"THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT should repeal the ban on marijuana," The New York Times declared in an editorial published on July 27, 2014. That week, the paper ran a series of essays fleshing out the case for legalization, including a piece in which editorial writer Brent Staples exposed the ugly roots of pot prohibition.
"The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time," Staples wrote. He mentioned "sensationalistic newspaper articles" that tied marijuana to "murder and mayhem" and "depicted pushers hovering by the schoolhouse door turning children into 'addicts.'" He did not mention that many such stories appeared in The New York Times.
In the context of the era, when papers across the country were running news reports with headlines like "Evil Mexican Plants That Drive You Insane" (Richmond Times-Dispatch) and "Smoking Weed Turns Mexicans to Wild Beasts" (Cheyenne State Leader), the Gray Lady's marijuana coverage during the first few decades of the 20th century was not especially egregious. But to modern eyes, it is remarkably naive, alarmist, and racist. There were occasional bursts of skepticism, but in general the paper eagerly echoed the fantastical fearmongering of anti-drug crusaders such as Harry J. Anslinger, who ran the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) from 1930 to 1962.
The path the Times traveled from promoter to opponent of pot prohibition parallels the journey of Americans generally, most of whom supported legalization by the time the paper's editorial board came around on the issue. In both cases, the single most powerful explanation for the reversal is growing familiarity with marijuana, which discredited the government's claims about its hazards. Since exotic intoxicants tend to be scarier than the ones you and your friends use, it is not surprising that fear of marijuana receded as direct or indirect experience with it became a normal part of adolescence and young adulthood. Conversely, people are much more inclined to accept outlandish claims about drugs they have never personally encountered. In that respect, the supposedly sophisticated and empirically grounded journalists employed by The News York Times are no different from their fellow citizens.
'MEXICAN, CRAZED BY MARIHUANA, RUNS AMUCK WITH BUTCHER KNIFE'
ON THE FACE of it, the fact that marijuana seemed exotic to Americans at the turn of the 20th century is puzzling, since it was a common ingredient in patent medicines during the 19th century. Elixirs containing cannabis were sold as treatments or a wide range of maladies, including coughs, colds, corns, cholera, and consumption. An 1857 letter to what was then known as the New-York Daily Times even recommended "Cannabis Indica, the East Indian hemp, known most widely as Hesheesh," as "a sure counteractive to the poison of rabies."
The letter cited "that famous benefactor to medical science," Irish physician William O'Shaughnessy, who encountered cannabis as a folk cure in India and introduced it as a medicine to Europeans in the early 1840s. By 1876, a Times story (reprinted from The Boston Globe) was describing cannabis as a medicine that "has been used by the faculty here with great success in cases of dropsy."
But that was cannabis, a.k.a. Indian hemp. The first reference to "the Marihuana" in the Times, in a 1901 story with a Mexico City dateline, described it as "a harmless-looking plant" that "sends its victims running amuck when they awaken from the long, deathlike sleep it produces."
The origin of the word marijuana (also spelled marihuana and mariguana) is uncertain. A quarter-century after the term first appeared in the Times, the paper's Latin American correspondent speculated that it "is probably a combination of the names Mary and Jane in Spanish, Maria y Juana." By 1937, the year Congress banned the plant in the U.S., the Times was matter-of-factly asserting that "the weed derives its name from the Mexican equivalent of the names of Mary and John, a fact which those who are engaged in the attack on it say suggests its universal appeal to boys and girls." Anslinger claimed marijuana was derived from mallihuan, the Aztec word for prisoner, but that seems unlikely, since cannabis was not known in Latin America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.
In any case, the Times initially drew no connection between marijuana, the drug smoked by Mexicans, and cannabis, the drug swallowed by American consumers of Kohler's One-Night Cough Cure and Dr. H. James' Cannabis Indica. A 1921 report on "a thrilling series of raids" in New York noted that "the only phase of the traffic not represented were dealers in cannabis indica, or hasheesh, an Oriental phase of dalliance with dream-bringing drugs that the police say has been spreading from Turks in New York to natives here."
That "dream-bringing drug" does not sound so bad compared to the intoxicant the Times blamed for a killing spree that left six people dead at a Sonoran hospital in 1925. Except it was the same drug. Under the headline "Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife," the Times reported that the assailant later "denied all knowledge of the affray."
By the time the remedy and the intoxicant were identified as the same plant, medical use of cannabis was falling out of favor, partly because it could not be injected (since cannabinoids are not water-soluble) and partly because of the general reaction against misleadingly labeled remedies that were often ineffective and sometimes dangerous.
In 1906, Congress approved the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required disclosure of the drugs contained in patent medicines, including cannabis as well as alcohol, chloroform, chloral hydrate, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and opium. Eight years later came the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which effectively banned nonmedical use of opiates and cocaine. That law did not cover cannabis, but a New York City ordinance enacted the same year required a prescription for "patent medicines containing narcotics," including "cannabis indica."
'MARIJUANA SMOKING IS REPORTED SAFE'
THE TIMES FINALLY seemed to realize that marijuana and cannabis were the same thing in May 1925, when a story about a U.S.-Mexican anti-drug treaty described marijuana as "Mexican hashish." But the paper could not make up its mind about whether the plant was harmless or a terrifying menace to sanity and public safety.
"Marijuana Smoking Is Reported Safe," the Times announced in November 1926, summarizing the findings of an advisory panel appointed by the governor of the Panama Canal Zone. The committee concluded that "the influence of the drug when used for smoking is uncertain and appears to have been greatly exaggerated." It found...