Whiteness and Weed: A Story of Mass Control in America

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Marijuana

The significantly faster rate nonwhites are incarcerated and arrested for the violation of U.S. federal drug laws might lead one to believe that the purpose of this legislation is to control racial minorities. While this is true, the fact that 880,742 people of the 1,382,783, or 64% of the total U.S. drug arrests in 2007 are racially categorized as white makes it inaccurate to suggest federal drug policy seeks to target and control African Americans and Latinos exclusively and absolutely. A historical analysis of federal marijuana prohibition reveals how decades of legislation is informed and influenced by a white racial ideological framework based on the notion of white supremacy and black inferiority that requires the social control of all racial groups, including other white people. This essay divides over 90 years of federal marijuana prohibition into four sections not to imply the social conditions of each era are mutually exclusive but to illustrate the transformative way a white racial frame helps shape the popular American perception of marijuana users and the social control tactics prioritized by the U.S. federal government to prohibit its use and distribution within the United States. The last section reads as a wake up call to all proponents of cannabis and/or hemp decriminalization/legalization not critically aware of the modern role white supremacy continues to play in a War on Drugs that targets the cultivators, distributors, and users of cannabis and prohibits the industrial production of hemp. Without an active, personal investment in anti-racism one’s interests in the hemp industry and/or cannabis decriminalization will remain inept.

White Racial Fear

Since its early development in seventeenth century America, a white racial frame has provided the dominant vantage point from which the majority of the people in the United States view North American society. It activates and relates to a class oriented and patriarchal worldview that combines racial stereotypes, narratives, interpretations, images, and racialized emotions to promote a positive view of white superiority, virtue, and moral goodness and a very negative view of non-whites. One prominent feature of the white racial frame that helps inform the original campaign against marijuana is the racialized fear of non-white inferiors overwhelming America’s white majority. This racial image generates fear and concern amongst white Americans when over half a million Mexican immigrants enter the U.S. between 1915 and 1930 to find work and escape civil warfare. The white racial frame’s negative view of non-whites encourages negative interpretations of the noticeably different customary habits of Mexican-American laborers and their families. One common habit that receives a significant amount of bad press is the act of smoking cannabis in the form of a rolled cigarette (i.e. marijuana). By the mid 1920’s sensationalized crime stories of Mexicans smuggling “marijuana” across the border and committing violent crime spread quickly throughout western America.

Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, a man with significant financial interests in the lumber and paper industries, publishes a large number of these stories in a possible attempt to eliminate competition from the hemp industry. He drops the use of the words “cannabis” and “hemp” from his newspapers to engage in a campaign against Mexican marijuana with racial narratives that speak to white America’s racialized fear of miscegenation, non-white violence, and white victimization. For example, the Denver post publishes a story about a Mexican immigrant who murders his young white stepdaughter and later admits to police he uses marijuana. Stories also relate the popular African American jazz scene to marijuana and crime with a similar emphasis on interracial sex, non-white violence, and white victimization. The American Mercury prints an article about a black man who threatens two white women he encounters on the street. He is alleged to attribute his own behavior to a marijuana-induced hallucination of black and white women lying naked together waiting for men. The scholarly Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology even publishes an article that scientifically claims marijuana use stimulates the overzealous sexual desires of black men and can lead to indecent exposure and rape. Ultimately, the white racial frame’s positive/negative, white/black association conflates with racial images, narratives, interpretations, and stereotypes to initiate and recreate the racialized fear and concern that moves the federal government to wage a long, successful, and discriminatory campaign against the users of marijuana.

In 1930, Harry J. Anslinger, an ambitious law and order evangelist is appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a new federal agency especially created to address the nation’s drug problem. After a failed attempt to federally enforce the prohibition of alcohol, Anslinger is unsure about the bureaucratic survival of his new department. To guarantee future federal funding for his position in the midst of an economic depression he sets out to wage a new war against Mexican marijuana at a time when cannabis is already well established in many cities across the US as a popular and cheap alternative to alcohol. During the congressional Tax Act hearings of 1937 Anslinger speaks to the racialized fears of white Americans when he claims:

“There are 100,000 marijuana smokers in the US and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negros, entertainers, and others” (Robinson, 1996:144).

