The First Pot Bust In U.S. History Happened In California

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the very first pot bust in U.S. history. As cannabis barrels towards legalization and cultural acceptance nationwide, it’s getting harder to remember a time when we couldn’t simply walk into a dispensary and get the cannabis products we desire. Readers who smoked cannabis before it was legal may recall the struggles of procuring cannabis or the anxiety of being tailed by a police cruiser with a bag of weed in the trunk of the car. Now imagine what it may have been like in the early half of the 20th century.

It’s difficult not to read the following sensationalized L.A. Times headline in an old-timey newscaster’s voice with a Mid-Atlantic accent: “Wagonload Of Dreams Seized - Officers Raid Indian Hemp Gardens Of City - New Toxic Fumes, That Give Smokers Pleasant Sensations and Hallucinations but Sometimes Lead to Murder, Are Wasted on Unsympathetic Air of Police Storeroom.”

Journalists today would never print a sloppy headline like this. Not only is it clearly meant to drum up false intrigue and excitement, it also fails to mention what, exactly, happened in Los Angeles on September 10, 1914.

Dreams Seized

The “dream gardens” raided by the LAPD that day set the stage for cannabis prohibition in America, even though cannabis wouldn’t be illegal at the federal level until 1937. It’s difficult now, in 2018, to picture the State of California cracking down on low-level cannabis growth and possession, but the Golden State hasn’t always been a bastion of liberal cannabis laws.

California had outlawed cannabis at the state level the previous year, in 1913, by adding it to the list of drugs banned without a prescription by the Poison and Pharmacy Act of 1907. That list originally included cocaine, opium, and morphine, but the addition of cannabis was largely done in the shadows. Officials tacked this new law onto an otherwise unrelated legislative amendment that was not even reported in newspapers. In other words, for the first year of statewide prohibition, most Californians didn’t even know cannabis had been outlawed - in fact, many Californians were clueless that cannabis even existed! The L.A. Times article that publicized the first cannabis bust in the country actually had to explain to readers what, exactly, cannabis is. The Times referred to cannabis as “Indian hemp” and suggested that the plant was responsible for “murder, suicide and disaster.” The article went on to say:

“‘One cigarette of the stuff generally puts one in a dreamy state of beautitude’ says Inspector Jones, ‘but sometimes it also induces hallucinations. The smoker generally loses the sense of time.’”

Recreational cannabis use wasn’t very popular in California before it was outlawed, but if you read about a new time-altering plant that causes a “dreamy state of beautitude” (whatever that is), wouldn’t you want to try it?

The First Pot Bust In The Nation

The raid took place in present-day Chinatown, Los Angeles, on the ironically named New High Street. But like much of historic LA, the neighborhood would be unrecognizable today. For starters, there were relatively few (if any) Chinese families living there. From some time in the 1850s until early in the 1900s, this part of LA was predominantly settled by Mexican immigrants and was named Sonoratown, after the State of Sonora in Mexico. Many immigrants had come to the United States after the Mexican Revolution hoping to start a new life. In Los Angeles, Sonoratown became a thriving neighborhood filled with adobe homes and profitable businesses run by Mexican families. But when the nearby railroad yards were completed, the property became increasingly valuable for industrial prospects - and that meant that the land would eventually be stolen by white Californians.

This racist, xenophobic attitude towards Mexican immigrants was in many ways the foundation of both the state and federal government’s war on drugs. Just read this description from the L.A. Times explaining what cannabis was:

“Marahuana (sic) grows on stalks as tall as six feet. Its leaves and blossoms are dried and smoked in cigarettes and pipes, often being adulterated with tobacco. According to Inspector Jones and Detectives Leon and Rico, well acquainted with Sonoratown life, the weed is much used in the local Mexican colony. In out-of-the-way nooks and corners small plants are nursed and often provide the bare livelihood of the cultivators.”

Clearly LAPD officers associated Sonoratown with the growth, sale, and consumption of cannabis, and they subsequently began targeting this neighborhood, armed with the state’s new law.

The War On Drugs

Twenty five other states followed California’s lead between 1914 and 1925, with early cannabis laws in Southern states being tied to the Jim Crow system of discrimination. The federal government eventually outlawed cannabis at the national level with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Within the first year of the new federal law, Black people were arrested for cannabis at rates nearly three times that of white people. Mexican Americans were targeted even more harshly, with Latinx arrest rates jumping up to nine times the arrest rate of white people.

Cannabis had already been gaining attention nationwide after a series of sensationalized (and blatantly untrue) newspaper articles by media mogul William Randolph Hearst and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ Henry Anslinger. Anslinger claimed that Mexican immigrants and Black men would become violent and develop superhuman strength after smoking cannabis, and he also claimed that cannabis would be used by Black and Latinx men to seduce white women. These racist and xenophobic lies by Anslinger and Hearst added fuel to the already deeply-entrenched prejudices that many white people held across the country. When the new drug laws were passed, they essentially gave the predominantly white police departments of America a new tool to target, harass, and arrest Black and Mexican-American citizens - a trend which, sadly, continues to this day, despite the progress being made in many states.

The End of Prohibition

It’s remarkable to think that cannabis prohibition started in California just over a hundred years ago. California was the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996, and voters went on to legalize recreational cannabis sales in 2016. Today, just a mile and a half from the LA homes first raided for cannabis in 1914, adults age 21 and up can walk into a dispensary and legally purchase cannabis flower, concentrates, edibles, and topicals to produce their own dreamy state of beautitude.

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