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Racism and Cannabis Prohibition: Why Supporting the Industrial Conspiracy Prohibition Narrative Distracts from the Real Cause of Cannabis Prohibition

Photo credit: theguardian.com

With a spotlight on the shame of American racism, it’s time to examine the competing narratives about Cannabis prohibition. Currently, there are two popularly accepted prohibition origin stories.  The first narrative, supported primarily by circumstantial evidence, is that large industrial robber barons conspired to squash the resurgent hemp industry, as it was on the verge of revolutionizing American agriculture and manufacturing.  Call that the “industrial” conspiracy.

The second narrative says Cannabis prohibition was motivated by racism and used as a means of social control. There is ample evidence supporting the argument that racism was the primary motivation behind Cannabis prohibition. This evidence exists because racism did not have to hide behind a conspiracy- it was overt.  

Racism is an acknowledged form of social control used throughout human history.  Racism towards blacks and Hispanics, played an undeniable and indefensible role in forming U.S. Cannabis policy. Comparing the two narratives illustrates the weaknesses in the industrial conspiracy. 

The Industrial Conspiracy

Proponents of this theory believe in the 1930’s, a cabal of industrialists perceived hemp as a threat to their empires. To protect their monopolies, these industrialists conspired to eliminate the threat posed by hemp. The main culprits driving this story are Randolph Hearst, who owned vast timber holdings and was a media magnate, and the DuPont Company who allegedly viewed “cheap hemp-based plastics” as a threat to their new material, nylon.  

In this story, Hearst uses the pulpit of his vast publishing empire to spread stories fed to him from Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger’s “gore file”.  Many of these stories played upon racist fears.  Believers cite different, a smorgasbord of sources as proof “researchers” were about to unlock hemp as a source of cheap, abundant cellulose. 

This cheap cellulose was supposedly the key raw material for producing an assortment of products. Not only does this narrative rely on unsupported or outdated research but also ignores key facts that undermine its bedrock argument.  For example, USDA Bulletin 404, which explores the feasibility of using hemp hurds in papermaking, was written in 1916 and usually credited to agronomist Lyster Dewey.  

The premise of the experiment was to show that in the face of a looming timber crisis, alternative feedstocks could be used to manufacture paper. The conspiracy theory focuses on one metric, the acres required to produce enough raw material to supply one 25-ton paper mill. Here, the results are startlingly in favor of hemp. One acre of hemp produces an equal amount of pulp as 4 acres of poplar trees.  

However, this is NOT the key finding in Bulletin 404. The full bulletin indicates the manufacturing trials did not support the economic feasibility of utilizing hemp to make paper.  Jason Merrill, who authored the manufacturing study in Bulletin 404, notes in his introduction that hemp was just one of eight crops studied. Of hemp Merrill observed, “the present annual supply would not be sufficient to justify installation of a pulp mill.”  More importantly, the study revealed that the manufacturing cost of hemp paper exceeded the cost of wood pulp.  

Likewise, DuPont was not threatened by hemp. To the contrary, in the 1930’s DuPont was one of the largest consumers of cellulose in the nation and, was one of the nation’s largest manufactures of explosives for industrial and the military use.  The February 1938 Popular Mechanic’s article, “The New Billion Dollar Crop” alludes to this noting:

Thousands of tons of hemp hurds are used every year by one large powder company for the manufacture of dynamite and TNT.”  

Furthermore, with their resources and R&D capability, DuPont likely investigated the feasibility of manufacturing nylon from cellulose. In the 1930’s, the biggest motivator driving product development was the cost of goods and profit margin. If hemp cellulose could have fueled a next level industrial revolution, DuPont and Hearst both would have figured out a way to cash in on the opportunity. 

Racism and Prohibition

Photo credit: baltimorefishbowl.com 

The links between racism and Cannabis prohibition are undeniable.  It is well documented that Cannabis tinctures were used medicinally in the U.S. as early as the mid 1800’s. And we know that “Turkish smoking parlors” and other hash preparations found favor with many people towards the end of the 1800’s.  

