Cannabis Stigma & Racism: How History Informs Your Thoughts About the Drug

Cannabis Stigma & Racism: How History Informs Your Thoughts About the Drug

When you hear marijuana, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Now think about why that idea of marijuana is in your mind? Depending on your generation, there are different viewpoints on the drug. Millennials are the most accepting of the drug in comparison to the older generations who are more likely to be less accepting of it for both medical and recreational purposes.  

Although people use the word “marijuana” to describe the drug, it’s scientific name is “cannabis.” The name “marijuana” actually has a negative cognition. Keep reading and you’ll understand why the use of cannabis is becoming the preferred term…


History of cannabis 

For centuries, the plant has been classified as a Schedule I substance which is the most dangerous classification. It is in the same category as cocaine, LSD, and ecstasy. But that wasn’t always the case. It used to commonly be sold in pharmacies and used as medicine. So how did we get there? We can trace the stigma around cannabis all the way back to the early 1900s. 

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, immigrants flooded into the U.S introducing what they called “marihuana” to the American Culture for recreational use. Before that the hemp fibers from the plant were used to create clothes, paper, and ropes. The recreational use of cannabis was not widespread though. The drug became associated with the fear and prejudice against the Spanish-speaking immigrant newcomers. 

Years later in the 1929s, when the Great Depression started the stigma around the drug was enhanced. There was a great flood of immigrants from various countries to the United States. This increase spurred several anti-drug campaigns. Many of them focused on cannabis because Americans feared the psychoactive effects. The campaigns made a point to associate the feared effects of cannabis with Spanish speaking people. This escalated public and government concerns about the problem of cannabis.


War on Drugs and Cannabis

Harry Anslinger, a government official who was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics supported the prohibition and the criminalization of drugs. He was the commissioner during the Roosevelt presidency, where the war on drugs first started. Anslinger spreaded racism and phobias around the drug and the people he claimed used them. He pushed the idea that cannabis caused people to engage in horrible acts of violence and that it made black people forget their place in society. 

In 1938, people of Mexican descent were nine times more likely to be arrested than black people for possession and blacks were twice as likely to be arrested. Although whites and black people used the drug at the same rate, black people were less likely to be arrested for it (Gene Johnson 2012). Propaganda and laws were put in place to discourage the use of cannabis. In a 1936 movie “Reefer Madness”, there was a depiction of the dangers of the usage of cannabis and that it led to violent crimes. This was just the beginning of the propaganda that was to come. 

The Boggs Act of 1952 set a mandatory minimum for drug convictions. First offenders were then convicted for the possession of cannabis with a minimum of 2 to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000. 

The Narcotics Control Act of 1956 was passed establishing US federal drug policy. The manufacture, importation, possession, use, and distribution of certain substances were regulated under this new statue. It also made prison sentences a requirement for drug crimes such as the possession of marijuana. 

During the 1960s, there was a change in political and cultural climate as more white upper-middle-class Americans started using drugs recreationally. President John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson commissioned the Warren Commission Report. The report found that marijuana did not cause violent behaviors nor lead to the use of heavier drugs. This, however, did not change most people’s mindset about the plant.  


Why You Should Change Your Mind about Cannabis 

The Warren Report was just the beginning of the tides turning. Today the US has just begun to establish new policies now that scientists have discovered the many benefits of cannabis and hemp. Research has shown cannabis to effectively elevate the effects of illnesses and mental illness such as PTSD, Crohn’s disease, anxiety, and diabetes. The amount of misinformation will lead you to believe that the plant is bad for you but I encourage you to do your research and form your own opinion about the plant. After all, if there is a way we can minimize the suffering of illness and mental illnesses even with the use of prescription drugs, why not use natural resources? 



There continues to be many different opinions about the cannabis plant today. It started in the early 1900s, where the stigma caused people to engage in horrible acts of violence. Now the older generations are beginning to understand the plant’s benefits and are more accepting of it. But we still have a long way to go. With the younger generations’ help, we can remove the stigma around cannabis and begin to relieve the pain of illnesses we never knew we could.

Drug scheduling. DEA United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Retrieved from

Gene Johnson. (2012). The time nancy reagan invented ‘just say no’ and other great moments in pot history. Business Insider, Retrieved from

LIN SHEN. (2020). Breaking the stigma: How cannabis got a bad reputation. Retrieved from

Man ordered to pay $1 million in restitution. (2001, May 21,). Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Retrieved from

Michael Isikoff. (1988).  dea judge’s ‘fresh’ view on legal marijuana use. Retrieved from

Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.History of marihuana legislation – tightening the law. Retrieved from

The amazing history of the drug war. Retrieved from

About the author


Narinka Guichette is passionate about mental health, behavioral psychology, social justice, and criminal justice- all of which she’s studying at Emmanuel College. In her free time, she enjoys, reading, singing, and boxing.

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Cannabis Stigma & Racism_ How History Informs Your Thoughts About the Drug

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