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Thursday, September 11, 2014

California's War On Marijuana Began 100 Years Ago This Week

Posted By on Thu, Sep 11, 2014 at 11:38 AM

click image New High Street in Los Angeles, near the site of the state's first "marihuana" bust. - SKYSCRAPERPAGE.COM
  • New High Street in Los Angeles, near the site of the state's first "marihuana" bust.
Inspector Roy Jones was not California's first drug cop. When Jones walked the beat for the State Board of Pharmacy, the state had its hands full with opium. The raw stuff from which heroin would someday be made, opium was a big enough problem that federal agents made a scene of destroying with fire one batch of seized contraband on a public street in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Jones, however, has the distinction of conducting what is believed to be the state's first-ever raid on a crop of "Indian hemp." Jones busted two "dream gardens" containing $500 worth of the stuff in Sonoratown, a "Mexican colony" in Los Angeles. "Much used" by the local brown folks, the L.A. Times reported at the time, "marahuana" sold for $1 an ounce and gave "smokers pleasant sensations and hallucinations [that] sometimes lead to murder," like the shooting deaths of three people at a home nearby. 
That was 100 years ago this week, when California opened up its war on the marijuana plant, according to California NORML.

What's changed? For one, weed's prohibited status made it very popular. This led to many more Joneses, who punish the cannabis's users much more severely than their predecessor (who made no arrests, according to the Times). And then as now, Latinos are still the people most busted for reefer in California.

click image The opium fire in SF's Chinatown, 1914. - UC BERKELEY BANCROFT LIBRARY
  • UC Berkeley Bancroft Library
  • The opium fire in SF's Chinatown, 1914.
There may have been raids on Indian hemp, hashish, or marahuana before Jones's bust on a dusty street in what was then a sleepy afterthought to the rebuilding imperial city to the north. But perhaps not. The drug hadn't been illegal long before his raid on Sept. 8, 1914, having just been added to a list of dangerous narcotics the year before, and the L.A. Times account above is the oldest recorded instance of a raid discovered by NORML. They would know. 

Things were quiet on the weed war front for another decade. It wasn't until the 1920s and the jazz age that marijuana arrests reached the several hundreds, accounting for over 60 percent of all California drug arrests by 1930 (there were 878, total, statewide in that year).

Since then, of course, the country has steadily ratcheted up its war on certain drugs, mostly for political purposes. And it's worked, for some people: anti-drug politicians have racked up victories at the polls, and police departments have scored countless busts and countless more dollars, thanks to laws that allow cops to take for their departments money and property connected to drugs. And let's not forget the prisons!

The raid and the feelings in Jones's day can be attributed to ignorance with a healthy dose of racism. This was something used by nonwhite people. And if the authorities said it caused happy feelings followed by homicidal rages, who were we to question them? 

Now, of course, it's different. Most Americans today recognize weed as an acceptable intoxicant, healthier than alcohol, that also has incredible medical potential (as Jones knew at the time; the L.A. Times in 1914 quoted him saying that the extract, "Cannabis Indica," was the "base" of many medicines).

Thanks in no small part to the medical marijuana movement, which owes its genesis to the AIDS crisis, the drug war is less popular than ever, with more Americans recognizing that it's a dumb thing to waste time, money, and lives trying to prevent people from getting their high. California is getting it righter than most, with simple possession of an ounce or less now a $100 penalty. 

However, there's nothing like a good tautology to defend the indefensible. And the law is indeed the law: marijuana cultivation and sales are still felonies. And of the 13,434 felony marijuana arrests in 2012, the most-recent data available, just under 5,000 were of Latinos, according to the California Department of Justice, with 2,745 black people and about 4,600 whites busted.

Happy anniversary. 

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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