4. Mexican-Americans and marijuana 1930-1937

Submitted by Steven. on January 20, 2012

It is now well established that the Federal Marijuana Tax Act , the instrument which fixed national policy to outlaw the drug, was enacted in response to political pressure from the Southwest, California and several mountain states during the early 1930s (Musto 1972; Helmer 1974). The Act passed in 1937, by which time the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been convinced that the use of the drug was national in extent and was pernicious in its effects. Two years before, the Bureau had gone on the record to say that the problem was concentrated in the Southwest and was a relatively minor one even there.

The brief explanation for the changed policy, and for the origins of the pressure to change it, is that marijuana was commonly used by Mexican immigrants to the U.S.; people who worked mostly as rural or other unskilled laborers. The ideology of marijuana grew in the 1930s a a result of a desire to drive these Mexicans back over the border, although for reasons which had nothing to do with the nature of the drug or its psychological effects. All the same, a theory of the evils of the drug, which linked its use and supply to being Mexican, made hostility toward these people seem slightly more reasonable, and public policy to remove them that much more acceptable.

The following tables illustrate the bare bones of the story. Table 4 indicates the large numbers of Mexican immigrants entering the country during the decade of the 1920s. Ninety percent of the total Mexican population lived at this time in only four states - Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. In 1930 in Texas they made up 11.7% of the state; in California, 6.5%. The largest concentration in California (6.4%) was in Los Angeles.

Table 5 summarizes labor market data for the farm during the decade of the 1920'. Actually, for only four of those years was there a condition of labor scarcity, and the surplus in percentage terms was almost as great in 1924 as in 1930, at the onset of the Depression. However, since the size of the labor force in 1930 was much larger of the two, the surplus of that year was in numerical terms one of the largest in state history.

Marijuana was almost certainly in use among the Mexicans working on the farm at this time. It was a conventional to them as alcohol consumption was to Anglos; it was one of many customs brought from the peasant culture across the border. Yet during the 1920s almost no notice was taken of it in the Anglo communities in which they worked, in spite of a widespread belief in their criminality in other respects. surveys of Mexican involvement in crime in Texas (Handman 1931; Taylor 1931) found no evidence to support this, and sources of data for several towns in California prior to 1930 revealed very little police awareness of, or concern for, marijuana.

After 1930 the situation changed radically. There were two levels of conflict between Mexicans and the local community, corresponding to the rural conflict between Mexican farm labor and farmers and growers and to the urban conflict, located principally in Los Angeles, where the conflict was between Mexicans and other, Anglo members of the working class.

From the mid-1920s, American Federation of Labor locals in California and the Southwest had pressed for federal restrictions on the inflow of Mexican labor. They were joined by small-scale (typically one-family) farmers, the American Legion and a variety of nativist, patriotic organizations. They were opposed, and successfully blocked, by the large scale farming interests, the Los Angeles Times, railroad and mining groups, and at the national level, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the major farm lobbies (Fuller 1940).

Since there was no shortage of Mexican labor after 1923, the profitability of farm crops would not have seriously affected by the proposed immigration quotas, although the farm bloc used this as one of their arguments. What was at stake was the very high-priced and speculative structure of land ownership and investment, especially in Southern California, which was sustained by the expectation of a low labor factor price. This in turn was thought to depend upon a large pool of unemployed rural workers (Taylor 1928; Fuller 1940; Helmer 1974).

Through the decade of the 1920s, neither the rural employers nor the rural county authorities cared particularly about the social welfare or the "criminality" of the Mexican laborers. Since they were virtual nomads, moving from area to area in time with field and crop schedules, they made relatively light and intermittent demands on county resources, and in any case they were generally excluded from receiving them by a combination of physical segregation, local ordinance and brute force. According to a survey of Imperial County (California) in 1927, "the record of law observance among Mexicans . . . is distinctly favorable to them" (Taylor 1931:212)

What threatened the farm interests a great deal more than marijuana use was incipient unionism among the farm workers, for this, of course, directly attacked the labor-capital relationship on which the economic of the farm interests depended. predictably, therefore, union agitation was a felony crime in California s was the so-called offense of preaching anarchism or bolshevism. These ideological catch-alls were designed to allow police to break up and arrest almost any number of Mexicans meeting together.

The union movement began to develop out of the Mexican mutual aid societies around 1928. A major strike among melon pickers occurred in Imperial Valley in that year, and was broken up by police and vigilantes. From 1930 on, however, union organization spread rapidly in the fields; between 1932 and 1934 the newly formed Cannery and Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union initiated 32 strikes. In one of the most serious of these, the San Joaquin cotton strike of 1933, three Mexicans were shot to death by police, and more than 20 wounded (Taylor and Kerr 1940).

