Published: August 23, 2013
Our show this week looks at the complicated history of Americans and drugs, and we chatted with University of Cincinnati professor Isaac Campos about the origins of “Reefer Madness” – a 1930s era panic about marijuana that, Campos says, had earlier roots in Mexico, not in the United States…
(This is the poster for the eponymous film, made at the height of the marijuana panic in 1937. You can watch the whole thing here).
Looking at Mexican newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th century, Campos found numerous stories describing dangerous “marijuanos” – men who became violent under the influence of marijuana, even mad, leading to crime and disorder. Around the turn of the 20th century, he says, these kinds of stories started to trickle north, “like an ideological acid rain,” building a foundation for what would eventually explode as “reefer madness”: “The idea that marijuana was the most dangerous of all drugs, a drug that caused madness and violence and therefore had to be prohibited…”
Mexico had already taken that step, outlawing the use of marijuana in 1920. But there were no laws on the books about marijuana in the United States. That is until U.S. Narcotics Bureau chief Harry Anslinger started to push the “reefer madness” theme, campaigning to get the “evil weed” out of the reach of Americans. As he told a congressional committee in 1937:
“Those who are habitually accustomed to the use of the drug are said to develop a delirious rage after its administration, during which they are temporarily, at least, irresponsible and liable to commit violent crimes. The prolonged use of this narcotic is said to produce mental deterioration. It apparently releases inhibitions of an antisocial nature which dwell within the individual.” – H.J. Anslinger, “Taxation of Marihuana” (Congressional Hearings, 1937).
Anslinger offered all kinds of evidence to support his claim, including letters from “concerned citizens” – like this one, from a newspaper editor in Colorado:
“Gentlemen, two weeks ago, a sex mad degenerate, named Lee Fernandez, brutally attacked a young Alamosa girl…Police officers here know definitely that Fernandez was under the influence of marihuana….The people and officials here want to know why something can’t be done about marihuana?” – Floyd K. Baskette, City Editor of the Alamosa Daily Courier, to the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, September 4th, 1936.
Baskette was waging a publicity war against the “curse” and “menace” of marijuana in his newspaper, the Alamosa Daily Courier, as these articles, courtesy of History Colorado, show.
And with concerns like that on the table, it didn’t take much to convince legislators to pass a ban.
But isn’t this idea of what marijuana does totally opposite to our ideas today? Don’t we tend to associate marijuana with mellowness, the munchies, even a little bit of laziness? How can one drug have such different reputations? This was the central question behind Campos’s research. As he put it: “How could it be that marijuana was so overwhelmingly associated with these effects 100 years ago, that today are just laughed at?”
Campos found his answer in the context a drug is taken in, and the mindset of the drug taker, not just the drug’s chemistry. “The simple way to think about this is what you think is going to happen when you take a drug is critical to what happens when you take a drug,” he says.
“[T]here’s nothing about marijuana that should make you a burned out stoner, except for our culture, which suggests that’s what should happen.” – Isaac Campos
The bottom line, according to Campos, is if you expect to be mellow, then that’s what you’re going to be. If the expected behavior related to a drug is aggression and violence, then that’s probably what will happen. So the ideas about what behaviors a drug might induce are critical in shaping what behaviors actually occur.
With this is mind, those Mexican stories start to make more sense. In Mexico, marijuana was mostly used in prisons or soldier’s barracks, Campos says – settings which were violent in themselves, shaping the way the drug’s effects were perceived. When these ideas about marijuana started to spread north, it set the stage for the “reefer madness” of the 1930s, and the United States ban on marijuana in 1937. “[I]t was Mexicans who showed people in the United States how to despise marijuana,” Campos concluded.
Another “reefer madness” film from 1937 – taking the title from Harry Anslinger’s fear-filled article for The American Magazine that summer.
But ideas about the effects of marijuana have done a 180 in the US over the years – from associations with violent criminals in the 1930s, to peace-loving hippies in the 1960s – and state laws have begun to follow suit: Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana last year, and Illinois just became the 20th state to permit medical uses. But in Mexico, Campos points out, those earlier ideas about drugs have remained influential. “Mexico consistently comes out against drug reform in the United States” and supports continuation of the War on Drugs, he says, something we can only understand by appreciating the history of ideas about drugs on both sides of the border.
Many thanks to History Colorado for the newspaper articles featured here.
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