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Mexicans and Marijuana PDF Print E-mail
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Books - Drugs and Minority Oppression
Written by John Helmer   

Marijuana was effectively outlawed as a matter of national policy in 1937 when Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act.1 Although it had been written into draft versions of the Harrison Act 23 years earlier, it was omitted in the final version and then dropped more or less out of sight—and out of federal mind—until the early 1930s. For instance, during the twenties medical and police officials in New Orleans, anx-ious for information about the drug, were told by federal agencies that they had none to provide.2

A number of Western states did pass antimarijuana statutes in the mid- 1920s, and where none existed, various laws on the books were adapted for the purpose.3 Users could be arrested in some places and charged with disorderly conduct, and in Illinois sellers of the drug were prosecuted under a statute dealing with the sale of tobacco substitutes.4

By and large, though, the authorities were not concerned with mari-juana at the time, especially since in the first flush of Prohibition, after the Volstead Act of 1919, there was so much else to be concerned about. In 1932 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics reported that marijua-na was being used by Mexicans in the Southwest and West, but it mini-mized the extent to which this should have caused alarm. The bureau's commissioner, H. J. Anslinger, recalling his policy in the early thirties, told an interviewer that marijuana was a minor problem compared to heroin and that its use was confined to the Southwest—"we didn't see it here in the East at all at that time."3 Still, in 1935 Anslinger decided to back new federal legislation against the drug, and by 1936 he was testifying to its menace nationwide.

The policy switch has been variously interpreted as a power play by Anslinger to improve his own image while at the same time, improving the public standing of his agency vis-à-vis J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.6 In addition it was a response to growing political pressure from the Southwest to put a federal ban of marijuana on the books and federal agents in the field. Anslinger has indicated that this pressure originally came from the local police, then the state governors, from them to the Secretary of the Treasury, and from his office to Anslinger's bureau.7

According to accounts of the legislation by Musto and by Bonnie and Whitebread, it was the Mexicans who were the root cause of local concern. Both quote an illustration of this from among Anslinger's testimony at the hearings on the Marihuana Tax Act, a letter from the editor of the Daily Courier in Alamosa, Colorado, written in 1936:

Is there any assistance your Bureau can give us in handling this drug? Can you suggest campaigns? Can you enlarge your Department to deal with marihuana? Can you do anything to help us?

I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons. . . .

While marihuana has figured in the greatest number of crimes in the past few years, officials fear it, not for what it has done, but for what it is capable of doing. They want to check it before an outbreak does occur.
Through representatives of civic leaders and law officers of the San Luis Valley, I have been asked to write to you for help.9

In April 1930 the population of Alamosa County was 8,602; according to the census it had risen to 10,484 by 1940.9 In 1930 the Spanish-speaking part of this (almost entirely Mexicans) was 507—that is, less than 6 percent of the total.

This is hardly the majority implied by the letter-writer, unless he was talking about large numbers of transient workers who moved in at the peak of the harvesting season. But even then, they would not have increased the total more than once over, and at a thousand the Mexicans would still have been outnumbered by more than seven to one.1° Of course, to a predominantly American-born rural community of north European origins, the annual migration of Mexican labor might have seemed like a deluge.11 Like dozens of communities in Colorado and the neighboring states, though, Alamosa for over 10 years had depended on the Mexicans for most of their field labor and maintenance and construction work. But at the low wages they were paying the farmers were prepared to stomach the unpleasantness of having Mexicans around and to tolerate whatever "trouble" they might cause.

Why the change of mind, then? Why was marijuana viewed so seriously in 1930 but not before? What benefit to Alamosa did federal legislation against the drug offer? As it turned out, in the first three years of enforcement of the act, federal agents made 2,528 arrests.° That is not many for a problem described as national in extent, and not all of them could possibly have involved Mexicans.° There is no record of how many arrests were made in Alamosa, yet by 1940 the number of Mexicans in the county had dwindled to eight."

No one can say whether the drug law and stepped-up enforcement started the exodus, merely helped it along, or did not affect it at all. We will see that in counties where the record is clearer, the marijuana law was only one of many instruments used by state authorities to deal with the "Mexican problem," and it was not the most effective one. But only on the surface was the problem one of drug-inspired crime. At bottom it was an economic problem, for what changed the attitude toward marijuana from benign neglect to anxiety for law and order was the unemployment crisis of the Depression. This is what made the people of Alamosa think that 507 were too many Mexicans for the county's health and that customs which the laborers had brought with them and which had been overlooked in the past, such as smoking marijuana, were now a serious threat to the community.

Public concern about marijuana grew because Americans wanted to drive the Mexicans back over the border, for reasons which had nothing to do with the nature of the drug or its psychological effects. All the same, a theory about the evils of the drug—linking its use and supply to being Mexican—was invented with the results that hostility toward the Mexicans began to seem a little more reasonable and public policy to remove them that much more acceptable.

There were those whose beliefs about the dangers of marijuana were formed independently of any contact with Mexicans or prejudice toward them.° In the history of Anglo-Mexican relations during this period, drugs have only a small place, but in the history we are considering—the history of drug use and policy in America—the problem of Mexican labor and the unemployed surplus after 1928 is the key factor in determining what became public policy and ultimately the law on marijuana we still live with.

To show this, it is not important whether exactly the same people who believed the worst about marijuana were also caught up with the Mexicans in the economic crisis, just as it is fruitless to try to prove that Alamosa got rid of its Mexican population by booking them on drug charges. Had it not been for the Depression, marijuana would have remained part of the hostile stereotype of Mexican behavior with-out there being too much public concern about it. What then happened differed from place to place, depending not so much on how prevalent marijuana use was, but on how the economic crisis affected the local population. This is the sense in which it can be said that the ideology of narcotics grew out of the condition of the working class at the time and that it served to bolster the interests of certain social groups against others in an episode marked by the sharpest class conflict in our history .16

World War I, which had recruited blacks for industrial labor in the urban North, also drew a large number of Mexicans into the United States for the first time.

