Reefer Madness is About Racism – Even Today

Matt Weeks November 6, 2020 0 comments

Reefer madness isn’t just a corny movie; it’s code for white fear.

It has been clear since the United States first outlawed cannabis, in the “reefer madness” days, that the substance was meant to be associated with people of color. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively outlawed cannabis, used the term “marihuana” instead of “cannabis” to evoke the Spanish spoken by Mexican immigrants. And indeed, the first man arrested for cannabis under the act was Mexican-American. Since then, there has been a steady, plainly spoken, and very real effort by powerful white people to associate cannabis with communities of color in order to win votes and gain power.

It’s Not the What, but the Who

The intention of using the term “marihuana” was to make voters associate cannabis with some nefarious dangers of Mexico. But, truthfully, during the 1930s, American pharmaceutical companies were the biggest importers of cannabis. Not Mexico.

In fact, Mexico had criminalized cannabis in 1920. Historians have found more evidence that Mexican citizens were crossing the border into America to buy cannabis than smuggling it in themselves.

Not that truth it mattered. Using the Spanish word made cannabis seem like something un-American.

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Politicians who talked “tough on cannabis” signalled their racist and anti-immigrant ideologies via the medium of dog whistle politics. Other voices at the time were not nearly as subtle.

reefer madness represented by propaganda poster

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)

Racism in Cannabis

The editor of a daily Colorado newspaper wrote to Bureau of Narcotics in 1936 about his paper’s efforts to educate citizens about cannabis: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions. While marihuana has figured in the greater number of crimes in the past few years, officials fear it, not for what it has done, but for what it is capable of doing.”

Mexico’s anti-cannabis laws didn’t stop the yellow journalism of American presses from writing stories about pot-fueled acts of violence. Even the New York Times headlined a 1925 murder story, “KILLS SIX IN A HOSPITAL.; Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife.”

It’s hard to believe, but the modern stoner stereotype started way later in the timeline. Pot smokers of Reefer Madness (in the first part of the 20th century) were not mellow, snack-craving hippies, but juiced-up murdering psychopaths.

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More Political Victims of Cannabis Racism

The first victims of American Reefer Madness may have been Mexican-Americans, but they would be far from the last.

Machiavellian politician, Richard Nixon, pioneered the “Southern Strategy” for election success. It was based on an appeal to white voters in the South, using subtle nods to racism. The California Republican believed the South could go against its traditional Democratic tendencies if they found a politician who could speak to their Jim Crow-era attitudes.

To accomplish this goal, Nixon’s campaign sought to conflate Black people with drugs like heroin and cannabis. Although many within his party denied the overt racism, it was later blatantly admitted by campaign aide John Ehrlichman.

Thanks to efforts of the original reefer madness laws, Americans already demonized cannabis. By portraying it as a primarily Black and minority-consumed substance, Nixon exploited the racial insecurities of the country for political gain. He pushed for harsher penalties for cannabis offenders. This meant that law enforcement officers could keep white neighborhoods “safe” by locking up Black people in great numbers.

And then they locked black people up in great numbers. According to the ACLU, half of all drug arrests are because of cannabis, and Blacks are arrested at nearly four times the rate of whites, even though both races consume cannabis in roughly equal measures.

Beyond America: Reefer Madness Across the Pond

What about other countries — did they always tie the illegality of cannabis to racism?

Although hemp dating to the tenth century has been found in York, England, most Brits learned about the psychoactive nature of cannabis in 1842, when an Irish physician brought it back from India. (Although, hemp had been popping up in European literary works for quite a while, the French “Count of Monte Cristo” among them, as a pastime for sailors — especially those who travelled to Asia and Africa.)

While the young Irish doctor examined cannabis as a medicine, people would associate it with British India. In fact, pharmacies in both England and America sold weed under the name “Indian hemp” before eventually outlawing it.

When India was under British rule, the English commissioned a study to better understand the cannabis substance their new subjects enjoyed. Although the, “Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1894-1895” found that cannabis was practically harmless and no threat to society, the colonizers decided to tax cannabis heavily as a way of both extorting money and keeping the native Indians from consuming too much weed.

reefer madness represented by jack character exhaling and looking mean in film still

Menacing dealer Jack. Image via

Did Racism Make Cannabis Illegal?

The United States did not outlaw cannabis in a vacuum. During the same era, laws restricted opium consumption thanks to Chinese-American opium dens popping up in California.

These rules coincided with medicine entering the modern age, when the nation realized it needed to better regulate harmful substances. But, make no mistake, the medical fear was peripheral. The real fear was people of color.

Despite even Nixon’s aide admitting the campaign’s racism, many people argue that cannabis became illegal for other reasons. They claim that hemp would’ve been too strong a competitor to cotton or other textiles; which accordingly caused titans of industry like the DuPonts to throw money against it.

While there is some truth in those stories, nobody pretends illegal cannabis is good for business. It’s always been an issue of safety from “the other.”

Today, in addition to locking up people of color at astounding rates, cannabis laws are used to evict poor people (most often minorities) from their homes, suspend black students for smelling like weed, and justify a system that is keeping the legal cannabis business overwhelming white.

To end Reefer Madness would be to admit that anti-cannabis laws function like intended — to keep people of color down. Now it’s time for a change.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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