Anslinger is also careful to distinguish heroin or morphine addicts from marijuana users when he claims they come from two different classes of people entirely. This distinction helps maintain social distance between the non-white criminal users of marijuana and the white users of heroin and morphine once racially perceived as medically ill rather than socially depraved. This new white racial interpretation of illicit drug use as cultural habit of non-whites that commit atrocious criminal acts while under the influence moves the majority of treatment centers throughout the U.S. to close and many Americans to perceive drug use as a dangerous habit of the morally corrupt.
Members of Congress pass the Marijuana Tax Act designed to officially outlaw cannabis at the national level and on the same day it is enacted in August of 1937 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Denver Police raid a hotel in Denver, Colorado. The first federal marijuana bust results in the arrest of two white men named Samuel R. Caldwell and Moses Baca. Caldwell is sentenced to four years of hard labor in the Leavenworth Penitentiary, plus a $1,000 fine for marijuana distribution and Baca receives 18 months of incarceration for possession. The presiding federal judge makes it abundantly clear he considers marijuana the worst of all narcotics because he believes its use turns men into beasts. The image of beastlike marijuana users reflects the white racial frame’s negative interpretation of the Mexican and African Americans, as animalistic, unintelligent, oversexed, and violent. However, the fact that the first individuals the federal government targets for marijuana crimes are racially categorized as white demonstrates the way white people can get caught up in the same discriminatory mechanisms of social control that primarily target racial minorities. Both men serve every day of their sentence and Caldwell dies one year after his release but without the ideological dominance of the white racial frame and its negative view of non-whites one is left to wonder if the possession and distribution of cannabis could have ever become grounds for arrest by US federal agents.

By the late 1940’s the US federal government turns its attention to marijuana’s growing popularity amongst young white teens. Representative Hale Boggs sponsors the Boggs Act to curtail the use and distribution of drugs with strict minimum sentences and heavy fines for violators. A first offense, even for simple possession without the intent to sell, carries a mandatory two-to-five year prison term. A second offense carries a five-to-ten year prison term and a third offense carries a sentence of 10–15 years. Anslinger supports the bill with descriptions of drug dealers and addicts as miserable incurables with the capacity to spread addiction to others like a contagious disease. While the dramatic claim of “contagious addiction” draws some disagreement from an investigating committee, addiction is still not well understood and Anslinger’s idea to incarcerate people for all drug crimes proves popular amongst Congressmen eager to show their constituents they are tough on crime. The Boggs act quickly passes in 1951 and in 1955 Senator Price Daniel launches another Senate subcommittee to complete a nationwide investigation into the traffic and sale of narcotics. Anslinger testifies to confirm marijuana users are responsible for some of the most sadistic and terrible crimes in the nation. The Senate is also convinced Red Communist China is behind the widespread use and distribution of marijuana and heroin in attempt to subvert the people of American society. When the original Marijuana Tax Act is passed in 1937, marijuana use is unassociated with heroin or morphine but marijuana is suddenly linked to future opiate addiction with the introduction of the gateway theory. The white racial frame’s positive orientation of the white race assures the catalyst of increased drug use amongst white Americans continues to remain outside the white community and unrelated to the influence of white racial culture. First, white drug addiction is racially interpreted as an unfortunate consequence of medical treatment. Then, white Americans are in danger from Mexican and African American dope peddlers. Now, the racial image of Chinese Communists targeting hapless whites to infect with drug addiction speaks to the old emotion-laden image of America being infiltrated and overwhelmed by racial inferiors.

