In a somewhat paradoxical decision, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors has voted to uphold law and order by defying a state law that’s been on the books for 10 years. Normally, such a stance might seem ridiculous, but when the topic is medical marijuana, it’s just par for the course.
During its September 26 meeting, the Board voted 4-1 against licensing four regional medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated parts of the county. The Board also voted to outlaw marijuana-growing cooperatives, and to join San Diego and San Bernardino counties in suing the state to overturn the law requiring counties to issue ID cards for the medical marijuana program.
These decisions come 10 years after voters approved Proposition 215, which created the state’s medical marijuana program, and 10 months after the county began issuing ID cards for participants in the program. But of greater importance to the Board, these decisions came a few days after Riverside District Attorney Grover Trask issued a report denouncing the state’s medical marijuana program.
Trask’s report not only asserts that since federal law, which prohibits any use of marijuana, and state law, which provides a structure for those with a doctor’s prescription to have access to cannabis, are in conflict, that federal law must be followed, but also claims that dispensaries will become criminal hotspots as favorite targets for robbers. Since the DA can’t actually provide any evidence to back up this latter assertion, its inclusion strikes some as pointless fear-mongering.
“If we follow that line of argument, then we should ban all banks. They attract robbers,” James M. Anthony, an attorney whose clients include the owner of Healing Nations dispensary in Corona, argued at the meeting. But Supervisor Marion Ashley, who voted with the majority, felt Trask had been “very responsible . . . and provided leadership here.”
Of course, as anyone familiar with the history of America’s anti-cannabis laws knows, fear-mongering has often been hailed as responsible leadership.
The national campaign to outlaw marijuana began in the Western states in the 1920s, and had its origins in efforts to harass and intimidate Mexican migrant workers into not settling down as permanent residents. (Due to the Mexican Revolution and subsequent civil war, Mexican refugees began spilling over into the U.S.) A description in the Montana Standard of a 1929 debate in that state’s legislature shows how little effort was made to disguise the marijuana prohibition movement’s anti-Mexican stance:
“There was fun in the House Health Committee during the week when the marijuana bill came up for consideration. Marijuana is Mexican opium, a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated for sale by Indians. ‘When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff,’ explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, ‘he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts to execute all his political enemies . . .’ Everybody laughed and the bill was recommended for passage.”
As the prohibition efforts moved into the Southern states, the prejudice underlying it adapted to local circumstances. A 1929 editorial from the Hearst newspapers perfectly captured the spirit of that alteration: “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows, and look at a white woman twice.”
Rather than discrediting the prohibition movement, such statements actually helped it. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created, and Harry Anslinger was appointed its director. Anslinger, who would remain head of the bureau until his retirement in 1962, was a racist of the unsubtle variety. In 1934, he was reprimanded by Senator Joseph Guffey of Pennsylvania for using the word “niggers” in official departmental communications. Fortunately for Anslinger, to be considered a responsible leader in the nation’s anti-drug efforts, he only needed to tone down his racism a little.
Testifying before Congress in 1937 on the dangers of marijuana, Anslinger warned:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”
In case any member of Congress was having trouble understanding what Anslinger was getting at, the director helpfully explained: “Coloreds with big lips lure white women with jazz and marijuana.”
That same year, Congress passed the first national law criminalizing the possession of marijuana.
Despite such lurid origins, the campaign against cannabis eventually expanded its list of concerns and developed a sheen of solid Nancy Reagan-endorsed respectability, with race-baiting becoming the rare exception and not the rule.
Californians, however, can take some comfort in knowing their state’s anti-cannabis statue was adopted before the anti-Mexican and anti-black bigotry became the norm. No, the state’s anti-cannabis law, which took effect in 1913, wasn’t intended to harass Mexican migrants—it was intended to harass immigrants from India.
The primary mover behind the anti-cannabis law of 1913 was a politically well-connected member of the State Board of Pharmacy, Henry J. Finger. Finger spelled out his cannabis concerns in a 1911 letter to a U.S. State Department official, in which Finger urged the federal government to take action against what he considered to be a growing menace:
“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.”
