AuthorSiff, Sarah Brady

Introduction 643 I. Anti-Mexican Aims of the First Marijuana Ban 644 II. Marijuana Was a Whole Different Thing Back Then 648 III. From Bad to Worse: Racialized Enforcement and New Policing 654 Strategies IV. Cultural Conquest: Targeting the Hip and Famous 658 V. Escalation of Unconstitutional Enforcement 667 Conclusion: Confronting the Legacy of Marijuana Law Enforcement 672 Introduction

Marijuana (1) was illegal to possess or sell in California for 103 years. (2) The state first banned it in 1913, (3) grouping it with opiates and cocaine on a list of prohibited vice drugs adopted six years earlier, meaning that it was subject to the same penalties as these other, far more dangerous, drugs until 1961. (4) This can be explained in part by the irrational and violent behavior reported to arise from marijuana use and exploited by early drug warriors to justify the new prohibition. But these frightening effects that were commonly attributed to marijuana did not correspond to cannabis effects; and indeed, the word marijuana was not synonymous with cannabis until decades later. Initially framed as a "Mexican" drug, marijuana's prohibition enforcement began on the periphery of Los Angeles in older Latino neighborhoods and agricultural outposts where indigenous and immigrant families lived, worked, and gardened. (5) As the suburbs transformed into white residential neighborhoods, local police forces carried on the tradition of arresting and jailing Mexican and Mexican American citizens for marijuana crimes, primarily cannabis cultivation. Los Angeles police turned toward the city center, targeting Black residential neighborhoods around Central Avenue as well as the avenue itself, with its jazz musicians and multiracial nightlife. Cannabis smoking grew popular in hip Los Angeles circles despite the drug's stubborn condemnation by the city's deeply propagandized, white Christian majority. Actors and musicians in nearby Hollywood also drew the enforcers' attention, and wealthy stars endured deeply invasive policing and publicity related to cannabis use. By 1950, Los Angeles police were arresting more people for the possession or sale of marijuana than for heroin, other opiates, and cocaine combined. (6) Mexican, Mexican American, and Black citizens were the targets of this enforcement in sharp disproportion to their presence there. (7)


    Beginning in the late 1800s, anti-opium laws in California targeted Chinese immigrants; (8) similarly, the state's first anti-marijuana law targeted nonwhite residents whom officials called "Indian" or "Mexican." Marijuana prohibition began with a 1913 revision of the Poison Act that made possession of "narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed" a misdemeanor. (9) This amendment's purpose was unhidden: "The reason for the action is the increased use of the weed among Mexican laborers," a Los Angeles newspaper noted in 1911. (10) Another explained: "In view of the increasing use of marihuano [sic] or loco weed as an intoxicant among a large class of Mexican laborers, F.C. Boden, inspector of the State Board of Pharmacy... [is] asking that the drug be included in the list of prohibited narcotics." (11) Boden and other members or employees of the Pharmacy Board had been serving as the nation's first state narcotics squad since 1907, policing the Poison Act's prohibition of the unprcscribed use of cocaine and opiates. Marijuana's omission from that original law was an oversight, Boden claimed in 1911, (12) and the need to add it to the list of prohibited drugs was growing urgent. According to the Los Angeles Times: "Probably one-third of the adult male Mexican population are more or less familiar with the use of the narcotic and the inspectors of the State Board are anxious for authority to inaugurate repressive measures without delay." (13)