In 1956 Congress moves to increase the sentences for drug traffickers to a five-year minimum for a first offense and a 10-year minimum for all subsequent violations. Marijuana is also added to the Narcotics Control Act, which results in stricter mandatory sentences for marijuana related offenses including the first offense of marijuana possession that carries a minimum sentence of two-to-ten years with a fine of up to $20,000. When white people engage in behavior incongruent with the positive orientation of whites as superior, powerful, and righteous (i.e. illicit drug use) the white racial frame quickly reinterprets them as vulnerable, endangered, and in need of protection and/or correction. In fact, the racial interpretation of white drug users as fundamentally good people in need of special care eventually helps move the federal government to favor less punitive social control mechanisms to enforce drug laws. However, it is important to remember punitive and treatment based drug policy are still both about control. This becomes more apparent in the 1960’s as the number of white Americans that smoke marijuana and engage in political activism dramatically increases.

White Racial Resistance

In the 1960’s marijuana develops a new reputation and Anslinger’s bureaucratic career at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics finally comes to an end. Members of younger generations often reject the earlier statements the government made about the dangers of marijuana. In fact, conspicuous marijuana use is so common on college campuses across the country that the American public largely associates its use with the overall college lifestyle. Marijuana use rises to popularity as a prominent feature of counter culture movements that actively reject the moral authority and cultural dominance of the white race. However, the numerous white Americans that remain uncritical of white supremacy racially interpret marijuana use and resistance to middle class conformity as anti-American, dangerous, and socially corrupt. Mainstream media outlets exacerbate the negative interpretation of cannabis with portrayals of marijuana users as economically unproductive, lazy, and over-sexed, much like the stereotypes of Mexican and African Americans during earlier years of prohibition.

The punitive approach once intended to protect white communities from non-white anti-American drug dealers now targets socially defiant white Americans. This new trend is reflected in arrest and corrections data as well. For example, in 1965 for the first time in California history whites are involved in more than half the drug and marijuana arrests made throughout the year. According to the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug use marijuana arrests increase approximately 362% from 1965 – 1970. Arrests by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which concerns itself primarily with the sale and distribution of marijuana, rise 80% from 1965 – 1968 and arrests for state agencies that enforce marijuana possession laws rise 1000% from 1965 -1970. In certain college communities the police can arrest nearly anyone and everyone for marijuana possession and/or distribution but because law enforcement personnel and resources are limited, selective and discriminatory enforcement prevails as police tend to take into custody any young person they dislike, politically disagree with, or suspect to possess other illicit drugs. This illustrates the white racial frame’s capacity to encourage a negative orientation of whites that do not prioritize the cultural affectations typically associated with the middle class and the overall “exceptional” American way of life.
The widespread arrest of college students for marijuana related offenses creates a tremendous financial burden for law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies. More arrests means jails, guards, prosecutors, judges, and the rest of the criminal justice system have more cases and reports to file, track, update and occupy their time, all paid for by the general public. To make matters worse, most of the people taken into custody have the financial resources to fight the charges and fewer first time offenders are willing to accept plea bargains. Deeply concerned about the strict marijuana laws that call for the widespread arrest of their children many members of the middle class are ready for a new legislative response to illicit drug use. By 1970 the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act is passed to repeal the mandatory penalties for drug offenders and categorizes marijuana separately from other narcotics. Then, in 1971 Oregon is the first state to decriminalize marijuana completely and Ann Arbor, Michigan passes the Ann Arbor City Ordinance of 1972 that officially removes marijuana from the criminal code and reclassifies it as a minor offense. While a few cities and states in the U.S. reassess the practicality of marijuana prohibition, president Richard Nixon remains zealous in his quest to squash the anti-war movement to favorably end the Vietnam War while still in office.

