Reefer Madness: The Racist Origins of Marijuana Prohibition

Racism, xenophobia and one man’s all-consuming hatred of jazz kicked off the criminalization of cannabis; America’s illegal, “essential” plant.

Natalie Papillion
The Equity Organization
9 min readJun 1, 2020

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“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

— Harry Anslinger, Founding Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics

Preface.

Cannabis has been outlawed for nearly a century, and yet if asked the reason why it was made illegal, I suspect most Americans would suggest something related to people’s health or the public’s safety.

The real story is much more interesting than that.

You see, marijuana wasn’t made illegal because a group of scientists sat down and decided smoking weed was bad for you. It didn’t come about because some preening public figures wanted people to think they occupied a moral high ground. It’s not even the result of power-hungry politicians looking to out-posture their opponents.

The truth is, cannabis was criminalized largely because one man felt it threatened a rigid, racially-stratified social order that kept him and his associates at the very top.

The unredacted history behind modern-day marijuana prohibition involves warring WASPs, discredited doctors, Louis Armstrong, the 21st amendment, and good, old-fashioned state-sponsored propaganda. But mostly it’s about Harry Anslinger—a powerful mid-century bureaucrat whose racism, professional anxieties, and all-consuming hatred of jazz (seriously!) fueled the beginning of our country’s anti-cannabis crusade.

Pot, pre-Anslinger.

I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great, the greatest percentage of our population is composed

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Natalie Papillion
The Equity Organization

Executive Director of The Equity Organization. Writing, researching, and advocating for drug policy and criminal justice reform. www.equityorganization.org