Mexican Immigration & US Cannabis Prohibition
4 min

Here’s How Mexican Immigration Influenced US Cannabis Prohibition

4 min
Editorials News

We take a closer look at one of the main driving forces behind America's century-long war on weed. And no, I'm not talking about Harry Anslinger.

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When we talk about the origins of cannabis prohibition, the general public has been taught to believe that cannabis is illegal because it's dangerous. Those of us who research cannabis prohibition a little more, however, soon learn about Harry Anslinger and his infamous war on weed.

In this article, however, I’m going to shed a light on another major driving force behind cannabis prohibition that came along well before Anslinger landed in the driver’s seat at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics; namely, Mexican immigration.


The Legality Of Cannabis In The Early 20th Century

Before I go any further, let me summarise the legality of cannabis in The US in the early 1900s.

Up until 1937, cannabis was distributed by pharmacies all throughout the US. In fact, cannabis tinctures appeared in the US Pharmacopoeia (USP)[1] until 1942. During this time, cannabis tinctures were sold mainly as narcotics and sedatives. They were prescribed for all kinds of different symptoms, including everything from delirium and restlessness to gastric pain, menstrual irregularities, and even meningitis.

However, the use of cannabis throughout the US started getting a lot more restricted from about 1906 onwards. By 1936, Reefer Madness hit the big screens, and by 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act placed an exorbitantly high tax on the possession, cultivation, and use of cannabis, making it virtually illegal for anyone but the extremely wealthy.

Luckily, the Marihuana Tax Act was voted unconstitutional by US Congress in 1969 following the case of Leary v. United States. Psychologist Timothy Leary challenged the act after being prosecuted for the possession of cannabis, arguing the act required self-incrimination, which violated the 5th amendment of the US Constitution. Leary won the case, and the Marihuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional.

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One year later, however, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which listed cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance that is unsafe, has a high potential for abuse, and no accepted medical use.


Acapulco Gold: How Mexican Immigration Drove Cannabis Prohibition

In roughly 30 years, the US drastically changed its stance on cannabis. But what exactly drove this change?

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you already know some of the different answers to this question. But today, I won't be talking about Harry Anslinger and his new job at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

During the Mexican Civil War (1910–1920), the US experienced a huge influx of Mexican immigrants fleeing the turmoil in their country. These people brought with them their language and customs, as well as a little something called “marihuana”.

Now, a lot of online resources will suggest that these immigrants introduced Americans to the recreational use of cannabis. But that’s total BS. Hashish was being smoked in parlors throughout every major city in America by the late 19th century. In fact, in his infamous book The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer claims that there were over 500 hashish parlors in NYC alone in the 1880s according to The Police Gazette.

What Mexican immigrants did bring with them, however, was the word “marihuana”. Americans didn’t know cannabis by this name, and prohibitionists jumped at the opportunity to use that to their advantage. Calling cannabis “marihuana” made it sound exotic and scary, and helped keep Americans in the dark about the fact that they’d long been using “marihuana” themselves, both medicinally and recreationally.

Instead, the US government was able to demonise cannabis (or marihuana) as some strange substance that Mexicans brought with them that made you crazy.

The demonization of the cannabis plant was an extension of the demonization of the Mexican immigrants

“The demonization of the cannabis plant was an extension of the demonization of the Mexican immigrants”, writes Dr. Malik Burnett and Amanda Reiman for And they’re spot on; for the powers driving cannabis prohibition, the word “marihuana” helped turn cannabis into something foreign and threatening.

Decades earlier, something similar happened in California when San Francisco outlawed opium in what historians sometimes refer to as America’s first real drug law. Following a huge influx of Chinese immigrants to San Francisco between 1870 and 1880, the city suddenly decided to ban opium dens after they began attracting “not only the vicious and depraved” but also young white men and women “of respectable parentage...engaged in respectable business avocations in the city”.

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Prior to this ruling, opium dens were common throughout San Francisco. When the city’s Chinese population doubled between 1870 and 1880, however, all that changed. And something very similar happened with cannabis.

El Paso, Texas, became the first American city to ban cannabis in 1915. El Paso was one of the frontiers of Mexican immigration following the Mexican Civil War. From 1900 to 1920, El Paso’s population grew[2] from 15,000 to 77,000. Spanish newspapers, schools, and theatres were built in the city, and there were also violent conflicts in the city fuelled by the war just across the border.

Speaking on the decision to ban cannabis, El Paso’s Chief Deputy Stanley Good stated:

“One under its influence is devoid of fear and as reckless of consequences or results. There are instances where the drug-crazed victim has been placed in jail, but in many cases, officers have been compelled to slay the fiend in order to save their own lives… A large percentage of the crimes committed are by men saturated with the drug… Most Mexicans in this section are addicted to the habit, and it is a growing habit among Americans”.

Even Harry Anslinger, one of the leaders of cannabis prohibition, was credited with saying that the majority of America’s cannabis users were “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers” whose “satanic” actions were driven by cannabis use[3].


America’s Drug Policy Isn’t Just About Drugs

In this article, I’ve made one thing very clear: the laws that prohibit cannabis weren’t put in place because cannabis is a health threat. In fact, they weren’t even put in place solely because Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics needed something to do. Instead, cannabis prohibition was largely driven by fears of Mexican immigration into the South and Southwestern states of America following the Mexican Civil War.

Unfortunately, this story is nothing new. I already mentioned how the decision to prohibit opium was driven by Chinese immigration in California, and we can see similar examples with other drugs too. What this teaches us is that our governments do not treat drug policy as a health issue, but as a socio-political one.

But it’s not all bad news. After all, the US is one of the main frontiers for changing cannabis policy. Best of all, the changes being made in places like Colorado, Washington, California, and Nevada are already making an impact all across the world in places like Canada, Uruguay, Chile, and more.

Steven Voser

Written by: Steven Voser
Steven Voser is an Emmy Award Nominated freelance journalist with a lot of experience under his belt. Thanks to a passion for all things cannabis, he now dedicates a lot of his times exploring the world of weed.

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We are not making medical claims. This article has been written for informational purposes only, and is based on research published by other externals sources.

External Resources:
  1. United States Pharmacopea -
  3. HuffPost is now a part of Verizon Media -

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