Nixon knows it is illegal to have law enforcement arrest people for peaceful protest and demonstration so he decides to target the drug use associated with the counter culture movement instead. In 1970 the Controlled Substance Act (Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act) classifies marijuana as a Schedule One drug, which indicates it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medicinal benefits. The next year in 1971 Nixon officially declares a “War on Drugs” and refers to illicit drug use as “public enemy number one” and grades it “the worst threat the country has ever faced”. Nixon’s own white racial perspective that favors middle-class culture encourages him to racially interpret the habits, beliefs, and language of counter culture movements as opposition to American law and order. To vilify and disparage the credibility of anti-war activists he associates high crime rates and prevalent drug use with social reform and demonstrations of resistance. In 1972, Nixon chooses to ignore a National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse that advises him to decriminalize the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use and pushes through the use of new enforcement measures such as no-knock warrants to fight his drug war. Then in 1973, he creates the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and assigns the federal agency with the task to combat the threat of illicit drug use. Nevertheless, his drug war quickly loses momentum the next year in 1974 when he faces criminal charges of his own and resigns from presidency. Regardless of his attempt to vilify marijuana eleven states completely decriminalize the possession of marijuana for personal use by the year 1977.

Jimmy Carter defeats Nixon’s predecessor Gerald Ford in 1977 on a political platform that calls for the federal decriminalization of marijuana possession up to one ounce. His administration also makes clear its preference for drug treatment options to handle drug use and addiction as opposed to harsh penalties administered by the criminal justice process. This drastic change in the federal government’s stance on marijuana reflects the continual persistence of a white racial frame in post-Jim Crow American society. The over-arching positive view of the white race promotes a negative interpretation of punitive legislation that initiates the pervasive arrest of white citizens. A positive orientation of white middle class morality makes it difficult for America’s white majority to perceive their own children as inherently inferior or socially defective. Even white Americans who continue to condemn marijuana use often believe white marijuana users can redeem themselves and successfully integrate back into society if they are fixed through drug treatment. The assumption that marijuana users need corrective intervention still speaks to the old racial interpretation of marijuana use as a socially destructive habit common amongst racial inferiors and career criminals unable to successfully integrate into white American society. It also highlights the racialized nature of social control in America that seeks to punitively correct whites and punish non-whites. The legislative trend toward drug treatment and rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration to force middle class assimilation is eventually cut short by Ronald Reagan when he is elected president in 1981 on a platform of “law and order” reminiscent of the Nixon administration.

White Racial Backlash

Soon after Reagan takes office in 1981 his wife Nancy Reagan begins a highly publicized anti-drug campaign that coins the slogan “Just Say No”. However, four years later in 1985 only 2 – 6 percent of Americans polled see drug abuse as the nations “number one problem”. In October the same year, the DEA assigns Robert Stutman to serve as director of the New York City office to garner public support for the administration’s war on drugs. Stutman immediately draws media attention to the spread of crack cocaine in the inner city. This prompts thousands of stories about the crack crisis to flood the airwaves and newsstands that typically feature African American crack whores, crack babies, and gangbangers. The racial images and narratives used to promote the drug war convey the message that crack cocaine, once only common in poor minority communities, is suddenly spreading to a very anxious white America. Similar to the racialized media portrayals of Mexican marijuana in the 1920’s and 30’s, sensationalized news coverage of poor young African Americans smoking crack and selling drugs to hapless whites speaks to the old racial framing of whites as vulnerable and innocent while non-whites, especially African and Mexican Americans, are inferior and dangerous.
Even though the laws change in America to prohibit overt forms of discrimination the minds of many white Americans, regardless of gender, class, or political affiliation remain remarkably receptive to emotion-laden images of African American drug use, sexual deviance, and violent crime. The crack cocaine epidemic reifies old prominent features of the white racial frame and helps its ideological dominance persist in post-Jim Crow America. By 1986 Time magazine terms crack “the issue of the year” and marijuana’s reputation as a gateway drug to future heroin addiction is revamped to include a capacity to increase the likelihood of crack addiction. Marijuana’s association with crack reconnects cannabis with racial minorities, violence, and crime to disrupt its more popular association with young American activism. This enables individuals that continue to operate from the white racial frame to disguise any political opposition to civil rights and social reform as colorblind concern for drugs and crime.

