Leland Berger coined the term “cannabigotry” after witnessing the unnecessary arrests of people who either possessed or grew cannabis and seeing first-hand the discrimination cannabis users faced, whether in housing, jobs, or custody battles. A Portland lawyer of 31 years, he spent 19 of those years defending cannabis consumers before switching to his own private cannabusiness legal firm, CannaBusiness Compliance, LLC. He is also a tenured cannabis activist who works within several national cannabis activism groups, including NORML and Americans for Safe Access.
Mr. Berger supplied a clear definition of cannabigotry. “Cannabigotry is the motivation behind prohibitionist policies,” he wrote in an email.
“We are right on the science, we are responsible adults and cannabis is a gift. Why is there prohibition? Why are there prohibitionist policies (e.g. dispensary bans, urine testing for employment, housing discrimination)? They just don’t like our kind. They have prejudged us, which is to say they are prejudiced against us. Cannabigotry is where the prejudice is based solely on cannabis.”
Many would agree that cannabigotry got its start in America with the use of the term “marijuana,” which didn’t exist in America until 1910. Until then, cannabis was accurately referred to by its scientific name—cannabis.
Harborside Health Center, which has come out as an active proponent against the use of the word, provides a short and accurate description of how the term “marijuana” began in the U.S. on their website. “‘Marijuana’ started off life as a Mexican folk name for cannabis, but was first popularized in the U.S. by a notorious yellow press publisher, William Randolph Hearst, [who was] committed to the prohibition of marijuana, which threatened his timber investments,” they write. “He used his control of hundreds of newspapers to orchestrate a vicious propaganda campaign against cannabis, which featured lurid (and false) stories about black and brown men committing outrageous acts of murder and mayhem. The campaign played on then-predominantly racist public opinion to make cannabis illegal at the federal level in 1937. Since then, ‘marijuana’ has come to be associated with the idea that cannabis is a dangerous and addictive intoxicant…[playing] a big part in stymying cannabis legalization efforts throughout the U.S.”
Since the late 1900s, many Americans have returned to using the word “cannabis.” Hispanics have also formed new terms, such as gallo, mota, and pasto.
One of the earliest statements meant to instill fear was made by the Los Angeles Chief of Detectives Joseph F. Taylor in the early 1930s.
“In the past we have had officers of this department shot and killed by marihuana addicts and we have traced the act of murder directly to the influence of marihuana, with no other motive,” he is quoted as saying. “We have found from long experience and dealing with this type of criminal that marihuana is probably the most dangerous of all our narcotic drugs.”
Harry Anslinger was the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. Likely the most notorious cannabigot of all time, Anslinger gave this testimony to Congress in 1937 in his successful effort to criminalize cannabis for the U.S. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
Other quotes from Anslinger’s reign of fear-inducing propaganda include, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” and “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with marijuana, he would drop dead of fright.”
Reefer Madness came out in 1936 as anti-cannabis propaganda from the U.S. government and was centered on a principal of spewing propaganda to an audience of parents. The movie presents scenes of teenagers getting high and then watching themselves turn into criminals and destroy their lives. This was our country’s first attempt at a propaganda campaign in this way and was centered on misinformation so as to achieve the goal of fear of cannabis. Shortly thereafter, in 1937, cannabis was removed from the U.S. pharmacopeia and made illegal with enforcement.
For modern-day reefer madness, there is no need to look any further than the “statement piece” put out by the state of Idaho in 2013. The piece held no legal effect but was estimated to cost at least $20,000 of taxpayer money for its drafting and passage. Idaho passed SCR 112 with just seven “no” votes out of 70 cast. The piece begins, “A concurrent resolution stating findings of the Legislature and affirming the Legislature’s opposition to the legalization of marijuana in Idaho.”
The resolution then continued to cite several pieces of propaganda in support of the reasons why their legislature didn’t want cannabis legalized. Non-scientific statements and opinions not based in fact riddle the resolution, such as “the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of marijuana has risen dramatically in the last 30 years, contributing to the fact that one out of six teenagers who start smoking marijuana will become addicted to it,” “marijuana use has a detrimental effect on individual learning and brain development,” and “drug legalization efforts in other states have led to social, economic and legal chaos, with programs full of fraud and abuse.”
Then there is the assumption not based on research that “increased drug use will impact public education in Idaho, productivity in the workplace, escalate the number of impaired drivers on Idaho roads, and affect other areas of our lives.”
This resolution came out concurrent to the third introduction of a medical cannabis citizen’s initiative from the now-defunct organization Compassionate Idaho. Medical cannabis had a 74% approval rating in Idaho in 2010, according to a BSU poll, but apparently the representatives neglected their populations when they added, “national pro-marijuana organizations have invested millions to push drug legalization in America, and have targeted Idaho for a ‘medical’ marijuana initiative in 2014.”