During the Mexican revolutionary period beginning around 1909, there was a substantial increase in the recorded inflow across the bor-der, but as refugees who felt threatened by the revolution, they were more middle- or upper-class in background than were the immigrants of the later period, who were mostly rural peasants unable to gain a liv-ing from the land.17

Tfie war cut off the flow of European immigrants, and farmers and planters in the West were unable to compete with the North for black labor. The white work force available for agricultural work was deplet-ed by enlistments, the draft, and the high-wage condition of the war in-dustries, and, as we saw, the yellow work force had been effectively limited 30 years earlier. The alternative, short of allowing wage rates to rise, was to import Mexican labor.18 This began in earnest in 1918, with the sugar beet companies taking the initiative. As a result of their pres-sure the federal contract-labor laws which had prohibited direct re-cruitment of labor in Mexico were suspended, at first for farm work and then shortly after for railroad maintenance and mining.19

There was a great influx of immigrants from Europe immediately af-ter the war. Largely because of the social conflict and economic dis-location in the aftermath of the war, Congress decided to introduce an immigration quota in 1921. Permanent legislation to this effect was passed in 1924, but because of pressure from the Mexican government and employers in the Southwest, Mexico was not among the nations limited.

That year, 1924, was the peak for Mexican immigration; 105,000 were recorded coming in and only 3,572 going out. The following year was also much heavier than immigration experts had predicted when the quotas were being drawn up, and the first of a series of attempts to restrict the immigration was introduced in the United States Senate. This had the support of American Federation of Labor locals in Cali-. fornia and throughout the Southwest, although not until 1928 did the AFL national convention support restriction. Other groups in favor of the Mexican quota included the American Legion, schoolteachers, small independent farmers, and a variety of nativist patriotic organizations."

Opposed to the quota were steadily expanding California farm inter-ests in Washington, including the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, railroad and mine employer groups, and at the national level, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Grange.21 Nothing illustrates so succinctly the class con-flict latent in this issue as does the lineup here. Employers were suc-cessful until the end of the 1920s in blocking Congressional action, but the situation after 1930 led to a more local pattern of action in which employers and labor were aligned differently.

In the decade 1920-30 nearly 90 percent of all the Mexicans in the United States were in four states–Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Texas, which had just over half in 1920, just under half in 1930, had a 78 percent increase over the decade. California received fewer Mexicans, but the percentage increase was much greater-200 percent. The totals in 1930 were Texas, 683,681 (11.7 percent of the state) and California, 368,013 (6.5 percent).22

A survey of crime and delinquency among Mexicans in Texas, writ-ten in 1930, concluded that they "show delinquent tendencies less than their proportion of the population would entitle them to show."23 Most of the figures obtained on arrests, court appearances, and prison popu-lations were for 1929, a year of labor scarcity in the state; they covered rural and urban counties, including San Antonio, the largest Mexican center in the country after Los Angeles.

The author of that survey referred to the belief, common at that time, that Mexicans committed the bulk of the state's crimes:

In no instance have I found this impression borne out by a study of the facts. This does not mean that the magistrates were willing-ly perverting the facts in order to make out a case against the Mexicans or that they were prejudiced against the Mexicans. The explanation is very much simpler; it lies in the domain of that psy-chological fact that the stranger is conspicuous and the conspicu-ous is remembered.24

Among the crimes singled out for special comment, the use of knives in assaults was the commonest, but this was treated as an almost inevi-table outcome of the clash between the Mexican custom of carrying a knife, and the American code. "They live in a certain stage . . . where the community has not evoluted [sic] out of the stage of fighting with a knife to fighting with a gun."25 To correct popular misconceptions, several other cultural peculiarities of the Mexicans were noted and ex-plained, but there was no mention of the use of marijuana.

Southwest of San Antonio, in Dimmit County, a farming area of on-ions and spinach, investigators looked at charges against Mexicans in 1928-29. There, also, there was no indication of drug use. The single most frequent charge was card-playing. "The extent of law violations by Mexicans in Dimmit County is inconsequential."26

A survey by Paul S. Taylor, this one of the South Platte Valley in northeast Colorado (at the opposite end of the state from Alamosa), turned up no mention of marijuana in the criminal statistics for the 1925-27 period.27 This was primarily a sugar beet area. Most arrests of Mexicans took place among the migratory workers during the growing season. Typical offenses were violating the liquor laws or disturbing thé peace. After checking popular opinion about the "lawlessness" of Mexicans against the records, Taylor reported:

The extent to which Mexicans violate our laws appears to be mag-nified unduly not only by the northeastern Colorado community but even by the officers who handle the Mexican offenders. Ex-amination of the books of one officer who vigorously denounced the criminal quality of Mexicans showed only 40 percent of the proportion of Mexican arrests which he said emphatically his rec-ords would show. In another county the percentage shown by the records was only 16 percent of the a priori asserted propor-tion of cases.28


In California, 1923 was the last year that overall demand for farm labor exceeded the supply. Table 4-1 illustrates the movement of these forces from the end of World War I through 1930, when the effects of the Depression on labor supply were reflected in the largest surplus re-corded for the period. By 1930 the state's agricultural employers were still insisting that an unrestricted flow of Mexican immigrants was essential to the continued development of the farming industry and to the stability of commodity prices.30 The governor's Mexican fact-finding committee, reviewing labor needs for crop production, stated that the industry was dependent on Mexican labor and by implication ruled out any alternative course of economic development without that labor base. But if, as the Table shows, there was a surplus of labor, how could it be said that without more Mexicans the farmers would be ruined? What possible damage could have been done by limiting the inflow of Mexicans as proposed in the quota legislation? Evidently there was a "shortage" of labor in the eyes of farm employers whenever a large unemployed reserve did not exist—why?