The Turkish Smoking Parlor at the 1876 American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, was a very popular attraction. Similar hashish smoking parlors soon started appearing in cities across the country.  It was not until blacks and Hispanics introduced the practice of smoking Cannabis flowers recreationally in the early 1900’s that Cannabis use was identified as deviant and targeted for legal restraint.  

The narrative should be familiar. In Storyville, the “red light” district of New Orleans where prostitution was legal, Cannabis played muse to the nascent musical form jazz. By 1910, public safety and health officials in New Orleans were vocalizing their concerns about “marihuana”, and the newspapers had taken on a “public awareness” campaign.  By 1917, at the request of the U.S military, Storyville is essentially “closed” when prostitution was recriminalized.

Further west, racism towards Mexicans crystallizes around the use of “marijuana”. Smoking Cannabis has quickly spread among migrant farm workers across the southwest United States. Hispanic migrant workers viewed Cannabis as a relaxing, mild intoxicant, that did not prevent them from being ready for work in the morning. By 1917 California, Utah and Colorado have all criminalized marijuana on the fears that the drug made minorities insolent and violent.

Initially, Anslinger demurred when asked to involve the newly created FBN in an anti-marijuana campaign. In 1930 only a couple states were actively “combatting” a marijuana problem. Leading a new agency with very limited resources, Anslinger elected to focus on enforcing the laws already on the books.  However, by the mid 1930’s a supposed “national outcry” inspired Anslinger to a change of heart.  

This “national outcry” was in fact small but well organized. The period that will become known as “Reefer Madness”, really starts with Dr. Albert Emile Fossier MD of New Orleans.  Dr. Fossier delivered the paper “The Marihuana Menace” to the Louisiana State Medical Society April 14-16, 1931.  

Dr. Fossier did not try and hide his sense of racial superiority stating, 

The debasing and baneful influence of hashish and opium is not restricted to individuals but has manifested itself in nations and races as well.  The dominant race and most enlightened countries are alcoholic, whilst the races and nations addicted to hemp and opium, some of which once attained to heights of culture and civilization, have deteriorated both mentally and physically.

Anslinger recognized the opportunity and started seeding stories to his contacts in the newspapers, including those owned by Randolph Hearst. The stories, referred to as the “gore file”, were a compilation of the bloody consequences of using Marijuana. One racist theme to many of these newspaper stories, is black men on marijuana becoming emboldened to approach white women.  

Anslinger’s loathing of black culture extended to Jazz music and musicians. Between 1943-1948 Anslinger instructed his agents to gather information about Jazz musicians and entertainers with goal of rounding them all up in a splashy nationwide dragnet. Anslinger’s reported issue with Cannabis is its’ perceived time distortion effect, which he believed allowed jazz musicians to play more notes per measure. The thinking reflected the narrow, regimented thinking of a John Phillip Sousza fan. The plan was halted when Anslinger’s direct superior voiced his disapproval.


The hemp industry was already on the ropes by the time the Marihuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. In spite of prevailing orthodoxy, hemp is not the only source of cellulose, and research into cellulose based plastics did not end in 1937. In fact, DuPont, the inventor of nylon, was one of the nation’s largest consumers of cellulose when the “Marihuana Tax Act” was passed.  

The narrative of an “industrial conspiracy” is simply not supported by evidence.  Focusing on the “industrial conspiracy” devalues the real roll overt racism played in harnessing public opinion to governmental action. 

Laws are our most basic form of social control; however, laws that originate from a place of hatred and discrimination do not result in justice.

Written by Featured Writer: Dan Isenstein, Kentucky Hemp Highway

Edited by: Veronica Castillo

About Dan:

Dan has been writing about Cannabis since high school when he confronted the “Just Say ‘NO” decade in the classroom. While the topic matter might not have been politically popular, the muse served him well. Dan returned to this muse in graduate school where Cannabis culture was the focus of several in depth research projects. Recently, Dan started a You Tube channel: Hemp Highway of Kentucky, and has signed a book contract with Arcadia Publishing, for volume inspired by his research along the Hemp Highway of Kentucky.

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