And here’s why much of cannabis’ criminalization stems from racist, anti-immigrant policies
On May 5, 1862, the Mexican Army defeated the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla. The French, at that time ruled by Napolean III, intended on establishing a French territory across Central America. General Ignacio Zaragoza led his vastly outnumbered troops to the frontlines at Veracruz, successfully defending Mexico City and preventing the French’s success.
Many today mark Zaragoza’s historic victory today with Cinco de Mayo: a celebration of the Mexican strength and resilience in the face of the colonial forces. Festivities ensue both north and south of the Mexican-United States border; in the present day, Cinco de Mayo represents an opportunity to recognize and celebrate potent Mexican culture that is prevalent across the Americas. People in California have consistently celebrated Cinco de Mayo since 1863 and it has steadily grown in popularity with the 1960s’ Chicano Civil Rights Movement.
Mexico & Cannabis in the Past and Present
Mexican culture has had an indelible impact on the United States. Even though Cinco de Mayo is often misunderstood as Mexico’s Independence Day, which is actually celebrated in September, it does acknowledge Mexican culture’s influence in the modern United States. And it makes sense because, at one time, there wasn’t a border between the two countries. The land stretching across Arizona, California, New Mexico and elsewhere is indigenous land to the people who have existed there for centuries; there is a long and rich history of people freely moving across this swath of land.
As history has shown, the movement of people also results in the movement of crops. While first cultivated in Asia thousands of years ago, cannabis now has an impact on most parts of the world. Mexicans traveling north are historically linked to the first signs of smokeable cannabis in the United States. Smokeable cannabis first appeared right around the Mexican Revolution, roughly 1910 or 1911. According to Barney Warf, a professor at the University of Kansas and expert on cannabis, this now-familiar herb was first brought by Mexican refugees fleeing the Revolution’s violence.
He explains to Vice News: “[Refugees] brought smokeable cannabis with them. There had been a long tradition of smokeable cannabis in Latin America [after its introduction to the region via plantations] and networks of marihuaneros [pot growers] in Spanish-speaking countries.The immigrants fleeing the violence in Mexico brought cannabis into the southwestern US, particularly Texas. It was there that the first backlash against cannabis began. El Paso became the first city to have an ordinance against it in 1914.”
Cannabis’ explosive popularity ignited in the early 20th century, particularly across the Southwest. Most early 20th-century cannabis connoisseurs used the plant as a sleep aid, for pain relief, and recreationally. However, much of the increasing criminalization of cannabis was due to a widespread anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiment. Suddenly, legislators deemed cannabis dangerous and destructive, even after years of acceptance. As Warf explains above, El Paso was the first city to develop an ordinance against cannabis. The city had, not coincidentally, one of the largest Mexican immigrant populations. Some theories propose that even the word “marijuana” was misappropriated to stoke racial prejudice.
Henry Aslinger, tasked with spearheading prohibition in the 1930s, led the federal committee that would eventually become the Drug Enforcement Agency. Aslinger capitalized on this potent fear of immigrants alongside the puritanical views espoused by those favoring prohibition to pass the Marijuana Stamp Act of 1937. This passage effectively illegalized cannabis on the federal level.
It is important to note that, at that time, Mexico was also criminalizing cannabis. Mexico’s cannabis prohibition — while for slightly different reasons — arrived a full 17 years before the United States’, in 1920.
Aslinger wasn’t the only politician with negative views on Mexico and its people. Donald Trump’s presidency has been fraught with tension globally, but especially with our southern neighbor. President Trump built his campaign on this unoriginal anti-immigrant sentiment. Trump continually pushes for increased restrictions on immigration and a massive border wall. In 2015, Trump stated “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Geopolitics, race, and immigration all contribute to cannabis’ complex history. Racism continues to contribute to the criminalization and demonization of cannabis. This racialization extends beyond just cannabis as well; low-income and communities of color have been repeatedly targeted with the same tactics throughout the violent War on Drugs.
Sadly, despite the increased legalization of cannabis in the U.S., cannabis crimes continue to contribute to an enormous portion of arrests. Today, Latin American and Black individuals are disproportionately arrested for cannabis offenses. This, unfortunately, reflects racist stereotypes that continue to persist in our society.
For this year’s Cinco de Mayo, we wanted to provide some education on an enormous part of Mexico and the United States’ shared history: cannabis. We all know that cannabis does not exist in a bubble — there’s undeniable political and social weight that comes with each gram. We encourage you to have a fun, mindful, informed and most importantly safe holiday.