The answer is that the profitability of California's crops did not really depend on the Mexicans and would hardly have been affected had none been available. The profitability of investment in agricultural land did, however, depend on the cheap labor supply the Mexicans offered and on their stocking a permanent reserve of unemployment. To explain this even partially, I must mention the state of farming in California if the class interests that formed around the Mexican issue and marijuana prohibition are to be understood.

The Mexicans were the unwitting and unfortunate instrument of large-scale, corporate agriculture and the land-owning (as distinct from the farming) interests of the state. Through the AFL, union labor was undoubtedly correct in seeing them as an economic threat but tragically shortsighted in missing the more fundamental danger. Corporate agriculture was using the imported labor force not just to depress rural wage levels and lower unit costs in the short run but to finish off those traditional American ideals, the owner-operated family farm and the community of small but independent landowners, ideals that were already in a precarious economic position before the Depression.

Many urban wage-earners in California at the time still aspired to buy into such farms. Consequently, for a while at least, they potentially shared a common interest with the small farmers in the effect of cheap labor upon the price and availability of farmland. But this was not consciously apparent to either side. Only with the intensification of unemployment and the business losses of the thirties did they make a concrete, concerted effort at self-protection. Only then it was the Mexicans who bore the brunt of their aggressive campaign, and by then it was too late to save the small farmers. Getting rid of the Mexicans was a hopeless panacea for the job-hungry urban and native labor force. The passion and race hatred that surfaced in the anti-Mexican campaign glossed over the unreality of their economic and social analysis, and at this point in the story, marijuana reappears.

Let us return to the California farmyard. Only twice since 1870, and then only for very brief periods, had California been without an abundant labor supply rperuited from immigrants whose low standard of living at home made them available for seasonal employment at low wages. Although the farm operators did not, by and large, resist the exclusion of the Chinese in the period just before 1882, they later organized to stop expulsion of the Chinese already working in the state. But the number of Chinese gradually declined over the next decade, and the depression in nonagricultural industry in the 1890s released a white labor surplus to continue to serve the farmers' needs. This number, too, diminished as the general economy improved, and Japanese immigration was encouraged to fill the rural labor reserve again. Another labor emergency did not occur until World War I, when it became the turn of the Mexicans, and secondarily the Filipinos, to head it off.

Five decades of cheap labor had permitted land values to rise rapidly and speculatively on the expectation of the high profits to be earned as long as such a labor supply continued to be abundant. The high price of land discouraged the small operator from buying his own farm and stimulated the conditions for tenant farming, absentee ownership, and instability and a high turnover among the operators.

In the Imperial Valley, for example, which produced a variety of truck crops, melons, and cotton, Taylor found that tenancy had risen from 31.8 percent of farms cropped in 1910 to 46.7 percent in 1925 and was continuing to rise. In the same period tenancy throughout the state had declined from an overall 20.6 percent to 14.7 percent. These were some of the consequences:

Loans on real estate are not made for more than three years, and generally for less, because of the unsettled water conditions. Much of the land of the valley is held by absentee owners who bought out the early settlers, and hold now for increase in values attendant upon settlement of these water questions; or who pre-fer the high cost rentals paid by the growers of truck crops to farming for themselves. Under these conditions a class of land-owning, working farmers cannot arise. . . . The idea of making a stake and moving out seems to dominate not only growers and farmers and white farm laborers, but also much of the rest of the community.31

Such an economic structure was threatened particularly by wage-bargaining, stimulated either by farmers outbidding each other to at-tract work gangs in times of scarcity or by union organization among rural laborers themselves. To obviate the first possibility, growers' as-sociations in the valley and throughout the state sought to fix and stan-dardize wage rates each year. Though the practice could not be made to stick in the year of greatest labor shortage, 1923, it was quite firmly established thereafter.32

Equally threatening was pressure from the labor force to own land or conduct farming itself. A decade earlier, the Japanese had tended to desert contract laboring and establish their own farming enterprises, but this was blocked by legislation in 1913, prohibiting them from own-ing land or operating farms. These were threats because they promised both to reduce the size of the available labor reserve and to mobilize the Japanese element of this reserve in cooperative formations which did not share the interests of either the existing landowners or the growers.33

Mexicans were especially favored by farm employers in the early 1920s because they showed little inclination or capacity for indepen-dent farming operations. In 1927 Taylor found "no indication that Mexicans, old or young, are moving toward ownership of the land which they till"; "the movement toward ownership of town lots is not taken as an occasion for alarm, for the owners remain ranch laborers and tend to stabilize the labor supply rather than to enter the field as competing growers. "34

Actually, the growers preferred the Mexicans to remain mobile and migratory, for this meant they had only a limited period of contact with them. If the Mexicans moved back across the border for the slack win-ter season or into one of the larger cities such as Los Angeles, so much the better. Communal responsibility for their welfare would fall else-where. It would also mean that the workers would bear a larger share of their own housing and upkeep during the harvest season and the growers a smaller share. A spokesman for the farm employer interests told a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in 1928 that if "we should be forced to maintain our labor when it is idle we would be forced out of business."35

So long as the Mexicans continued to pour across the border looking for work, so long as they accepted the wages offered by the growers and threatened neither the growers' interests by seeking farms for themselves nor the county budgets by spending the unemployed time of the year on the dole or as charity cases, they were little cause for concern in the farming areas. Crimes which they committed were not considered especially noteworthy. According to a survey of Imperial County in 1927, "the record of law observance among Mexicans . . . is distinctly favorable to them."36 Also, as in the rural areas of Texas and Colorado, there was no mention of marijuana use.37

Clearly what threatened these areas a good deal more was anything that might disrupt the precarious stability of the tenant growers' eco-nomic position or the speculative prospects of the landowners. The most serious threat of this kind came from unionism. When incipient labor organizations among the Mexicans led to agitation and strikes, such activities were punished under California law as felonies.