In fact, it wasn’t “Hindoos” and their habits that worried Finger, it was Sikhs. But just as it was standard practice in California to refer to Latinos born anywhere in the Western Hemisphere as “Mexicans,” regardless of where they actually were born, immigrants from India were usually described as Hindus, whether they were or not. Most Sikh immigrants came as agricultural workers. Their distinctive appearance—in accordance with religious traditions, Sikh men wear turbans and have long beards—made them an easy target for xenophobes. Most people who could tell the difference between a Sikh and a “Hindoo” considered the Sikhs to be sober and hardworking. But Sikhs did have a tradition of drinking “bhang,” a beverage brewed from cannabis leaves. In the eyes of men like Finger, that made them a menace to the public.
When Finger got no help from the federal government in his anti-cannabis efforts, he decided to pursue the matter through his position on the California Board of Pharmacy. In 1913, the board added cannabis to the list of illegal narcotics in the state’s Poison Act.
Although the law had not been aimed at Mexican immigrants, police departments, particularly the LAPD, soon realized the new law had great anti-Latino potential. The state’s first major marijuana raids came in 1914, when the LAPD swept into the city’s Sonoratown neighborhood and began rounding up people who didn’t realize what they were smoking was now illegal.
In 1915 the Board of Pharmacy revisited the issue of cannabis, and added a provision to the Poison Act that made possession of cannabis for medicinal purposes legal, provided the person had a prescription. The board, however, did not remove or amend its early addition to the Poison Act—so according to the act, it was now simultaneously illegal to possess cannabis and legal to possess it if you had a prescription.
Left with those conflicting provisions of the law, local governments began to act. In Southern California, where cannabis had become associated with Mexicans, local anti-cannabis laws were passed. Not surprisingly, Orange County, known then as now for its dedication to law-and-order and its hostility to Mexicans, led the way. In 1919, Orange County saw the state’s first prosecution of someone using marijuana for medicinal reasons. The defendant, described by the Los Angeles Times as a “Mexican maid” who had been drinking marijuana tea for a stomach ailment, was convicted. “That stuff isn’t growing for [your] stomach, but for your head,” the judge in the case declared, convinced the defendant really just wanted to get high.
The Riverside Board’s vote has given new life to that Orange County judge’s words. On October 4, a day after the new measures took effect, a combined task force of DEA agents and local law enforcement raided Palm Springs Caregivers, a medical marijuana dispensary, and seized both its inventory and cash. The dispensary had opened in July, after Palm Springs approved an emergency, temporary permit, so patients could have could have their prescriptions filled. More than 150 patients had to be turned away after raid.
The dispensary reopened, but now it and Palm Springs’ other medical marijuana dispensary face a new threat. Palm Springs City Attorney Douglas C. Holland is pushing a plan to replace the dispensaries with marijuana-growing cooperatives. But as critics have pointed out, growing their own marijuana just isn’t a realistic option for the most severely ill patients—in other words, Holland’s plan would place a new and heavy burden on those who need medicinal marijuana the most. It’s impossible to imagine a law like this being imposed on patients with prescriptions for any other medicine—no one would ever be asked to grow his or her own penicillin.
None of this—the Board of Supervisors’ vote, the raid, or Holland’s plan—should come as a surprise. Despite the well-established benefits of medicinal marijuana for people suffering from certain illnesses, there’s always that lingering suspicion that somehow the people who want it really don’t want it to help with their cancer or glaucoma—they want it to just get high.
“It’s so easy for kids to get marijuana these days, and I don’t think we should make it any easier,” Nancy Faulstich of Rancho Mirage complained to the Board during its September 26 meeting.
Sentiments like that, though heartfelt with only the slightest relations to the facts about medical marijuana, are all too typical. In them, you hear not only an echo of that Orange County judge, but also of H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” It’s a shame that fear, building on the foundation of those older racist fears that animated men like Anslinger and Finger, is keeping people from their medicine.