    But the California Legislature met only every other year, so after a short delay, said repressive measures commenced in the Los Angeles area--almost entirely, as promised, against Mexican laborers. (14) During autumn of 1914, the following incidents were recorded in Los Angeles newspapers (15): Juan Torres was convicted of possession and sentenced to 100 days in the city jail; (16) "several Mexicans" were arrested in San Gabriel with "about twelve pounds of dried Indian Hemp"; (17) and Asencion Romo was tried for growing marijuana in his backyard in the central L.A. neighborhood then called Sonoratown, while Maria Ybona, a resident of the same block, was cited for plants growing in her yard. (18) Frank Aviles was hiding behind a telephone pole at Aliso and Alameda streets when he drew the attention of police and was arrested in possession of marijuana. (19) A pharmacy board inspector confiscated six ounces of plant material from seven school boys--according to the report: "One of them is a negro and the others Mexicans"--who said they had gotten it from one Maria Reyes, prompting the officer to visit and discover a large quantity of the drug. (20) When two city detectives arrested Pedro Lopez for being "addicted to the use of marihuana," they discovered his three children were suffering from hunger, though two of them were at school at the time of the arrest. (21) This article noted: "The juvenile officers took charge of the children and will care for them until the father obtains employment." (22) Only a couple of news items from 1914 name an offender who might be white. (23) For example, a short description of the sentencing of R. Franks to a fine of $250 or 180 days in jail noted: "The weed is the builder of soothing dreams and is much used in the local Mexican colony." (24) The police search of W.H. Johnson and Jesse Burt that turned up marijuana and led to their arrest and detention was undertaken, as the report explained, because "[b]oth men were dressed in rough clothing and had the appearance of having slept in a hay pile;" (25) in other words, they were vagrants.

    Through enforcement of the Poison Act, California undertook quite early efforts to stop marijuana cultivation and to eradicate plants growing on privately owned property. In San Bernardino, just east of Los Angeles, pharmacy board agents investigating a ring of marijuana smugglers in 1915 discovered that the plant was not being smuggled but rather cultivated by three Mexican workers. (26) The inspectors confiscated "several tons" of plants for burning according to a news report, which also noted: "The weed, which thrives here as well as it does in Mexico, is smoked and gives the same effect as the use of cocaine." (27) Miguel Morado, Merced Avila, Phillipa Perez, and Jose Jarilardo each drew a six-month suspended sentence, and the local paper documented: "Mexicans who use the marihuana very often run amuck and terrorize their settlements." (28) A week later, the sheriff of San Bernardino gathered a posse and "started a raid on marahuana gardens in various parts of the county where it is declared Mexicans are growing the opiate in large quantities." (29) In September 1914, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pharmacy Board had declared war on "the growing of marihuana, or Indian hemp" in Oxnard, (30) a town just west of Los Angeles whose residents were primarily Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants who worked at a sugar beet processing factory. (31) According to the paper, several wagon-loads of the "herb" had been cut and confiscated by drug agents. The report noted: "Among the Mexican users of the drug, it is believed that those who smoke it have the power of prophecy and divination" and "[t]he effects of the drug are similar to those of opium." (32) The Pharmacy Board stored a ton of dried plants to feed a public bonfire of seized opium and pipes, following the advice of their lawyer, who suggested the public display for its propaganda effect. (33) The Los Angeles Times described the scene: "The fire burning low, the destroyers sent flames vaulting by throwing on branches and sacks of dried marihuana." (34)

    This first season of enforcement set the tone for several years to come. The bulk of marijuana arrests occurred in the late summer and autumn each year, when crops would have been reaching maturity. (35) Newspapers identified many violators of the marijuana prohibition as Mexican, (36) and they often identified the drug itself as Mexican. (37) Latino surnames were prevalent in this coverage. These developments portended a war on marijuana that would be characterized by racial bias, disinformation about cannabis effects, and close relationships among the local press and officers of the law.


    Why was marijuana considered dangerous enough to merit prohibition and criminal penalties? At the turn of the century, marijuana use was a little-known phenomenon in the United States, of interest mostly to residents of the Southwest. In early U.S. news reports, marijuana was a dangerous plant, smoked or swallowed by low-class elements such as Indians, prisoners, and soldiers who had defected from the Mexican army. Marijuana use resulted in irrationally brave, violent behavior, with occasional overtones of witchcraft. (38) Much information in accounts that reached the United States was propaganda published by the postcolonial Porfirio Diaz regime in Mexico City, an attempt to cultivate allies in the United States in the increasingly likely event of a revolution. As U.S. readers would first encounter it, the word marijuana slandered revolutionists as dangerous and insane. (39) It was propaganda designed by an illiberal ruling class to create fear of those soldiers and prisoners who were desperately fighting against landless poverty and servitude. The oligarchy commanded by Porfirio Diaz had not much reformed the greedy and oppressive juggernaut that was the Catholic Church in Mexico; rather, it had further exacerbated rural and working-class poverty by granting U.S. businesses...

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