Cooperative and mutual aid associations had been important in hold-ing each of the rural labor forces together ever since the first Chinese laborers arrived in California. As labor organizations, they contained two very different tendencies. One was that the organization moved in the direction of enriching itself at the expense of its members; the oth-er was that it sought to improve the price of labor in the market and thereby aimed at serving the welfare of the membership. Among the Chinese the second tendency was generally less common than the first. Although the record shows the existence of a number of union organi-zations—that is, labor groups recruited apart from the tongs, including one for agricultural workers formed in 1919—their numbers were small, and their efforts were successfully disrupted by police arrests and employer tactics.38

Among the Japanese there was an extensive network of associations which were typically of the trade guild rather than the union type. They existed to improve the market position of independent farm producers and fishermen. There is no record of unions among the rural laborers, although their wage position was somewhat protected by strong kin ties between the crew and their contractor or boss, who could be generally relied on to negotiate terms in the interest of the crew rather than his own profit."

A number of factors reduced the amount of social cohesion among the Mexican laborers and inhibited the development of either this kind of labor unit, or the classic union.° Still, mutual aid societies did develop and quite early; the first was in the Imperial Valley, Sociedad Mutualista Benito Juarez, which was established in 1919. These confined themselves pretty much to providing medical insurance and a minimal level of social security. They did not acquire the capital for financing the business enterprises of their members, as the rotating credit associations among Chinese and Japanese were able to do.41-

Out of the Benito Juarez Mutual Society, the first labor union in Imperial Valley—and one of the first in the state42—established itself just before the picking season for melons began in 1928. The immediate objectives were to raise the wages set by the growers and improve working conditions. A strike began, which led immediately to widespread arrests of Mexicans and retaliation by the growers. The local sheriff threatened the strikers with deportation, and it was widely circulated that the strike was the work of communist agitators from Mexico City." The outcome was mixed. Some revisions were made in the picking contracts, but they did not nearly satisfy the strikers' demands; some growers decided to pay the 15 cents per standard crate demanded, but since others refused to deal with the union, the unity of the growers' wage policy was broken. Finally, a large number of the arrested laborers pleaded guilty to charges in return for suspended Isen - tences, a couple of leaders were deported, and the remainder had their cases dismissed before trial.

These events revealed for the first time a potential for militancy and union discipline among the Mexicans, which had not been recognized before by the farm employers. Until 1928 the common opinion was this one, from a field man for a large cantaloupe- and lettuce-grower:

Mexicans are very satisfactory, and they offer no disciplinary problem, but require constant supervision and driving. Mexican laborers do not possess initiative, but that's no criticism of them from our point of view. They do with good grace what we tell them to do, and we don't have to be too particular about the way we tell them."44

At this time, then, union organization, agitation, and strikes were evidently the real crimes in rural California and not the carrying of knives, fights, prohibition violations, nor, finally, the use of marijuana, of which we have found so little evidence so far. Wage-bargaining of any kind was tantamount to a crime because it was felt that a competitive situation would push both wages and rents up, increase output or decrease sales, and either way push commodity prices down. Although Fuller estimated that truck crop producers could withstand such destabilizing forces and still show a healthy return, the short-term orientation of the tenant growers was a strong inhibition to adjustment or change, the economics of which might not have been disadvantageous over the long run. 45 But they were not prepared to wait that long.

The landowners stood to gain neither soon nor in the distant future, for the value of their investment had been based on the profits from employing cheap labor in the past and on the expectation that this would continue. Neither tenants paying rents, figured on the same basis, nor owners having just bought in at artificially high prices, could afford to pay competitive wages. If they were successfully forced, there would have been a concomitant downward pressure on rents and a decapitalization of land values, which, of course, would be a potential catastrophe for the speculative investor."

Local police and courts were highly responsive to the possibility of such threats from the Mexicans. It was not a labor surplus now that constituted the threat, as it was during the opium period in 1880. Quite the contrary, a surplus was just what the employers wanted. As the surplus increased in the late twenties (Table 4-1), the Mexicans became more convinced of the need for collective and militant action to protect themselves.

The 1928 cantaloupe strike in the Imperial Valley was followed by another a year later. In April 1930, as the Depression was felt in earnest, a series of police raids were made in the valley, netting 103 arrests "in anticipation of the coming opening of the cantaloupe season."47 Altogether, 32 strikes or attempted strikes were initiated by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union between 1932 and early 1934. The union itself had grown out of a strike of lettuce workers in the Imperial Valley in January 1930.

In each case the response of the growers and county authorities was much the same. A strike was criminal syndicalism. Preaching anarchism was an indictable offense. Anything that smacked of communism was grounds for arrest under a variety of state laws. I have already noted the arrest of laborers in anticipation of a strike. It was commonplace for the county sheriff to arrest union leaders at the be-ginning of an agitation or while negotiations with growers were still taking place. Growers frequently organized vigilante gangs to break up picket lines, which were sometimes deputized by the sheriffs. At least three Mexican strikers were shot dead, and more than 20 were wound-ed during one of the worst strikes, the San Joaquin cotton strike of 1933.