Reagan also signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 that appropriates $1.7 billion to fight the war on drugs and re-creates mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. He reveals his own positive racial interpretation of citizens visibly complacent with middle-upper class culture when he condemns marijuana users for their sloppy, unkempt appearances and lack of motivation to embrace the norms of mainstream America. Carlton Turner, Reagan’s first drug czar, also links marijuana use to young-adult involvement in anti-military, anti-big business, and anti-authority demonstrations. Non-normative lifestyles are condemned and resistance to middle class conformity is racially interpreted as a “lack of motivation”. In fact, the contemporary association of drug use and motivation still stems from marijuana’s original association with Mexican and African Americans racially framed as lazy and unintelligent. While the ideological dominance of the white racial frame helps keep the majority of Americans pre-occupied with racial images and narratives of non-white criminality, the real issue of rampant urban unemployment caused by deindustrialization, globalization, and technological advancement in America is largely ignored.

The economic collapse of American inner cities in the 1980’s might have inspired constructive intervention to the benefit of almost all members of society, regardless of race, if it did not also coincide with the conservative white backlash against the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. While studies suggest white professionals are the group most likely to engage in illegal drug activity during their lifetime and illicit drug use and distribution is prevalent among all racial groups, the racial image of poor black and brown inner city crack addicts designates a smaller target enemy for legislation that would otherwise require the search, seizure, and arrest of an overwhelmingly impossible population of citizens. The continual dominance of a white racial frame that positively privileges the white middle class as America’s distinctive identity enables the Reagan Administration to successfully advertise the war on drugs as necessary to save American lives from enemy drug dealers and liberal hippies out to destroy America. Municipal law enforcement agencies revitalize their narcotics units, create drug task forces, and organize multi-jurisdictional strike teams. Reagan designates narcotics an official threat to national security and signs into legislation the right of the federal government to use the military to assist federal and state police agencies in the War on Drugs. He specifically identifies marijuana as America’s most dangerous drug and publicly endorses his “Just Say No” campaign to generate public support for the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that requires mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana distributors. While white marijuana users flood the justice system in the 1960’s and 70’s in 1988 the racial composition of the prison system changes from predominantly white to predominantly black. By September 1989 64% of Americans polled are concerned about the dangers associated with illicit drug use and so a drug war armed with legislation that can potentially incriminate almost the entire U.S. population marches on.

White Casualties of Racial Caste

Considerable political opposition to punitive drug prohibition regains some momentum in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s but President George H.W. Bush creates the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in 1989 and appoints William Bennett as the nation’s first “drug czar”. In his 1990 National Drug Strategy Bennett refers to domestic marijuana cultivation as intolerable and calls for an increase in federal funding from $8 million to $16 million to help wipe it out. After the American public loses interest in the crack epidemic as empirical research disproves many of the myths about crack addiction sensationalized in the media, marijuana becomes the new target of choice for local and state police agencies. This shift of interests happens at the same time the 1989 National Defense Authorization Act launches the 1033 Program that authorizes the US Department of Defense to transfer military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The program is made permanent in 1996 under President Clinton with few limitations or requirements imposed on the agencies that participate. The equipment is free but recipients are required to use the new merchandise within one year of delivery, which guarantees it will all get used and replaced. To ensure agency demand the Department of Defense is authorized to transfer property in excess to the needs of the department, which can include new equipment. In fact, about one-third of the property transferred is brand new, thus the government simply purchases weapons or gear directly from a private manufacturer and sends it to a local agency. The value of the military artillery transferred to local agencies increases from $1 million in 1990 to $324 million in 1995.

