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SLO County’s early stories of marijuana were filled with fear and racism

Mendota police Officer B. Ortiz tends a smoldering pile of marijuana after a 1987 raid near Hearst Castle.
Mendota police Officer B. Ortiz tends a smoldering pile of marijuana after a 1987 raid near Hearst Castle. Tribune archives

Marijuana has been illegal for most of my career as a photographer.

In November, California voters legalized medical and recreational cannabis. Now, San Luis Obispo County is looking for public input, drafting new rules regulating cannabis cultivation, processing and distribution.

Over the years, pot bust stories have run the gamut, including panga boat smugglers along the coast, warehouses packed with grow lights and backwoods forest plots discovered by helicopter.

One of the California Men’s Colony’s most famous residents and escapees, 1960s activist Timothy Leary, was convicted of possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Several U.S. presidents have made the war on drugs a centerpiece policy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan prominently.

Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated he is not 420-friendly even as states such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California move to relax regulations.

The rules are arcane, but in eastern San Luis Obispo County some growers have pulled permits and fenced off California Valley lots attempting to get rich farming.

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham has introduced a bill to define and curb stoned driving.

Pot’s past

Marijuana’s history as a banned substance goes back several generations.

A timeline by the PBS documentary program “Frontline” shows that refugees from the Mexican Revolution of 1910 introduced recreational use of marijuana to the United States. Prior to that, it had been an ingredient in some patent medicines.

Early studies hyped fear and linked marijuana use to crime and communities of color, and by 1931, 29 states had outlawed the drug.

There were exceptions, however. The Department of Agriculture had a “Hemp for Victory” program to produce marine and parachute cordage during World War II.

But by then marijuana had lost the public relations war, and in 1936, the anti-marijuana film “Reefer Madness” was produced.

In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing marijuana in the United States.

Local mentions

The earliest marijuana mention that I can find in the Tribune’s digital archive is a multipart series of stories by Scripps-League staff writer Bill Golden, published in the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram in March and April 1938.

The stories were consistent with the “evil weed” narrative linking violent crime, marijuana and communities of color.

On the same page as a cartoon showing Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler eying Austria were these March 17, 1938, headlines:

“Assassins derive flimsy courage by use of marijuana.”

“Modern mobsters run amok after using drug plant.”

The story connects marijuana use to Persian terrorists, Pancho Villa’s plunderers, New York bohemians and jittery jazz musicians dreaming of mayhem.

The March 24, 1938, headline “Drug-inspired criminal acts incredibly brutal” ran over a collection of anecdotes linked to marijuana.

“It took a wild-eyed youth gripping a dripping ax — the weapon he used to murder his parents, two brothers and a sister — to jerk America into full consciousness that she faced something new in crime.”

Names for the drug included “muggles,” “hay” and “reefer.”

“The youth’s explanation in sobs: ‘I don’t know why. I was high on reefers. …’ 

The pursuit of violent thrills leading to bad ends were sketched in several unnamed and unattributed anecdotes.

“Case-hardened detectives, incredulous, mutter, “Gosh! It gets you.”

Another blatantly racist article linked the drug to communities of color.

March 29, 1938: “Color lines are thinly drawn in the southland, sometimes, with the result that negroes and Mexicans find much in common. The Mexican, who works in the sugar-beet patch, finds it simple to cultivate a small plot of marijuana nearby.”

The article argued some jazz musicians relied on the drug. Cab Calloway had recorded “Reefer Man” in 1932.

Bill Golden wrote: “In turn, many a colored musician, already outstanding by virtue of the innate rhythm of his race, finds he can execute passages otherwise impossible after smoking.”

Golden’s series concludes on April 4, 1938:

“To those who wonder if it would make any difference if you were to try marijuana, just once.



But the story didn’t end in 1938.

The Telegram-Tribune published one of its oddest marijuana articles Dec. 1, 1988, by Gary Taylor:

Well-plucked pot plant found in San Luis Obispo

Someone may be processing freshly harvested marijuana atop the parking structure in downtown San Luis Obispo.

That’s about the only explanation police have after finding a 5-foot-tall marijuana plant Wednesday lying in plain view of motorists who parked on the top level, said Police Sgt. Jim English.

“We certainly don’t know where it came from,” English said.

The plant’s leaves were stripped, leaving only the bare stalk, a few small buds and roots, English said.

“It looks like someone harvested the plant and just left the stalk,” English said. “But then I’ve never heard of anyone smoking the stalk.”

English said police officers picked up the plant shortly before noon, cut it up into small pieces and destroyed it.

He said it was the first time police had found a marijuana plant in the parking structure.

English said police officers will continue to patrol the parking garage, which is open to the public 24 hours a day.

“We won’t worry about it unless we get a suspect description from someone,” English said.

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