I mentioned above that during the 1928 strike the Mexicans were threatened with deportation. This threat was frequently used in the years following. With or without the connivance of federal immigra-tion officials, notices were posted, advising the laborers that joining a union or striking were against the law and would result in deportation. But this was actually a bluff, for the growers never intended to support the mass repatriations of Mexicans that were soon put into practice by several cities and backed by the urban labor unions. The growers also continued to block any legislative efforts to impose a quota system on the immigrants.

In other words, the growers were content to maintain the surplus condition at the same time that they sought to remove the individual "communists" they considered responsible for the labor agitation. The growers' policy was to avoid an intensive, unrestricted campaign against the workers or against Mexican "criminality" of the kind that was common in the cities. Instead, they made a variety of threats—of deportation and violence—to bluff the labor reserve into docility, and ignored their "criminality" to the extent that it did not impinge on the economic conflict. It should be emphasized, therefore, that if the Mex-ican laborer used to smoke marijuana with his friends after a day's work in the fields, as had long been the custom in the rural provinces of Mexico, the California county authorities were either unaware of it or essentially unworried by it.

Such was not the case in a city like Los Angeles, where an altogether different pattern of economic and social conflict produced a markedly different policy toward use of the drug.

Los Angeles is the one American city in which arrests of Mexicans for smoking marijuana were strongly in evidence in the early thirties. Joseph F. Taylor, the city's chief of detectives, is reported to have said that "marihuana is probably the most dangerous of all our narcotic drugs." The reason, according to him, was that "in the past we have had officers of this department shot and killed by marihuana addicts and have traced the act of murder directly to the influence of marihua-na, with no other motive."48

An early report from the Missionary Education Movement made the following claim:

The use of marihuana is not uncommon in the colonies of the lower class of Mexican immigrants. This is a native drug made from what is sometimes called the "crazy weed." The effects are high exhilaration and intoxication, followed by extreme depres-sion and broken nerves. [Police] officers and Mexicans both as-cribe many of the moral irregularities of Mexicans to the effect of marihuana.42

In 1931 a report on "the trend of drug addiction" by the California State Narcotic Committee published statistics on drug-related offenses for the state and for San Francisco and Los Angeles. It concluded that marijuana use was "widespread throughout southern California among the Mexican population there."5° It was also reported that in addition to its being grown in the state itself , "recent seizures . . . at the sea-board indicate that it is being smuggled into California on fruit boats from South America."51.

Table 4-2 indicates that the marijuana problem was relatively minor in San Francisco and the state as a whole, but that it was concentrated in Los Angeles. Table 4-3 confirms the preponderance of Mexicans among drug offenders in Los Angeles.

In 1930 Mexicans in Los Angeles numbered just over 97,000. This was the largest concentration in the state (26.4 percent of the total Mexican population in the state), although it still represented less than 8 percent of the city's total. The actual number of Mexican drug arrests was small, but, comparing their proportion to the relative size of the Mexican population as a whole, it is clear why it was popularly be-lieved that marijuana was a Mexican problem.

Mexicans were especially visible in the city, for although during the 1920s Los Angeles had been the fastest-growing city in the country (115 percent total population growth), the Mexican increase was nearly twice that (226 percent).52 Together with the Japanese, they held 9.5 percent of all occupations in the city in 1930, but they were visibly con-centrated in unskilled construction work (38 percent) and menial ser-vice (47 percent). Consequently, their average wage rates were the low-est in the city (less than 50 cents an hour), their level of housing and san-itation extremely poor, and their standard of health much worse than the Anglo norm or the annual county averages.53



'The diseases to which the Mexicans were most susceptible were respiratory ones. While between 1920 and 1929 the case rate for tuberculosis in Los Angeles county fell by 4 percent, the rate for Mexicans rose sharply.54 In 1929 they represented 20 percent of all deaths from the disease; in 1921 only 14.5 percent. A detailed study made in 1926 by the County Charities Department found Mexicans disproportionately represented on the relief rolls, and of the total tuberculosis cases handled by the agency, nearly 40 percent were Mexican.55

Influenza, diphtheria, and pneumonia were also common, as has come to be expected in a working-class environment. In 1924 the last of these reached epidemic proportions and required emergency assistance from other parts of the country.56 As the evidence in Chapter 3 might lead us to anticipate, patent medicines may have been the only resort for the Mexicans. Indeed, McCombs indicates that "drugstores report very large sales of patent remedies which are taboo by most informed people. "57 That cannabis was an ingredient in traditional peasant cures and therefore was demanded by Mexicans in Los Angeles for medical remedies seems only reasonable.


These, then, were the elements of the "Mexican problem" as Los Angeles experienced it in the twenties. Table 4-4 provides a summary of the arrest statistics for Mexicans and all other nationalities for 1926-27. It is clear that for most offense categories and for all arrests counted together, the Mexican proportion is somewhat larger than their proportion in the total urban population.

For several reasons this does not amount to an open-and-shut case for the distinctive criminality of the Mexicans. One is that the Mexican population was more concentrated in the 18-65 age range than was the total population. A more valid comparison is between the 11.8 percent Mexican arrests and the proportion of Mexicans to the the total population between these age limits. It is likely to have been larger than 7.8 percent, which represents the unadjusted population ratio.

Another reason is that the tabulations lump together all offenses in a single category. Thus there is no way of judging whether Detective Taylor's claim about the link between marijuana (and hence, Mexican nationality) and homicide was true. Homicides would be included among offenses against the person, but so would charges of assault with a deadly weapon; since Mexicans often carried knives, the latter charge was a common one.

