Marijuana has been intertwined with race and ethnicity in America since well before the word “marijuana” was coined. The drug, my colleague Gene Demby recently wrote, has a disturbing case of multiple personality disorder: It’s a go-to pop culture punch line. It’s the foundation of a growing recreational and medicinal industry.
Yet according to the ACLU, it’s also the reason for more than half of the drug arrests in the U.S. A deeply disproportionate number of marijuana arrests (the vast majority of which are for possession) befall African-Americans, despite similar rates of usage among whites and blacks, the ACLU says.
Throughout the 19th century, news reports and medical journal articles almost always use the plant’s formal name, cannabis. Numerous accounts say that “marijuana” came into popular usage in the U.S. in the early 20th century because anti-cannabis factions wanted to underscore the drug’s “Mexican-ness.” It was meant to play off of anti-immigrant sentiments.
A common version of the story of the criminalization of pot goes like this: Cannabis was outlawed because various powerful interests (some of which have economic motives to suppress hemp production) were able to craft it into a bogeyman in the popular imagination, by spreading tales of homicidal mania touched off by consumption of the dreaded Mexican “locoweed.” Fear of brown people combined with fear of nightmare drugs used by brown people to produce a wave of public action against the “marijuana menace.” That combo led to restrictions in state after state, ultimately resulting in federal prohibition.
But this version of the story starts to prompt more questions than answers when you take a close look at the history of the drug in the U.S.: What role did race actually play in the perception of the drug? Are historical accounts of pot usage — including references to Mexican “locoweed” — even talking about the same drug we know as marijuana today? How did the plant and its offshoots get so many darn names (reefer, pot, weed, hashish, dope, ganja, bud, and on and on and on) anyway? And while we’re on the subject, how did it come to be called “marijuana”?
Let’s start with the race question. Eric Schlosser recounts some of the racially charged history of marijuana in his 1994 Atlantic article “Reefer Madness” (some of the source material for the best-selling book):