As much as we rely today on trusted news sources to help us parse fact from fiction, the role of the media has often strayed far beyond the constraints of objectivity. We see it today with misinformation running rampant on Facebook while numerous reputable local media outlets continue to fall victim to economic woes.
In some cases, eschewing objectivity is wholly warranted. However, in the case of how cannabis was depicted by papers at the turn of the twentieth century, there’s truly no excuse.
Thanks to the Library of Congress, we now have a curated sample of headlines related to weed that ran between 1897 and 1915. As first reported by Marijuana Moment, this work comes courtesy of the LOC’s ongoing “Chronicle America” project, which is focused on digitizing newspapers from the country’s earliest days through the 1960s.
In a preface to their collection of century-old cannabis stories, the choice to focus on this specific period is explained as coinciding with “the early rise of marihuana.” Why the divergence in spelling? Well prior to 1910, the term we know today as “marijuana” did not exist in the domestic lexicon. Cannabis was actually the preferred nomenclature back then.
However, over the following decade, nearly 900,000 Mexican would legally immigrate to the United States, with many arriving in search of refuge from the Mexican Revolution. Some brought with them their fondness for smoking cannabis, which previously was not a popular consumption method in the U.S. Instead, if Americans knew of cannabis at all, it was as a tincture ingredient. As Mexicans were immigrating, the term “marijuana” (as well as its bastardized sibling, “marihuana”) not-coincidentally began its rise as the defacto term for weed.
Far from being a term of endearment, marijuana was instead utilized as a dog whistle for “foreign” and “exotic.” Archived news items from a variety of sources reveal how the public’s perception was likely shifted by crude caricatures and hysteria-inspired conjecture. It’s nearly impossible overstate the salacious nature of what qualified as reporting a century ago.
In a story published in the Memphis Appeal on April 18, 1887, for example, the paper rather gleefully details how a Mexican priest allegedly “committed suicide by smoking several enormous cigarettes of marihuana” after flogging the corpse of a dead wizard.
“This deadly drug is smoked by the soldiers in the army,” noted the New-York Tribune in an article titled “Stops Sale of Maddening Drug.” Published on December 24, 1905, the story further details how “marihuana” is “smoked like tobacco,” leading the user to “soon” go “wildly insane.”
The Library of Congress’s new timeline devoted to cannabis features dozens of similar stories published by outlets across the U.S. Together, they begin to reveal how repeated rhetoric can stick in the mind and sway opinion. Positing cannabis as “locoweed” and changing its terminology to stress an erroneous correlation with a foreign land both undoubtedly helped to propel weed’s heel turn in America in the early twentieth century.
In truth, this orchestrated retconning of the origins of cannabis was merely a thinly-veiled campaign of xenophobia.
By rebranding the plant, people stopped seeing it as an innocuous tincture ingredient and instead began to regard it as a dangerous drug. The slippery slope of prejudiced logic is easy enough to predict. Told marijuana is dangerous, people wanted to blame the source. Tie the name of the plant to the people you want to get rid of for your own racist reasons and you’ve got the recipe that led to the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.
The story of media and cannabis is also one that still continues to the present day.
By understanding how the former can affect the later (and vice-versa), let us hope we will never be subjected to another “report” like the one offered on September 15, 1897 by the Tombstone Prospector.
Entitled “Stronger Than Opium. Attempt to Smuggle Mariguana into Yuma Prison,” the Arizona paper’s story explained that “mariguana [sic] is a kind of a loco weed which is more powerful than opium.” As evidenced by this collection, however, it is also apparent that there is power in coercion and propaganda — lessons still acutely relevant in our current landscape.