Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Grand, Racist, Hundred-Year History of Pot Prohibition in California

By David Downs
Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 11:46 AM

Today, the now-biweekly Legalization Nation print column takes a first look at the big California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Conference at Ft. Mason this weekend.

One thing we didn't get to in the column is the origin of the conference's title: “Cannabis in California: Ending the 100-Year War”. It turns out the gathering honors the centennial anniversary of California's most disastrous public health policy.

Pot was banned by bureaucrats in California in 1913 without any public debate. Even though weed was largely unknown to Californians in 1913, prohibition was seen as a preemptive, “progressive” idea.

Man, did that backfire.

According to CA NORML organizer Dale Gieringer, who researched the origin of California's war on pot, the Golden State really pioneered the concept of a “drug war” before the federal government did.

California passed the Poison and Pharmacy Act in 1907, which banned the sale of opium, cocaine, or morphine without a prescription. The State Board of Pharmacy followed up with a very aggressive enforcement campaign that we would recognize: undercover buys, well-publicized busts, huge bonfires of drugs and paraphernalia in San Francisco's Chinatown.

“It was the first full-scale war on drugs in the US,” Gieringer said.

Cannabis soon followed opium into the prohibition inferno.

Scarcely heard of before 1910, “marijuana” was known as hashish or Indian hemp, an exotic vice of Asian foreigners and some bohemians. Industrial hemp was grown in the Central Valley for seed and fiber, and was sometimes used in medicine, but California newspapers didn't mention it as far back as the turn of the twentieth century.

Gieringer's research found that, “In 1909, the police department of San Francisco reported, 'there has been only one case of the use of Indian hemp or hasheesh treated in the Emergency Hospitals in six years, and that was accidental' (presumably an overdose).”

But two drug warriors already had it out for weed. Hamilton Wright, the chief architect of US narcotics policy joined Henry J. Finger, a prominent member of the California Board of Pharmacy, at the US delegation to the first International Opium Conference at the Hague in 1911.

After the conference, Wright wrote, "Hasheesh, of which we know very little in this country, will doubtless be adopted by many of the unfortunates if they can get it."

The California enforcer Finger had the same idea, and wrote Wright on July 2, 1911 about the new Asian menace.

Henry J. Finger
  • Henry J. Finger
"Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast...the fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”

Gieringer writes that, “The "Hindoos," actually East Indian immigrants of Sikh religion and Punjabi origin, had become a popular target of anti-immigrant sentiment after several boatloads arrived in San Francisco in 1910. Their arrival sparked an uproar of protest from Asian exclusionists, who pronounced them to be even more unfit for American civilization than the Chinese. Their influx was promptly stanched by immigration authorities, leaving little more than 2,000 in the state, mostly in agricultural areas of the Central Valley.

Insanely racist 1910 political cartoon from San Francisco Examiner
  • Insanely racist 1910 political cartoon from San Francisco Examiner
“The Hindoos were widely denounced for their outlandish customs, dirty clothes, strange food, suspect morals, and especially their propensity to work for low wages. Aside from Finger, however, no one complained about their use of cannabis. To the contrary, their defenders portrayed them as hard-working and sober. 'The taking of drugs as a habit scarcely exists among them,' wrote one observer.”

By this time, "marihuana" was also beginning to come up north from Mexico, carried by migrants and soldiers during the revolutionary wars. The American public had no idea foreign marihuana or "loco-weed" was hemp, or Indian hemp or hasheesh. In Mexico, its use was associated with delinquents and soldiers, and it had a reputation for madness and violence. In turn, the California Board of Pharmacy added "loco-weed" to the 1913 Poison Act Amendments, which passed with no public debate, Gieringer said. The Amendments was opposed by the state's druggists, but the Board controlled the legislature, and passed it unanimously.

“In the end, Finger's cannabis-using Hindoos were merely a handy excuse for the Board to work its will. In the climate of the times, no more excuse was needed. Bolstered by Progressive Era faith in big government, the 1910s marked a high tide of prohibitionist sentiment in America. In 1914 and 1916, alcohol prohibition initiatives would make the state ballot. Meanwhile, the legislature was tackling such morals issues as prostitution, racetrack gambling, prizefighting, liquor, and oral sex. Amidst this profusion of vices, Indian hemp was but a minor afterthought.”

After a hundred years and two million Californians arrested, are we ready for something different?

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