While there is a 53% increase in drug arrests from 1990 – 2010 there is a 188% increase in the number of arrests made for marijuana. When George W. Bush arrives in the White House in 2001, he allocates an additional $1.2 billion to the budget for the war on drugs, including a 50% increase in military spending. His new drug czar, John Walters, zealously focuses the federal governments anti-drug campaign on marijuana and promotes student drug testing across the country. At the end of Bush’s presidency in 2008 there are about 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year – mostly for nonviolent drug law offenses and misdemeanors. Even as more American politicians openly admit to past marijuana and other illicit drug use, the assault on American citizens continues. From 2001 – 2010 state and local police departments arrest over 8 million people for marijuana, of which 7,295,880, or 88% are arrested for simple possession. In 2006 a record 829,625 arrests are made for marijuana, which represents almost half of all the drug arrests made that year. Under President Obama in 2010, there are 889,133 marijuana arrests – 300,000 more than arrests for all violent crimes. More people are currently in federal prison for marijuana than any other illicit drug and of the 6,200 people federally incarcerated on average per year about 66% are Latino, 22% are white, and 8% are African American. The disproportionate representation of Mexican and African Americans reflects the racialized rhetoric still used by anti-marijuana proponents today. In 2014 the nation’s first drug czar continues to insist the center of the drug trade is located in the urban slums and projects of America while other anti-marijuana rhetoric continues to promote the old racial interpretation of marijuana as a gateway drug that hinders self-control, motivation, and deteriorates intelligence. While the war on marijuana continues to speak to the white racial frame’s negative orientation of Mexican and African Americans and primarily targets racial minorities it is important to remember 1) white Americans are not immune from the racialized nature of the social control mechanisms used to enforce drug laws and 2) marijuana arrests for simple possession play a prominent role in the day-to-day enforcement of the War on Drugs.

For the millions of white Americans that favor the decriminalization of marijuana or even the legalization of industrial hemp, it is important to acknowledge Marijuana legislation would not exist today if not for the ideological dominance of a white racial frame and the racialization of drug use throughout the media and political discourse. It is important that all proponents of marijuana and hemp decriminalization and/or legalization recognize how drug prohibition has always and continues to depend on anti-black, non-white racism or all efforts to combat the War on Drugs will remain in vain. The struggle to end marijuana prohibition is a tremendous opportunity to build and encourage interracial solidarity because now more than ever whites are subject to the same social control mechanisms intended to target African Americans and other racial minorities of color. Interracial alliance and resistance is the only way to undermine a drug war that continues to fill prisons increasingly built for profit by the private sector. The inter-dependent relationship between the War on Drugs, marijuana prohibition, and the rise of the military/prison industrial complex serves as yet another example of how a white racial frame’s positive view of whites and negative view of non-whites primarily serves the monetary interest of only a select few upper-class elites. In 2013 under President Obama the value of military equipment transferred to local agencies reaches approximately $450 million. So look out whitey, the DEA and local law enforcement are armed with the right to arrest people that are more than likely just like you. Special militarized agents of the US federal government have been fully equipped by billions of your tax dollars to wage war in order to predominantly serve the financial interest of private manufacturers and prisons to create, and maintain, large prison populations. Until all proponents of cannabis and hemp decriminalization and/or legalization are cognizant and critical of the role white supremacy continues to play in today’s War on Drugs, the ideological dominance of a white racial frame will promote an anti-marijuana campaign that calls for the continued incarceration of a bunch of people for some weed.

Holly Sims-Bruno
Doctoral Candidate in Criminal Justice
Indiana University

Sources:

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5 Comments

  1. Holly, have you checked to make sure that the folks categorized as ‘white’ don’t actually reflect the inability of some jurisdictions to have a statistical category that breaks out ‘Hispanics’ from ‘Anglos’? This may still be a problem. Just asking.

  2. Fantastic read and focus on the arguments used to orient and associate a plant with class and ethnicity. Oh how legitimacy drifts into and out of criminality rooted in ontological insecurities. Well done!

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