In a four-part series, policy consultant Jamie Shaw explores the role infamous political renegade Pancho Villa played in American cannabis prohibition and the Mexican Revolution. Click here for part one, part two, and part three.
"Previously, we watched America swallow New Spain, and saw the homeland of the Hiaki divided by political borders."
I have used some of U.S. cannabis prohibitionist Harry Anslinger's quotes before, and when I have done so, one word in one of them always struck me as odd. This is the quote:
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers."
Did you spot it? Oh sure, he's a racist, but that's not it. Most American racists have problems with both black and Hispanic populations, but Filipinos? Not Asians or Chinese, or Japanese, or Indians, but Filipinos?
The population Anslinger has just described may have been that of cannabis smokers, but it was more directly that of the former New Spain. In fact, the "U.S." he was discussing at the time had just recently doubled in size not once but twice, and now three-quarters of its territory was populated not with mainly whites, but with Hispanics, African Americans, and you guessed it, Filipinos. Understand, it is not that these people migrated to the U.S., but that the U.S. had taken possession of them and their homes. While the government considered the lands American, it did not consider the people living on them to be. In fact, in places like Guam and Puerto Rico, it still doesn't.
It was this ongoing cultural war of assimilation that would drive cannabis prohibition in the U.S., and many previous proponents of the war with New Spain would champion its cause as well—in particular, a publisher named William Randolph Hearst.
When the U.S. switched its policy towards Villa, Hearst was one of the first to jump on the "down with Pancho" bandwagon. While former U.S. policy dictated that Villa be treated like a hero, headlines, even in Hearst's papers, referred to him as a rebel leader. No longer under that directive, headlines would now describe him as a bandit and editorial cartoons would depict him and his men as bloodthirsty savages. Hearst went further, commissioning a film about Pancho Villa and casting a little person to play him.
As you might have guessed, there was a personal nature to Hearst's dislike of Villa. The Mexican Revolution had caused the Hearst family to lose a vast chunk of land to Mexico, land that was now part of the Mexican State of Chihuahua, land Pancho Villa would call home for most of his life. This is also the land Villa would be governor of.
While much has been made of the role this would play in Hearst's motivation to push cannabis prohibition, specifically his loss of timberland, there are many other factors at play. While yes, Chihuahua does contain more forest than any other Mexican state, this is due mostly to its size. This is the largest state in Mexico, larger than the United Kingdom, but it is mostly covered by desert. While the forest here may have represented an aim of Hearst's, it seems unlikely. The forests of California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana had all recently come under U.S. control, and represented an infinitely larger source of timber.
Enter the Philippines. When the U.S. declared sovereignty over this nation in 1898, it gained access to a crop grown mostly in regions under British control. Grown from Bengal to the Philippines, jute had proven to produce a very strong rope fibre. Historically in Bangladesh, jute had been the "poor man's hemp" for centuries. With the world's navies modernizing past the need for rope and sail, hemp production was no longer as vital as it had once been. The replacing of hemp with jute would give the Philippines a way to pay its own way as a U.S. holding.
The effectiveness with which jute replaced hemp can be seen in the 1940s: with the U.S. and Japan at war, it was the Japanese capture of the Philippines that would force the U.S. government to make the film Hemp for Victory. No American Philippines, no American jute. This led to a brief period during the Second World War when hemp cultivation was encouraged for the war effort. With the U.S.'s eventual recapture of the Philippines, and access to its jute restored, hemp could be relegated back to prohibition.
Within a few short years of the U.S. being ceded the colonies of New Spain, the first cannabis laws would appear. The state of California would specifically require labelling of "Indian hemp" as a poison in 1911, and amend the regulations to clarify the exclusion of medical cannabis in 1915. With the U.S. policy change on Pancho Villa, the next 15 years would see many more of the U.S. states that comprised the former New Spain enact cannabis laws.
While most sources cite increasing "Mexican" immigration to the U.S. as a cause of tension, I find this disingenuous. What they mean by Mexican is really former New Spaniards, mainly mixed Hispanic-Native Americans, moving to what was formerly New Spain. Not as owners any longer, but as tenants. Or those like the Hiaki, whose land this was before it was New Spain, moving from one end of their remaining territory to the other. This was not tension caused by immigration, this was tension caused by cultural warfare, all-out attempts at cultural genocide on those other races not deemed white (which at that time still included those such as the Irish, German, or Polish). Those who still occupied the land now deemed "American".
This war has not stopped, and as recently as 1974, John Erlichman, Richard Nixon's drug policy advisor was quoted as saying "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war (Vietnam) or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities." He went on to say "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news." Even today in Colorado and Washington, after legalization, the effects are still felt disproportionately in minority communities, with African Americans arrested at twice the rate of others.
This has its roots back in 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson would not only shift U.S. policy on Pancho Villa, but would also sign into law the Harrison Act. A law that would lay the regulatory foundation of modern U.S. drug legislation. Other U.S. states that had formerly been part of New Spain would join California in restricting cannabis more severely, and their discussions would clearly reflect the cultural nature of these laws. Wyoming and Utah would introduce legislation before the end of the year.
Utah in particular has an interesting Mexican connection. With the U.S. acquisition of the state, the Mormon community was now subject to U.S. laws, including those pertaining to polygamy. This caused a migration of many Mormons to Mexico, in particular, to the Mexican State of...? Yep. Chihuahua. In 1912, they would return to Utah fleeing the chaos of the Mexican Revolution. Some would return again to Mexico, but most would not. While the Mormons didn't have much of an impact on Mexico, Mexico hadn't left much of an impression on them either. What they did like of Mexico was cannabis, and they had brought that back with them. With a church opposed to euphoriants, they jumped on prohibition quickly.
In 1919, the former Republic of Texas would restrict marijuana, "a Mexican herb sold on the Texas-Mexico border". Texas would do so because "all Mexicans are crazy, and it is this stuff that makes them crazy". New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Iowa would all follow suit in 1923.
In 1925, the U.S. would get cannabis included in the International Opium Convention, and in 1927, Nebraska and Montana would join the list of states in the former New Spain in restricting access to cannabis. In the Montana debate, marijuana was "Mexican opium", "a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated for sale by Indians". A medical doctor would testify that "when some beet field peon takes a few races of the stuff, he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico and sets out to execute all his enemies." He further regaled the legislature with tales of "imaginary bullfights", and anticannabis legislation passed without a hitch.
Harry Anslinger both began and ended his career as a dick. He began as an investigator for an insurance company before working for various military and police organizations. In 1930 he was named as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. It is only at this time that his comments toward cannabis begin to be derogatory, when three years into his new job, alcohol prohibition ends.
From 1933 to 1936, the 100-year long tensions between the people in these lands continued to be vented through the demonization of cannabis, and the ethnic groups that comprised New Spain. A Colorado newspaper editor wrote in 1936: "I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents." Hearst would join this movement, and use it as a way of continuing an already two-decade long war against the legend of Pancho Villa, and an even longer one against the entity that had been New Spain.
To paraphrase "La Cucaracha": the marijuana so well-loved and respected by the Hiaki would be taken from everyone, so that all were missing a leg, so that none could walk any more, so that all would be without, so that all would be lacking, marijuana to smoke.