From the Archives: Racism & Reefer (1990)

The Social Politics of Marijuana Prohibition by Jack Herer
Racism
Courtesy High Times

Corporate greed isn’t the only factor which led to the prohibition of marijuana. As Jack Herer shows in this latest excerpt from The Emperor Wears No Clothes, racism, bigotry, and fear are also to blame.

Since the abolition of slavery, racism and bigotry have generally had to manifest themselves in America in less blatant forms. Cannabis prohibition laws illustrate again this institutional intolerance of racial minorities and show how prejudice hides behind rhetoric and laws which seem to have an entirely different purpose.

Smoking in America

The first known smoking of female cannabis tops in the Western hemisphere was in the 1870s in the West Indies (Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, etc.). Cannabis arrived with the immigration of thousands of Indian Hindus imported by the British for cheap labor. By 1886, the Mexicans and black sailors who traded in those islands picked up on and spread marijuana use throughout the West Indies and into Mexico.

Marijuana smoking was generally used in the West Indies to ease the back-breaking work in the cane fields, to beat the heat, or to relax in the evenings without the threat of an alcohol hangover in the morning. Given this late 19th century area of usage—the Caribbean West Indies and Mexico—it is not surprising that the first recorded use of marijuana in the US was in the black dominated “Storeyville” section of New Orleans, Louisiana, frequented by sailors in 1909.

New Orleans’ Storeyville was filled with cabarets, brothels, music, and all the other accoutrements of “red light” districts the world over. Sailors from the Islands took their shore leave and their marijuana there.

The Public Safety Commissioner of New Orleans wrote that marijuana was the most frightening and vicious drug ever to hit New Orleans, and in 1910 warned that regular users might number as high as 200 in Storeyville alone. To the DA and Public Safety Commissioners and New Orleans newspapers in 1910 and throughout the 1930s, marijuana’s insidious evil influence apparently manifested itself in making the “darkies” think they were as good as “white men.” In fact, marijuana was being blamed for the first refusals of black entertainers to wear blackface* and for hysterical laughter by blacks under marijuana’s influence when told to cross a street or go to the back of the trolley, etc.

*That’s right, your eyes have not deceived you. Because of a curious quirk in the “Jim Crow” laws, Black Americans were banned from any stage in the Deep South (and most other places in the North and West also). Negroes had to wear (through the 1920s) blackface, a dye which white entertainers wore to resemble or mimic black people—(like Al Jolson wore when he sang “Swanee”). Actually, by “Jim Crow” law, blacks were not allowed on the stage at all, but because of their talent were allowed to sneak/enter through back doors, put on blackface, and pretend to be a white person playing the part of a black person.

Blackface… And All That Jazz

Whites in New Orleans were also concerned that black musicians, rumored to smoke marijuana, were spreading a very powerful and popular new “voodoo” music that forced even decent white women to tap their feet and which was ultimately aimed at throwing off the yoke of the whites. Today we call that new music jazz!

Jazz’s birthplace is generally recognized to be Storeyville, New Orleans, home of its original innovators: Buddy Bohler, Buck Johnson, and others. Storeyville was also the birthplace of Louis Armstrong (1900).

For 15 years, American newspapers, politicians, and police had virtually no idea (until the 1920s, and then only rarely) that the marijuana the “darkies” and “Chicanos” were smoking in cigarettes or pipes was just a weaker version of the many familiar cannabis medicines they’d been taking since childhood or the weaker drug of local “white man’s” plush hashish parlors.

White racists wrote articles and passed city and state laws without this knowledge for almost two decades, chiefly because of black/Mexican vicious “insolence”* under the effect of marijuana.

*Vicious Insolence:

Between 1884 and 1900, 3,500 documented deaths of Black Americans were caused by lynchings; between 1900 and 1917, over 1,100 were recorded. The real figures were undoubtedly higher. It is estimated that one third of these lynchings were for “insolence,” which might be anything: looking (or being accused of looking) at a white woman twice, stepping on a white man’s shadow, looking a white man directly in the eye for more than three seconds, not going to the back of a trolley, etc. It was obvious to whites that marijuana caused Negro and Mexican “viciousness” or they would not dare be insolent, etc….Hundreds of thousands of Negroes and Chicanos were sentenced to from one month to ten years, mostly on local and state chain gangs for such silly crimes as we have just listed. This was the nature of Jim Crow laws until the ’50s and ’60s; the laws that Martin Luther King, the NAACP, and others have finally begun ending in America.

We can only imagine the immediate effect the black entertainers’ refusal to wear blackface had on the white establishment; seven years later, in 1917, Storeyville was completely shut down. No longer did the upright uptight white citizen have to worry about white women going to Storeyville to listen to “voodoo” jazz, or being raped by its marijuana-crazed “voodoo black adherents” who showed vicious disrespect (insolence) for whites and their “Jim Crow Laws” (American apartheid laws) by stepping on white men’s shadows and the like when they were high on marijuana. Black musicians then took their music and marijuana up the Mississippi to Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, etc., where the (white) city fathers, for the same racist reasons, soon passed local marijuana laws to stop “evil” music and keep white women from falling prey to blacks through jazz and marijuana.

Mexican Americans

In 1915, California and Utah passed state laws outlawing marijuana for the same “Jim Crow” reasons—but directed through the Hearst papers at Chicanos.

Colorado followed in 1917, its legislature citing excesses of Pancho Villa’s rebel army, whose drug of choice was supposed to have been marijuana. If that was true, then marijuana had helped to overthrow one of the most repressive and evil regimes Mexico ever suffered.

The Colorado Legislature felt the only way to prevent an actual racist bloodbath and the overthrow of their ignorant and bigoted laws, attitudes, and institutions was to stop marijuana.

Mexicans under marijuana’s influence were demanding humane treatment, looking at white women, asking that their children be educated while the parents harvested sugar beets, and other “insolent” demands. With the excuse of marijuana (Killer Weed), the whites could now use force and rationalize their violent acts of repression.

This “reefer racism” continues to the present day. In 1937, Harry Anslinger told Congress that there were between 50,000 and 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, that most of them were “Negroes, Mexicans, and entertainers,” and that their music, jazz and swing, was an outgrowth of this marijuana use. He insisted this “satanic” music and the use of marijuana caused white women to “seek sexual relations with Negroes!”

South Africa Today

In 1911, South Africa began the outlawing of marijuana for the same reasons as New Orleans: to stop insolent blacks! And South Africa, along with Egypt, led the international fight (through the League of Nations) to have cannabis outlawed worldwide. In the same year, South Africa influenced Southern US legislators to outlaw marijuana, which black South Africans revered as dagga, their sacred herb.

Epilogue

This is the whole racial basis of how our laws against marijuana arose. Twelve million years have been spent in jails, prisons, and on parole (so far) by Americans for this absurd racist and probably economic reasoning.

Remember the outcry when former UN Ambassador Andrew Young told the world that the US had more political prisoners than any other nation? Isn’t it interesting that in 1985 the US incarcerated a larger percentage of it’s people than any country in the world except South Africa, and in 1989 the US surpassed South Africa and is now the world’s leading prison state? President Bush, in his great drug policy speech of September 5, 1989, promised to double the federal prison population again, after it had already been doubled under Reagan. Aren’t you proud?

High Times Magazine, May 1990

Read the full issue here.

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