The history between the Hispanic community and cannabis can be traced back centuries. Cannabis was first introduced to the Americas when the Spanish introduced hemp to Chile in 1545. The crop then spread throughout various regions of Latin America, in an attempt to increase production. When these Spanish conquistadores taught the Mexican indigenous people how to farm cannabis, they naturally began recreational and medicinal usage of the plant. Notably, they began to use cannabis for pain management, including even menstrual cycles, in the 16th century. Today, the influence of these ancient indigenous peoples can still be seen in Mexican society with traditional healers encouraging the rubbing of marijuana onto skin to relieve arthritis symptoms, among other recommendations.
But the connection between the ancient Latino indigenous communities and cannabis does not end there. Historians have outlined how indigenous populations, such as the Aztecs, cultivated a history of using psychoactive plants for spiritual rituals. The most popular psychoactive substances included Nicotiana Rustica (Aztec tobacco), fungi, and cannabis. Famously, the Otomí, a Latin American indigenous group, viewed cannabis as a deity named Santa Rosa. Shamans would eat Santa Rosa (cannabis) as a ritual to determine what illness the patient has. The Otomí can still be found in Puebla, Mexico practicing these various rituals involving cannabis today.
By the 1800s many Latin American countries began separating from their colonial rulers and declaring their independence. Although many Latin American countries were no longer under colonial rule, they still experienced tumultuous political unrest. Critically, the Mexican Revolution forced many Mexicans to migrate to the United States by the 1900s. This wave of migrants coupled with poor economic conditions culminated in anti-immigrant sentiments. Politicians and the media disparaged these Latinx migrants, and in particular, condemned their usage of “marihuana”. The word marijuana as we know it today stems from the racist anti-immigrant propaganda of the 1930s.
Harry Anslinger, the Chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a high-profile figure at this time who was active in demonizing marijuana and its Latinx users. Besides popularizing the term “marihuana”, Anslinger is also known for his role in passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Two days after this act was passed, Moses Baca (a Mexican American) was the first federal arrest for cannabis. Decades later, it is hard to specifically calculate the impact these anti-marijuana policies have had on the Latinx community because marijuana arrests tend to be sorted by race and not ethnicity. However, states that do break down arrests by ethnicity have showcased across the board that black and Hispanic people are more likely to be arrested than white users.
It is clear, the history of marijuana and the Latinx community in the United States stretches back to its very introduction. Yet, the Latinx roots of marijuana’s origins in America are often overlooked and forgotten. As marijuana has become more accepted, a multi-billion dollar industry has developed – an industry the Hispanic community is not benefiting from. Data showcases that only 5.7% of all cannabis licenses are owned by Hispanic entrepreneurs compared to the overwhelming 81% owned by white entrepreneurs.
Furthermore, US policy against marijuana has impacted Latinx communities beyond the American border and into their home countries. In 2013, Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalize marijuana, but they have experienced many roadblocks since its implementation. Most critically, Uruguay's banks have pressured customers to stop their legal sale of marijuana in order to not violate the U.S. Federal Finance Laws and Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Many Latin American countries - including Uruguay - depend on US banking partners for various transactions and cannot afford to lose their backing or pay hefty violation fines. Similarly, other Latin American countries are still facing roadblocks to legalizing and destigmatizing marijuana as a result of short-minded American policies.