NEWS Backgrounder: The 100-Year War on Marijuana in California and Its Effects Today on the Latino Community

September 9, 2014
Contact: Ellen Komp, California NORML 415-563-5858
Armando Gudiño, Drug Policy Alliance 562-413-9003

Backgrounder: The 100-Year War on Marijuana in California
and Its Effects Today on the Latino Community

Although marijuana prohibition is commonly supposed to have begun with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, cannabis had already been outlawed by California in 1913, during the first, Progressive Era wave of anti-narcotics legislation. The 1913 law was passed as an obscure technical amendment by the State Board of Pharmacy, which was then leading one of the nation’s earliest and most aggressive anti-narcotics campaigns.

Although passage of the law received no public notice in the press, the Board’s enforcement efforts soon brought marijuana to public attention as its agents launched a crackdown in the Mexican Sonoratown neighborhood of Los Angeles (pictured) in 1914. See more.

In what may be the first marihuana cultivation bust in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reported that two “dream gardens” containing $500 worth of Indian hemp or “marahuana” had been eradicated (Sep. 10, 1914). According to police, the drug was surrounded by sinister legends of murder, suicide and disaster. After the initial crackdown, interest in marihuana subsided; not until the 1920s was its use noted in Northern California. More.

Photo: 501 New High St., LA in 1915, near the site of the bust at 718 New High St. Source.

According to former USC Professor Curtis Marez in his book Drug Wars, in early Hollywood, Mexicans were depicted in movies as pot-smoking desperadoes and targeted for arrest by the LAPD. “La Cucaracha,” a song sometimes banned for its marijuana references, is as much about the social status of the lowly cockroach as the marijuana he smokes.

A white judge named Charles W. Fricke, who was particularly hard on Mexicans, formed the Narcotic Research Association (NRA) and lectured to groups about the “epidemic” of marijuana use among Mexican laborers. The NRA was housed at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Building, along with The Hollywood Hussars, a paramilitary group formed to suppress communism. One member of the Hussars was actor Gary Cooper. Actress Lupe Velez, Cooper’s former girlfriend, was unjustly targeted as a communist and committed suicide.

The national hearings that brought about the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 solidified the image of the dangerous, pot-puffing Mexican male; it is likely Nathanael West was reading accounts of those hearings as he began his seminal Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust that same year. In Locust, the central female character Faye Greener has an encounter with a Mexican named Miguel just after she sings five verses of the Stuff Smith tune “If You’re a Viper”: “I’m the queen of everything /
Got to get high before I can swing…
Sky is high and so am I
/ If you’re a Viper.” A viper was slang for a pot smoker in 1920s Harlem, inspired by the hissing intake of smoke. More.

Marijuana was also implicated in the infamous 1942 “Zoot Suit Riots” in LA. “Marijuana Orgies Before Terror Sorties Bared in Gang Roundup,” ran one headline over an August 1942 story about the famous Sleepy Lagoon case. In the 1981 film Zoot Suit, Edward James Olmos sings “Marijuana Boogie” by Lalo Guerrero.

One of the most compelling reasons today to end the prohibition on marijuana is the violence taking place in Mexico over the drug war. According to Human Rights Watch, prohibition and the failed drug war has led to more 60,000 deaths in Mexico from 2006 to 2012. Many Latin American leaders have called for marijuana legalization for this reason.

According to the California Attorney General’s office, Hispanics were the most-arrested ethnic group for felony marijuana violations in 2012, with 4953 arrests, followed by whites (4617), blacks (2745) and other races (1119). (More.)

A recent poll showed a majority of Latinos in California do not favor deportation for marijuana possession offenses. A recent poll by the Drug Policy Alliance and found that 69% of respondents agreed that “California should minimize the penalties for drug possession, but drug sellers should be held accountable.”¡no-se-puede-california-latinos-are-done-failed-drug-war

The Global Commission on Drugs, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, has called for new drug policies that work.

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