The records of the Los Angeles County coroner indicate that the homicide rate (per 100,000 population) was in general falling during the 1920s. Although it never climbed back to the 1921 peak, there was a slight increase between 1928 and 1934.58 There is no evidence on the race or place of birth of those charged or convicted of murder, except what was provided by officials to the nine-city survey carried out for the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. This evidence was published before the 1930 census population estimates were available, so rates expressed as number of persons charged per 100,000 of population of the same class and 15 years or over exaggerat-ed the situation, particularly for Mexicans and blacks whose numbers rapidly increased in the cities surveyed. Adjustment for these shifts brings the Mexican rate almost to the Italian one and significantly under the black rate. This applies to all nine cities together and is not specific to Los Angeles.

Recordkeeping for many offenses did not really begin in the city until 1931, but it is possible to determine that the burglary rate fell continuously from 1921 to 1929, when it started to rise again (although not steeply), and the robbery rate rose in the first half of the decade and fell in the second, beginning another rise in 1929.59 Changes in racial and ethnic classifications applied to police records limit the comparisons that can be made for these and juvenile offenses. Compared with whites, including Mexicans, blacks showed the highest juvenile arrest rates for every year of the decade; however, for the one year in which a rate for Mexicans can be estimated, 1931, it appears to have been lower than that of whites, blacks, and all others.69

In short, the typical marijuana user in Los Angeles at the time was Mexican, although official action against him did not actually step up until late 1929. Any relationship between use of the drug and other crimes committed by Mexicans remains hypothetical, but drug-related homicide involving Mexicans could not have been more frequent than drug-free Anglo homicide, and was probably less common than black homicide, with or without drugs. Most offenses for which Mexicans were arrested were for disturbing the peace or vagrancy (65.3 percent). This was also true in Stockton and San Francisco, where recorded marijuana use was negligible.61

Of course, the figures we rely on are only of arrests. They indicate only what the police did, not what the Mexicans were doing or the extent to which this varied from the police interpretation of the law.The one group of offenses in Table 4-4 for which the Mexican percentage was greatest is called "offenses against the administration of government." These included "criminal syndicalism" and picketing, which were becoming more and more common by 1930. These were political crimes, in the sense that the offenders were challenging the legitimacy of the system under whose rules they were charged and convicted.

In Los Angeles the union movement among Mexicans made several notable organizational gains. The Confederacion de Uniones Obreras Mexicanas was founded there late in 1927 and rapidly built up a membership of 2,000 to 3,000. Strongly influenced in doctrine by IWW principles and committed to a vision of "class struggle in order to effect an economic and moral betterment of its conditions, and at last its complete freedom from capitalistic tyranny," the union leaders may well have been exposed to arrest from the beginning.62

Disturbing the peace was a catchall term for the Los Angeles police. Stockton police preferred to hold Mexicans for investigation without lodging charges, then release them after a day or two in jail." Taylor concluded "that Mexicans in the United States, both aliens and citizens, are frequently subjected to severe and unequal treatment by those who administer the laws."" But racism and prejudice are not the end of the story, for the pattern of enforcement of the law against the Mexicans must be understood as an essential ingredient of public policy toward their very existence in the city.

Marijuana enforcement, like enforcement of the vagrancy laws, the antiunion provisions, or the virtual suspension of habeas corpus, began to gather momentum in the late 1920s, and intensified with the deterioration of economic conditions and the onset of the Depression. What is vagrancy if not the "crime" of being unemployed and without economic means? As the Depression hit the city's industry, Mexican unemployment was nearly twice the rate of the native whites, 13.1 percent as compared with 7.2 percent."

The unemployed Anglos sought agricultural work, only to find themselves in competition with Mexicans whose numbers were continuing to increase. And, of course, few Anglos had ever worked at Mexican wage levels. Therefore it seemed to them that their only relief lay in getting rid of the Mexicans. This view found support in the county administration, though for other reasons. The county faced a major budgetary crisis in having to finance burgeoning numbers of unemployed seeking to enroll for relief payments. It was then discovered that shipping Mexicans across the border was much cheaper than maintaining them on welfare, so a plan for mass repatriations took shape. In addition to the support of the Anglo working class and the AFL, the repatriation plan was backed, for different reasons again, by the urban employer interests and many of the growers. Dr. George Clements, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, asserted that "the Mexican on relief is being unionized and is being used to foment strikes among the few still loyal Mexican workers. The Mexican casual labor is lost to the Californian farmer unless immediate action is taken to get him off relief.""

At first, the vagrancy laws were used to break up urban concentrations of the unemployed, with jail sentences traded for removal to the fields. In an effort to break strikes, it was not unusual for county authorities in league with employers to threaten sending into strike areas batches of Mexicans on the welfare rolls." In February 1931, however, the repatriation effort began on a large scale in Los Angeles, when the first trainload was dispatched to Mexico City. Similar shipments continued at a rate of about one a month for several years. Los Angeles alone repatriated 11,000 in 1932." According to Mexican sta-tistics, between 1931 and 1932 over 200,000 returned voluntarily or un-der duress from the United States."

