drug possession mandatory which could lead to a 2-5 years in prison and a $2000 for your first drug charge.


In the 1960s and 70s, weed smoking had a new perception with young white people resisting mainstream media culture. However, anti-marijuana propaganda was still prevalent and laws continued to place emphasis on the “severity” of the drug. In 2010, Blacks were 4x more likely to get convicted despite consuming marijuana at the same rate as whites. Today many politicians stick with fear mongering and follow a racist playbook. Despite the historic pushback against cannabis that still exists today, approximately 61% of Americans approve of cannabis legislation, which has increased 16% in the past 30 years.

Where we are at today

Injustice and discrimination still exist in the cannabis industry today. Many people are still incarcerated for cannabis and those that are no longer imprisoned do not have the opportunity to enter into the industry. Although the cannabis industry was built on the backs of people of color, 80-90% of the industry is run by white owners. It is important as a cannabis consumer to educate yourself and others on the racial injustices that systematically oppressed people of color because of the ban on cannabis. For more information about the history of cannabis check out these videos!