Efforts around cannabis prohibition did not emerge overnight. Several conscious efforts and collective societal behavior eventually led to the political climate that surrounds the plant today.
Warped, xenophobic perceptions of people south of the United States’ border and longstanding propaganda campaigns distorting the reality of cannabis’ effects were two of the major players in pushing cannabis off center stage for things like agriculture, the textile industry, medicinal applications, and more.
The country’s social views and valuation of cannabis were manipulated on many levels for more than one century. Unfortunately, the generational bias persists today. Though more scientists, political figures, and independent activists join the ranks of cannabis enthusiasts and supporters today, many were lining up to reduce public access and use of the plant entirely back in the early 20th century.
One of those people was Richmond P. Hobson.
Richmond P. Hobson and the Anti-Saloon League
In retrospect, Richmond P. Hobson seemed to gravitate toward the prohibition of mind-altering substances. Before his name went down in history as one of the folks who outlawed weed, he was instead associated with the Anti-Saloon League.
In 1923, Harry M. Chalfant described this organization as the brainchild of Reverend Howard H. Russell, born out of the “long struggle to suppress drunkenness.” It began in May of 1893, and Chalfant believed that the public widely held a superficial understanding of the League.
On the surface, it appeared to many to be a small group of people who traveled the nation, lecturing and recruiting to fight alcohol consumption and distribution countrywide. Chalfant appeared to revere the organization in his writing somewhat, correcting the shallow misunderstanding with what he seemed to believe was the more accurate definition:
“The Anti-Saloon League is as thoroughly organized and as scientifically managed as any institution in America, whose purpose it is to influence public sentiment and establish the principles for which it stands.”
This definition illustrates the fervor League members had for their work. In their heart of hearts, individuals like Hobson believed that they were fighting for a cause on a scientific foundation, though cannabis research was scarcer than today.
The League operated closely with the church, visiting congregations annually and receiving donations of about $4 on average from attendees. The yearly church visits were where Hobson shined. His gift of public speaking eventually led to his status as the League’s highest-paid speaker out of more than 2,000.
This, along with his efforts to establish national alcohol prohibition more than 20 times, led to Hobson’s earning the enduring title “The Father of American Prohibition.” The young man who made a habit of reporting U.S. Naval Academy classmates’ misdemeanors grew up to garner influence in the American Congress, continuing his strict rule-abiding mentality into political spheres.
After spending years reporting other youths in the Navy, Hobson resigned in 1903 and later transitioned into his role as a Democratic figure in the US House of Representatives from 1907-1915. After losing re-election in 1916, he delivered one of his most popular speeches, “The Great Destroyer,” in which he stated:
“The last word of science, after exact research in all the domains, is that alcohol is a poison… According to the universal law of biology that the toxin of one form of life is a poison to all forms of life of a higher order, alcohol, the toxin of the low yeast germ, is a protoplasmic poison to all life, whether plant, animal, or man, and to all the living tissues and organs.”
Only a few years later, Congress authorized millions of prints to be distributed to American households, and the 32 states had voted to “go dry” by 1919. Hobson’s sensationalist yet effective language is precisely what granted Hobson power in his vendetta against the cannabis plant. His influence also strengthened his efforts in founding the following organizations:
- American Alcohol Education Association, 1921
- International Narcotic Education Association, 1923
- World Conference on Narcotic Education, 1926
- World Narcotic Defense Association, 1927
Hobson’s biases and misunderstanding of scientific fact
The “scientific” basis on which Hobson founded his argument against alcohol is a travesty. His hierarchical language in the description of the harm it imposes on various life forms and apparent belief in a “universal law of biology” make this clear from the get-go.
The very essence of biology is that it is in constant flux, changing with the affected organisms as they adapt to their surrounding environment and other beings coexisting alongside them. Of course, there are “rules” of physiology that most living things follow, but this isn’t the point that Hobson was making.
Instead, he argued that alcohol essentially poisons the “tree of life” from the bottom up, from the most inferior yeast to the highest point of a straight evolutionary trajectory, humankind. The fact that evolutionary proceeds in a branched pattern, rather than straight, renders Hobson’s perspective inaccurate, too.
Plus, his bias was shown plain as day in “The Great Destroyer,” when he explained racial differences in the consumption and harm of alcohol. Hobson’s racism played a crucial role in his eventual efforts around cannabis prohibition.