This had its effect on attitudes toward marijuana, as the farm interests sought legal means to attack Mexican organizations without driving the labor force away altogether. The pressure for a federal marijuana law thus reflected the state of industrial conflict which intensified through the early Depression years but which had not existed in the 1920s. Since marijuana was almost entirely consumed by the Mexican laborers, legislation against it was intended as legislation against them.

The urban pressures for the drug law were somewhat different but had the same effect. Table 6 indicates the principal source of social strain - high unemployment among Mexicans with the onset of the Depression.

Mexicans were particularly visible in Los Angeles both in terms of the rapid population growth and their residential and occupational concentration. During the 1920s the city had grown by 115% but the Mexicans by 226%. Together with the Japanese, they made up 9.5% of the work force in 1930, but 38% unskilled construction and 47% in menial service. Their average wage rates were consequently the lowest in the city (less than 50 cents an hour), their level of housing and sanitation extremely poor, and their health standard much worse than the Anglo norm or county average (Helmer 1974).

So long as the demand for labor exceeded its supply in the city, the problem of social control of the Mexican group was considered serious but not large. A report in 1925 indicated the presence of the same pattern we have observed before: high rates of pulmonary and bronchial illness, treated by patent medicine and common use of marijuana (Mc Combs 1925:36-37).

Official action against drug use did not really step up until late 1929 and early 1930, at which time it was widely believed to be associated with assault and homicide (Hayes and Bowery 1933:1071). the evidence for this was typically hearsay and never quantified. In spite of widespread publicity devoted to Mexican drug use in the city, the most common of offenses for which Mexicans were arrested were disturbing the peace or vagrancy and outside of Los Angeles, even among substantial Mexican communities, charges of marijuana use were negligible (Helmer 1974). Despite allegations that the drug was behind many of the city's homicides, by 1930 the homicide rate had begun to fall, and there is some evidence to indicate that blacks were significantly more overrepresented in homicide arrests than Mexicans (Helmer 1974). No one ever alleged that they used marijuana - although they probably did.

The problem of unemployment in general, and of Mexicans in particular, led to a variety of measures to help reduce the labor surplus and in effect cut the cost to the county authorities of maintaining an expanded relief program. Anti- union provisions, the vagrancy laws, the virtual suspension of habeas corpus and enforcement of the State Poison Act to deal with marijuana - these were the methods used. Finally, in 1931. the Los Angeles authorities discovered that shipping Mexicans across the border was a great deal cheaper than maintaining them on welfare, and so the plan, which was to result in massive repatriations across the country, was initiated.

This was more effective than the piecemeal efforts of the law enforcement agencies, but together they underscore the context in which the ideology of marijuana first developed. the situation was thus quite familiar in its general features to the opium and Chinese exclusion campaign of 50 years before. Then as here the use of a "narcotic" drug was among the many personal and social vices of the target group - Mexicans were lazy, dirty, promiscuous, violent, subintelligent, criminal, anarchistic, communist and intoxicated with marijuana.

This last one was important only insofar as it was part of the overall hostile stereotype of the Mexicans, and it reflected- at the same time as it was designed to justify - the drawing of the lines of economic conflict at the time. Where there was class conflict, as in the agricultural counties, the marijuana issue was relatively marginal, although still more salient after 1930 than before. the farm interests focused primarily on the anarchistic-communistic elements of the stereotype, but they did not need even these arguments to mobilize the police and the other agencies of state power for their own defense.

In Los Angeles, like several of the northern cities, the lines of conflict were drawn essentially along ethnic lines within the working class - between Mexicans and Italians, or Poles (Chicago), or Irish or Greeks (New York, Detroit, etc). This was a struggle for a diminishing number of jobs in the unskilled sector 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 feelings toward the Mexicans, for this to become public policy required a broader mobilization of community groups. What was needed was a basis for a broad coalition of anti-Mexican forces, and the racial stereotype, along with the ideology of marijuana, provided exactly that. Just how localized this issue was can be gauged from table 7, which indicates the average annual arrests (total and rates) for all the narcotic drug offenses (including marijuana) made by local police around the country between 1934 and 1941.

In light of the widespread publicity given to the Mexicans, and of the intense public concern for the dangers of marijuana at the time, it is surprising to find that the average number of Mexicans arrested annually on drug charges was smaller than the number of any one of the other races. In simple numerical terms, the major drug problem was a white one, but the Federal Bureau of Narcotics treated this as residual and inoffensive (Helmer 1974). If racial concentration of drug use gave this problem its popular visibility, then it was not the Mexicans on whom attention should have been fixed, but the Chinese instead. their offense rate was higher than the highest rate of addiction ever estimated for the country as a whole, and yet nationally it was almost completely ignored at the time. Among the Chinese, there was no labor surplus or labor conflict problem comparable to the Mexican, and this was the crux of the matter.