Staff Columnist

4/20 is a whole month this year. Last time this happened was the dawn of the drug war

A century ago, people blamed immigrants for marijuana. Today, Iowa is targeting black people for arrest.

One of several flowering rooms at Medicine Man in Denver, Colo. (Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald/MCT)
One of several flowering rooms at Medicine Man in Denver, Colo. (Kai-Huei Yau/Tri-City Herald/MCT)

April 20 — the marijuana holiday, 420 for short — is longer this year. This is the once-per-century 4/20 month.

With marijuana now legal in 11 states, 420 has risen from the counterculture to the mainstream. Businesses selling marijuana products are now major companies with a special marketing day of their own.

The last time the calendar struck 4/20 there was no marijuana industry, but it was a pivotal moment in the drug’s American history.

In April 1920, the nation was in the midst of an era of rampant nanny state overreaches imposed to restrict access to certain substances. The 18th Amendment, prohibiting alcohol in the United States, had taken hold a few months prior. States such as Iowa had been experimenting with cigarette bans for some years.

Marijuana was used medically and recreationally in the United States by the 1920s, and it was increasingly subject to government rules as a medical product, though initially escaping the kinds of heavy-handed regulations imposed on tobacco and alcohol, which were more popular. Classification as medicine meant marijuana was restricted, but also recognized for its therapeutic benefits.

Gazette archives from that era made few references to marijuana. One clipping from an August 1921 edition has a roundup of national crime stories. Drug crackdowns were all the rage, with news wires reporting law enforcement interventions involving illegal cigarettes, liquor and marijuana.

“Soldiers of these United States were discharged smoking ‘marihuana,’ whatever that is, and gliding off into ‘that land of dopey dreams,’ ” stated a Gazette brief attributed to the Philadelphia Public Ledger.


That excerpt shows marijuana’s relative obscurity then, at least among East Coast newspaper reporters of the early 1920s.

The racist roots of the American drug war were apparent by last century’s 4/20 month. There was an influx of migration after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution a decade earlier. Like today, many immigrants in the early 20th century worked as laborers in the agriculture industry.

There is no clear evidence that immigrant field workers popularized marijuana in the United States, or even that they used it at high rates compared to other people, but that’s the perception that stuck. Racism became one of the tools prohibitionists used to portray the substance as a dangerous drug that made people violent, especially if they are brown or black.

Marijuana laws gradually ramped up in the following decades, highlighted by the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 criminalizing marijuana nationally and stricter federal sentencing laws in the 1950s.

While the United States has seen fits and starts of marijuana reform since the 1970s, stark racial disparities persist in Iowa in 2020.

Black Iowans are about 7 times more likely than white Iowans to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though use is thought to be the same in both groups, according to a report released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union. Iowa has the 5th-highest disparity in the nation. In one county, the rate is 17-to-one.

While 420 has become a full-blown consumer holiday for some, remember that too many others spend it in jail.; (319) 339-3156

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