The resolution ends firmly with, “…the Idaho Legislature takes this opportunity to state its opposition to efforts to legalize marijuana for any purpose in the State of Idaho,” despite the thousands of sick Idaho residents who need it.
There are several hurtful instances of cannabigotry that many people are so used to that they may not even realize they are being discriminated against. In America, there are an estimated 100,000 million people who have used cannabis, 25 million of them in the past year, with 14 million regular users. Only in Washington, D.C. is cannabis not tested in pre-employment drug screens. The population of D.C. has nearly 660,000 people, and 543,587 of them are adults over 18. This would mean that only 543,587 people in the country are potentially not discriminated from employment. In a country that had a 5.5% unemployment rate as of April 2015, would it not make sense to end pre-employment drug screens for cannabis, especially in states where it is legal?
Another instance of cannabigotry is demonstrated by poor state laws enacted in response to Child Protective Services (CPS), which often states that even possessing cannabis or its paraphernalia means the parent is automatically guilty of child abuse or neglect in the eyes of CPS. This leads to children being removed from their often safe and loving homes to be placed with strangers in foster care. This was demonstrated as recently as March of last year, when Kansas cannabis activist Shona Banda had her 11-year-old son removed from her care for allegedly making cannabis oil to treat her medical condition in a non-medical state. He was placed with his father and Shona is facing five criminal charges in the case. A simple Google search yields the results of similar cases from all around the county. Perhaps the saddest example comes from Texas. Parents Joshua Hill and Mary Sweeny lost custody of their two-year-old daughter after admitting to sometimes using cannabis at night as she slept to CPS. The toddler was placed in the foster care of Sherill Small while her parents were investigated. Small exerted significant trauma to the child’s head, killing her in July 2013. Small is currently serving life in prison for her crime.
Housing is another area of discrimination, as a cannabis consumer often can’t consume cannabis in rental properties or hotels. Cannabis use is not allowed in Section 8, military, or other federally funded housing, meaning impoverished cannabis patients are at risk of eviction if they are caught using their medicine at home—even in legalized states. Landlords often have the right to allow cannabis use on the premises or property.
Activists have fought and won medical cannabis rights in 23 states and recreational cannabis rights in four states and the District of Columbia, but the opposition has been busy working to keep cannabis illegal. Anti-cannabis groups like SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) and SMART (Substance Misuse and Abuse Reduction Team) are organized around the notion of decreasing cannabis use. “Our mission is to educate citizens on the science of marijuana and to promote health-first, smart policies and attitudes that decrease marijuana use and its consequences,” SAM’s website claims.
“This is the addiction business,” said Kevin Sabet, SAM’s acting president. “The industry has an incentive to encourage heavy use, and like the tobacco industry, marijuana businesses will try to hook potential customers when they’re young.”
He travels around the country proclaiming statements like this to local officials in an effort to thwart legalization. Utilizing PowerPoint presentations as his guide, he continued: “Big tobacco was a disaster for our country in terms of the marketing machine that was activated, while the government looked the other way for a century. Do we want to repeat that with yet another substance? And one that in fact, unlike tobacco, produces intoxication and therefore leads to car crashes, workplace accidents, school dropouts, and mental illness?”
SMART has been active too. A local news article by Ashton Edwards in Utah, Utah County stands against marijuana, makes Dec. 1 ‘Collective Responsibility Day,’ claiming that “Collective Responsibility Day” is a stand against marijuana. “A billboard titled ‘Let’s be blunt’ is going up Tuesday to mark the occasion and to send the message that marijuana can be dangerous for young people,” Edwards writes. The local SMART coalition is behind the move, according to the article. “Members of SMART said this effort is timely because some pending legislation could relax Utah’s laws on medical marijuana. SMART said it believes if the laws are changed, it could lead to increased recreational pot use in Utah. The billboard will remain up for the next three weeks, just in time for the legislative session.”
However, public perceptions of cannabis have changed drastically with massive education campaigns from pro-cannabis activist groups like Americans for Safe Access, the Marijuana Policy Project, and NORML. According to a Gallup Poll from October 2015, 58% of Americans support legalized recreational cannabis. Cannabis community members, doctors, nurses, and lawyers are changing public perceptions using scientific facts and personal testimonies of cannabis’s medical efficacy as their tools.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s complete change of stance in 2014 may be the most notable. He stated,
“I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have ‘no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.’ They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana, neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. […] We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”
With admittance like Dr. Gupta’s and people discussing cannabis calmly, rationally, and with facts, a shift in the public perception and an end to cannabigotry could be something we see in this lifetime.