If you are somewhat intuitive about certain events throughout the history of the United States of America, you would insightfully conclude that: the seeds for most of the past and present evils that occurred in the U.S., were sown by “white” males with heavily vested interests. By studying the events of our history, it is evident that the prohibition of cannabis in North America was, indeed, also engendered by the motivated interests of certain powerful (and prejudiced) Caucasian male majorities. The early demonization and the subsequent prohibition of cannabis in America was ultimately initiated by the work of four men: Harry Anslinger, William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Mellon. and Lammot du Pont II; and the facts and details of it all will surely make you cringe.
The story of cannabis prohibition in America begins with the movement’s biggest player, the horrid, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger came from relatively humble beginnings, though he was an enterprising individual, and soon had worked his way up among the ranks of both career and society. By 1939 Anslinger had held a prominent position as the Assistant Commissioner in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition. A year later, Harry had married the niece of the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury (one of the richest men in the country) and was appointed, by him, to be the Secretary of the Treasury’s brand-new Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Established in 1930, the FBN had dominion over a total of three banned substances: heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. During this time, hemp was a hearty industrial crop in the U.S., cannabis was used pharmaceutically as medicine in the form of tinctures, and neither cannabis nor hemp was on Harry Anslinger’s radar. In fact, Harry had even been quoted at this time, stating that the idea of cannabis making anyone violent or psychotic was an “absurd fallacy.” His perspective took a drastic change, however, after 1933, when the prohibition of alcohol in the United States came to an end. Neither heroin nor cocaine were widely used narcotics in the 30’s, and with America’s favourite drug once again legal to the public, Anslinger grew increasingly concerned that his cushy new job may start to become obsolete. It was then that Anslinger jumped onto the anti-cannabis bandwagon, and started writing a new narrative with respect to cannabis.
Anslinger was apparently a perceptive individual, and took note of the fact that many Americans were uncomfortable with Mexican immigrants and the way that they were using cannabis. Mexicans were referring to the plant in slang as “Marihuana,” and they were ingesting it by smoking the herb, rather than by taking it orally, the traditional American way. These were all valid grounds for xenophobic fears nearly a century ago, and so, Anslinger pulled at the threads of this anti-Spanish sentiment and used them to weave his own rhetoric around cannabis. All he really needed now was an equally racist individual, with equally vested interests regarding the policing hemp and cannabis, who had some form of media influence. And so, here enters a businessman with family stake in timber, a heavily racially prejudiced right-wing politician, and a media publishing mogul, of the name, William Randolph Hearst. Anslinger and Hearst famously took part in “yellow journalism” with respect to cannabis, or using the terms of today, they did some heavy slandering using some very fake news. Consequently, some radical claims about “Marijuana” were published in prominent newspapers, which stated that cannabis is highly addictive, makes people insane, violent, and crazed enough to kill their brother, and influences white women to sleep with coloured men. Worst of all, they wrote, marijuana has the abominable consequence of making “darkies” think that they are equal to white men, which would effectively tear apart the fabric of American society.
There is one more player in this history of cannabis prohibition that I have forgotten to mention up until this point. This player is known as the hemp decorticator, and she is equipment that would allow the small-scale farming of hemp at a rate and efficiency level that would make the price of hemp competitive with the price of timber. This invention would ruffle the feathers of the timber-rich Hearst, as well as a character known as, Lammot du Pont II. Du Pont was a man who had his hand inside several pharmaceutical companies, and was also the man in charge of the company Dupont Chemical, which manufactured textiles like Rayon and Nylon. In other words, du Pont had investment in a handful of companies that manufacture products, and importantly, products that could be more responsibly or more inexpensively replaced by hemp. The advent of the decorticator and the ability to home grow hemp, would further grind the gears of one more incredibly wealthy man, a man who was a financial backer of Dupont’s, a member of the U.S. Treasury, and also a familial relative (by marriage) to Harry Anslinger. Yes, this money-bags was mentioned earlier, and he is the last piece of the prohibition puzzle. The monetary and visionary backer to the nation-wide cannabis/hemp smear campaigns, was the prominent banker, Andrew Mellon. After a bit of time, in the year 1937, this group of 4 men finally succeeded in their campaign, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, and cannabis became illegal in America.
The success of the public smear campaigns against cannabis depended very essentially upon one thing, and this was the ability of Mellon’s minions to associate the herb with something that common America feared intensely. In the beginning of the rally, around the 1930’s, American’s most deeply entrenched fears revolved heavily around immigration and racial mixing. Although cannabis was (and still is) used fairly equally by white and coloured populations, Anslinger perpetuated the idea that cannabis was most popularly used by Negroes and Hispanics, and thus began to title it accordingly. The word “Marijuana” was a (likely intentional) bastardization of the affectionate term that Mexicans used to refer to the plant, Marihuana, and the word was used strategically to separate the activity of using cannabis from all mainstream [read: white] culture. The word “pot” is short for potiguaya, and is yet another term stemming from Spanish that was manipulated to have negative connotations, leading to people commonly using words like “pothead” with very derogatory intentions. Recall also, that marihuana was a slang term, yet the made-up spelling “marijuana” was used to write laws and appears in official American documents even to this day. For perspective, this could be comparable to the legislation regarding opiates being called the “smack” laws, or similar to a ticket for driving under the influence being issued as a “boozing and breaking” offense. I believe that anyone with a half a nickel’s worth of sense could see that this usage of colloquial slang would be extremely unprofessional in a public official setting, yet, the word marijuana slipped through seemingly unquestioned.