On a single trainload, it has been estimated, the Los Angeles County budget was saved nearly $350,000 in welfare costs." To city officials this was more economical than earlier "work fare" expedients. It was also more effective than the policy of threat and intimidation carried out by law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, to the growers, it may not have seemed so effective, for the repatriation campaign did not re-duce the level of union strife, which increased as the thirties wore on. On the other hand, it depleted the labor reserve which they had wanted all along to maintain. In one sense the campaign backfired, for, by re-ducing the total labor pool, it strengthened the bargaining hand of the organized labor that remained. (Their locals, incidentally, had for a long time advocated an incentive scheme for voluntary repatriation, as well as legal measures on the part of the Mexican government to "ob-struct and discourage all further immigration of Mexicans into the United States.")71

The context in which the state marijuana laws were enforced in Los ;:t Angeles should now be clear. Jail on drug or other charges, or repatria-tion by force or choice—these were the methods adopted for reducing the Mexican labor surplus in the city where surplus, and not scarcity as in the rural areas, was the fundamental economic threat. The situation was thus similar to the opium and Chinese exclusion campaign 50 years earlier. Then as now, the use of a "narcotic" drug" was one of many personal and social vices of the target group; Mexicans were lazy, dir-ty, promiscuous, violent, subintelligent, criminal, anarchistic, commu-nistic—and intoxicated with marijuana.

The intoxication with marijuana was important only insofar as it was part of the overall, hostile stereotype of the Mexicans. It reflected, at the same time it was designed to justify, a drawing of the lines of eco-nomic conflict. Where there was conflict between the classes, as in the agricultural counties, the marijuana issue was so marginal as to be al-most unheard of. The growers focused on the anarchistic-communistic elements of the stereotype, but they did not need even these as argu-ments to mobilize the police and other agencies of state power for their own defense.

In Los Angeles, as in several northern cities, the lines of conflict over employment were drawn essentially along ethnic lines within the working class--between Mexicans and Italians, Mexicans and Poles (Chicago), or Irish and Greeks (New York, Detroit, etc.). This was a struggle for a diminishing number of jobs in the unskilled sector and at declining wage standards. Although some of the older, established ethnic groups were strongly represented in the police and even on the magistrates' bench and could implement a rough version of their feel-ings toward the Mexicans, for this to become public policy required a broader mobilization of community groups, one that carried authorita-tiveness and legitimacy in public opinion. What was needed was some sort of basis for a broad coalition of anti-Mexican forces, and the racial stereotype and ideology of marijuana provided exactly that.

As small a problem as the use of marijuana really was, it was im-material beside the importance of the "Mexican problem." Once launched, the ideology of marijuana grew independently of the original concern in a way that produced several historical quirks. New Orleans is an interesting illustration of this and one that had an unusual bearing on national prohibition of the drug.

In the early 1930s, a number of New Orleans city officials were in-strumental in producing several of the earliest "scientific" papers on the drug and its effects, references to which used to keep cropping up as the federal government launched its campaign to get the Marihuana Tax Act bill passed. One was written by the New Orleans prosecuting attorney who called it unambiguously, "Marihuana as a Developer of Criminals."" The article was cited in a 1933 Utah case, State v. Navaro, in which it was adopted as substantiation for the judgment that the drug produced crime and insanity. It appeared again among the references advanced by supporters of the Marihuana Tax Act bill dur-ing hearings on the measure."

Another highly influential document represented a joint effort by a group including the county (parish) coroner, the district attorney, the commissioner of public safety, and the assistant city chemist.75 This pa-per, written by a doctor in private practice and presented to the Louisi-ana State Medical Society, along with comments from the other group members, attempted to buttress the connection between drug use and crime with some neurological guesswork and a rather fanciful con-struction of social Darwinian ideas. According to the New Orleans cor-oner, Dr. George Roeling,

this marihuana drug stimulates the cortical cerebral centers and inhibits the controlling sub-cortical centers of our mechanism which is responsible for . . . the bolstering up of their courage and the various phenomena which will eventually . . . lead them into the most crime-producing individuals that we have."

Dr. Fossier supplied the framework, not only for identifying a racial or ethnic distinction in the use of drugs, but also for judging the race of people who used them as distinctly inferior to Americans:

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.
Whilst it is most unfortunate for humanity to be subjugated by intoxicants or narcotics of any kind, which at this state of our civilization seems to be a necessary evil, the possible substitution of alcohol for a greater evil [marihuana] should be considered the greatest possible calamity that can befall a nation. It is not confined to the criminal class."

Most of the typical features of the ideology of opium have been taken over here holus-bolus. There is total obscurity as to what is meant by addiction and whether it differs as to marijuana, cocaine, and the other drugs. There is the hoary theory of victimization, "despite every precaution school children of tender age have been detected snioking muggles [marijuana]. "78 Finally, it is assumed that since adjudicated criminals smoke (are addicted to) marijuana, the drug causes them to act criminally. Only one of the discussants raised doubt about this; he was a doctor with experience in treating drug cases and not a city official:

all such addicts that we have seen were young persons, under twenty-five, who were defective in brain and nervous structure before they began smoking this weed. . . . They give a history of being incorrigible at home and at school, and as they grow into manhood become criminally inclined. . . . From what we have seen these smokers are criminals before they become addicted to the weed."

The coroner supplied data suggesting that out of 450 prisoners surveyed in the city prison, 125 were "confirmed marihuana addicts," and the district attorney produced figures claiming that in the year before, 1930, 17 out of 37 murderers and 21 out of 115 assault and robbery suspects were "addicts" of the drug. The police commissioner concluded that marijuana "should be put in the same class as heroin" and that only "gigantic enforcement (. . . that could only be accomplished by the [federal] Government)" would destroy the menace.° This view was incorporated in a resolution submitted to and passed by the Louisiana State Medical Society, requesting that marijuana be included under the terms of the Harrison Act and enforced by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The commissioner was later to write: "throughout the South, little addiction is found until you come to New Orleans."81

It is not clear why the New Orleans authorities felt they needed federal legislation and enforcement. Sale or possession of marijuana had been illegal under Louisiana law since 1924, and in 1928 the New Orleans police made 76 arrests on the charge (3.8 percent of all felony arrests). Three quarters of the offenders were native whites, nearly 16 percent were black, and 5.3 percent were listed as foreign-born whites.82

The effect of economic depression was generally to lift crime rates throughout the country. 83 The New Orleans authorities may have been conscious of the higher rates although blind to their structural causes. There is no telling how the figures quoted by Fossier were arrived at; today, few would be likely to blame marijuana use as producing the crime. Jesse Steiner, who surveyed crime in New Orleans for the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, did not specifically mention marijuana, but reported that as far as violations of the prohibition and narcotic laws were concerned, "the New Orleans police give little attention to these types of offenders.""