For example, in his renowned speech, Hobson showed great concern for alcohol’s detrimental effects on “the whole white race,” lamenting the thousands of white victims taken and impaired by alcohol consumption and addiction. Yet, he used starkly different language when it came to Indigenous and Black people. Hobson stated of both demographics concerning the dangers of alcoholism:
“If a peaceable red man is subjected to the regular use of alcoholic beverage, he will speedily be put back to the plane of the savage. The Government long since recognized this and absolutely prohibits the introduction of the alcoholic beverage into an Indian reservation. If a negro takes up a regular use of alcoholic beverage, in a short time he will degenerate to the level of the cannibal.”
Yet, of white people, Hobson said:
“No matter how high the stage of evolution, the result is the same. A white man with great self-control, considerate, tender-hearted, who would not willingly harm an insect, will be degenerated by regular use of alcoholic beverage to the point where he will strike with a dagger of fire a shot to kill with little or no provocation.”
Hobson even likened alcohol drinkers to slaves, controlled by their endless need for more alcohol and playing as mere puppets to the wills of the brewers and distillers who raked in $2.5 billion every year.
This distinction in language regarding various racial demographics is critical, as it reaches straight to the heart of the underlying problem preceding cannabis prohibition in the United States. Leading figures, such as Hobson, entered the cannabis prohibition interest with preexisting prejudices against non-white peoples.
Given Hobson’s belief in a hierarchical evolutionary scale, of which he noted that white men are supposedly at the apex, it is glaringly clear that his lobbying for alcohol prohibition – and later, cannabis – was motivated not by care for the public good, but a vehement fear of blemishing public perception of and interpersonal interactions between white people.
Why Richmond P. Hobson fought cannabis
Hobson found great success as the Father of American Prohibition. The political figure formed numerous organizations and networks, both domestically and internationally, in support of his efforts to eliminate the substance from as many households as possible, ultimately persuading legal restrictions on alcoholic beverages nationwide.
Yet, his success wasn’t meant to be forever. After alcohol prohibition was repealed in 1919, Hobson set his sights on another substance: cannabis. He lumped cannabis in with heroin and cocaine, too, as many who had ulterior motives or existing political biases often did.
Hobson often used inflammatory terms and zealous language when discussing cannabis-related topics. For example, in 1924, he wrote for the New York Times:
“The human race consumes every year many thousands of tons of poisonous narcotic drugs, not 1 per cent of which is necessary for strictly medicinal purposes… The United States is assailed by opium from Asia as a base, by cocaine with South America as a base and by heroin and synthetic drugs with Europe as a base.”
Cannabis was often used as a prop in fear-mongering language laced with notes of xenophobia and medical inaccuracy. Continuing in his use of this practice, Hobson warned the country of a “new menace,” one that offered feelings of ecstasy, but in reality, it “motivates the most atrocious acts” when used in excess.
Note that Hobson’s key talking points also center on a them-versus-us mentality. Even back then, the “us versus them” mentality was prevalent in American culture. It taps into humans’ instinctual need to be in community and work toward a common goal, often against opponents or environmental inevitabilities (e.g., building shelters for a village, inspiring movements against climate change, etc.).
This mentality evokes strong emotions in the target audience. Because of this, it works wonders as a political tool and eventually led to the successful outlaw and present schedule classification of cannabis with Hobson’s and others’ efforts.
When figures like Hobson and associates successfully instilled fear and confusion in America’s public, they used this sentiment to leverage support for political gain, outlawing the herb despite a lack of substantial proof that it could turn people into “savages,” or trigger aggressive behavior of any kind.
It just so happened that Hobson’s lobbying occurred during the same time when publications discussing Black jazz musicians’ habit of smoking “reefers” with bandmates and the increasing “problem” of widespread marijuana use amongst supposedly aggressive Mexicans or Spanish-Americans became a common talking point.
From the beginning, it was clear that Richmond P. Hobson was intent on righting the things he perceived as “wrong.” Yet, careful consideration of his speeches, statements, and writings, as well as affiliations with churches, and, at times, explicit racist ideology, shows that the problem might not have been cannabis, but the lobbyist’s prejudices, all along.
The effects of cannabis prohibition
The world knows so little about cannabis due to the political tensions that have surrounded the plant for nearly a century. These conflicts weren’t always present, but were ushered in by propaganda and racially-charged campaigns headed by a few specific figures.
Knowing the history that led to cannabis prohibition nationwide will provide the public with a more thorough understanding of how to avoid further unnecessary restrictions on the plant and create a more inclusive space for safe medical and recreational accessibility.