The original four anti-hemp crusaders chiefly used public brainwashing strategies, in order to associate cannabis use with seemingly undesirable populations. Although, even ages after these white men disappeared from the anti-drug equation, their exact tactics still persisted within the future propaganda used to vilify all forms of drug use. In 1970 the Nixon Administration signed the Controlled Substances Act that classified “marijuana” as a Schedule I narcotic, and, this decade also evolved the humble FBN into the globally penetrating force of the American DEA. In 1971 President Nixon launched the full scale “War on Drugs,” which has presently been exposed to have been motivated by attempts to imprison and weaken any anti-war allies, as well as any black communities. I believe, that during this time, the Schedule I classification of cannabis as a drug with high abuse potential and no applicable medical benefits, was integral to another false narrative, one that attempted to lump cannabis in with all other narcotics. I, accordingly, believe that some of the negatively-coloured cannabis-related slang of that time period, was also indeed perpetuated with the same agenda. The term “stoned” was once used in reference to someone being extremely intoxicated on a substance like alcohol, to the point where they appeared battered and beaten, or lazy and losing consciousness. Although, nowadays, we all know a “stoner” to be someone who smokes a lot of weed, and the word conjures images or someone who is spaced out and unmotivated. “Dope” is one more word that attempted to fabricate a dangerous image of cannabis; most people know “dope” to refer to opiates or steroids, although, at some point, the former generation was also referring to dope as all drugs, including cannabis. Putting all existing mind-altering chemicals into one catch-all category of “drugs” that you should “just say no” to, created a history of miseducation and misinformation revolving anything related to consciousness-expanding substances. It is clearly evident that the creation of public fear with respect to all drugs, stemmed from the strategic use of misleading and manipulative language. There was a pervasive rhetoric, given by popular and persuasive officials, that encouraged the “good and sensible” public to keep a safe distance from such society-crumbling evils, and the success of all of this persuasion was dependent upon connecting any drug-related terminology to unpleasant imagery.
In the beginning, all negative drug imagery was focused on the usages of the substances by dark-skinned ethnic populations, especially Mexicans. Words like marijuana, reefer, and pot were taken from Spanish origins and used to paint a sinister picture of cannabis, a campaign fueled by the already existing xenophobic attitudes. Eventually the persuasion escalated to persecute any and all “drug” use, likening even cannabis users to mindless dopes with fried out brains and a subdued demeanor. There was a lexicon created around cannabis use that was conjured up by powerful men with motivated interests, and disseminated with the purpose of casting a shadow around a plant with undeniable medical and industrial uses. Although, conversely, due to the popularity of cannabis inside of its underground communities, there is also another rich, and sometimes overlapping lexicon, around cannabis that comes lovingly from the users themselves. I will admit that words like “stoner,” “baked,” and “weed” exit my mouth or enter into my writing, usually without a second thought, since these are words that I have becoming accustomed to using in my cannabis social circles. However, armed with all of the information that I have now, I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt anytime the label “stoner” leaves my lips.
I have quite honestly been going back and forth on issue in my mind for some time now. I stirred up a big debate with a friend, stating that his negative feelings about the word “stoner” were rooted in his own perceptions of the drug and how he was treated for using it, and that his view wasn’t objective enough. I boldly stated that the word “stoner” doesn’t bring about any feelings of negativity in my mind, so therefore, I should be able to use it freely and however I want. I then polled my Instagram following and asked them if they ever used the word to describe themselves, and almost everyone replied that they didn’t see the word as unseemly, with one user offering an alternative label of “educated stoner,” to differentiate from a less motivated “stoner,” and another simply stating that “sometimes we give words too much power.” For some time, I was hell-bent on “reclaiming” words like weed and stoner and flipping the script on their meanings, and I felt very empowered in doing so, using them often on my blog. But then, I started to question myself, reminding myself of the history and the fact that using underground language might make me come across as less professional or less serious about my image in the cannabis industry. I told myself that these words have been used as weapons, and I became resolved to stop using them altogether.
I have flip-flopped on my stance on this matter continually since then, with no real definitive conviction. It is true that these prohibition-era terms were used (extremely effectively) to damage the reputations and the lives of any cannabis users, but it is also true that some of these words still belong to us, and have been used within our common vocabularies for some time now. As I writer I believe that individual words actually do have immense power, but as someone who was also part of the underground, there are still terms that I cherish, despite the public’s perception of them. Therefore, I will posit these final questions for my readers to deliberate upon. Do we as conscious cannabis users have a responsibility to eliminate all prohibition-era language and develop better terms within the community? Or, are our efforts better used in flipping the script, and removing the bad connotations from these words that should have not have even been there in the first place?