That was between 1928 and mid-1930. The role of marijuana crime appears to have been something of a discovery late in 1930 or early in 1931. Ten years before, both the governor of Louisiana and Dr. Oscar Dowling, the state's most important medical officer, had urged the U.S. surgeon general and the Federal Prohibition Commissioner to do something about the drug, because of a couple of incidents in which its use had been linked to a crime.85 By and large, however, crime, and especially homicide, were blamed on the Italians or blacks of New Orleans—on racial or ethnic characteristics—not on drugs."

Steiner shows that neither the Italians nor the remainder of the city's foreign-born whites were responsible for the proportion of the criminal arrests (1 percent) comparable to their proportion in the city population (in 1920, 6.7 percent). "It can be stated with reasonable assurance," he concluded, "that the foreign-born whites are the least criminal of the New Orleans population and the colored the most criminal, with the native-born standing somewhere between the two extremes."87

As we have seen, marijuana was generally identified with Mexicans but rarely, at that time, with blacks. This does not mean that in New Orleans blacks did not in fact use the drug. Remember that here we are talking about the ideology of marijuana and not the truth about its prev-alence. This ideology was stimulated by the New Orleans group who influenced the authors of papers in the next few years, including the one that characterized much medical and psychiatric opinion from then until quite recently." Mexicans, however, were not explicitly men-tioned by Fossier or his associates, although they may have been the ones meant in the reference to inferior races at the prealcohol stage of civilization.

The Mexicans were not a particularly visible group in New Orleans in 1931. A decade before, there had been 1,306, but unlike most of the places I have examined, this number fell in the 1930 census to 991. This was barely, two-tenths of 1 percent of the city total. The number of Ital-ians also dropped during the decade, and 25 percent of the statewide black population moved out, mostly to the North.89

So the propagation of racial or ethnic stereotypes to blame for crime or the deterioration of economic standards, which we have found to be common almost everywhere else in the country, was evidently too im-plausible to persuade the working class of New Orleans. Politically, blacks were no threat; they had been disenfranchised many years be-fore. To working-class whites, the greater economic threat seemed to come from big business in the city and the plantation owners outsicfe.

This was the period of the rise of Huey Long, whose major guber-natorial victory of 1928 reflected a sharp class antagonism toward the plantation interests, and a developing alliance between the urban work-ing class and the poor farmers." What Long offered them was a popu-list, protosocialist attack on the state's "vested interests," an ideology of "share our wealth" and "every man a king," and a largely egalitari-an economic program. His election and takeover of state policies radi-cally shifted the ideological climate in Louisiana leftward, with the re-sult that there was little enthusiasm for the kind of interethnic or anti-working-class conflict that spawned the marijuana myths elsewhere. In New Orleans' terms, therefore, "the marijuana menace" was an anomaly, an idea no one but the city authorities and some doctors would buy and a campaign which never achieved popular support.

Ironically, on the national scene this small New Orleans group of doctors had an influence out of all proportion to the strength or value of its case, for very little that could be regarded as legitimate scientific evidence of the harmfulness of marijuana had emerged from the West and Southwest as newspapers and legislatures in the region attempted to rationalize what was more often than not an open campaign against Mexican farm laborers. Typical was the debate in the Montana legislature when a bill banning nonmedical use of the drug was quickly pushed through early in 1929:

There was fun in the House Health Committee during the week when the Marihuana bill came up for consideration. Marihuana 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 out to execute all his political enemies. I understand that over in Butte where the Mexicans often go for the winter they stage imaginary bullfights in the "bower of Roses" or put on tournaments for the favor of "Spanish Rose" after a couple of whiffs of Marijuana.91

At the hearings on the Marihuana Tax Act bill, the Mexican connec-tion persisted in spite of efforts by Anslinger and other Narcotics Bu-reau witnesses to depict the dangers of the drug as national in scope and pervasive among the young. Thus one witness from the West re-iterated the older and limiting propaganda: "The Mexican laborers have brought seeds of this plant into Montana and it is fast becoming a terrible menace, particularly in the counties where sugarbeets are grown."92

Thé importance of the New Orleans papers was precisely that they initiated antimarijuana propaganda of a different source and type, no less credible on examination. They nevertheless added to the legitima-cy and refinement of an ideology that came out of the West and South-west too crudely formulated to justify federal action. In this manner they added to the political pressure on the federal government to enact new legislation over and above the existing provisions of state codes and of the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act passed three years before.

We see how a variety of conflicts, each in the local context the result of different alignments of social and economic forces, resulted in pres-sure, quantitatively roughly equal, to bring about a major policy change at the federal level. On the face of it, no one would guess that 507 Mexican laborers in Alamosa, Colorado or the price of land in Im-perial County, California or the Long vote in the "Irish channel" of New Orleans could have had so radical an effect, but to the extent that the marijuana episode was part of the deeper and longer course of class conflict in Depression America, this was indeed how and why it happened.


Our valuable member John Helmer has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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