Marijuana and Degeneracy: Not an American Invention

Drug prohibition is facing increasing scrutiny in the current century, especially as many countries begin to legalize formerly illicit substances. Notably, on October 17th, Canada began legal sale of cannabis for the recreational use of the adults of that country. But when considering the War on Drugs, the first thoughts that come to the minds of most are American policies, such as Ronald Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980’s, and even Controlled Substances Act of 1971. This leads many to believe that drug prohibition was an invention of the American government, a belief which is furthered by even the Wikipedia page of the subject which states that “the war on drugs is a campaign, led by the U.S. federal government.” While the United States may have led the global War on Drugs, the origins of the detestation of drugs, and specifically of marijuana, belongs to a North American neighbor.

It is Mexico with a history of drug control that expands far past the earliest interventions of American government. Historian Isaac Campos traced the origins of drug control in Mexico to the 1520s, when Spanish settlers in Mexico City appointed a protomédico, or “first physician” to regulate medical practice [1}. In 1528, the protomédico mandated pharmacy inspections. By the end of the colonial period, pharmaceutical regulations, such as securely storing all potentially deadly drugs and issuing prescriptions, were enforced by an official inspection every two years. Comparatively, the federal government of the United States did not begin to regulate the actions of pharmacists and doctors until the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, which imposed a tax on the sale of opium and its derivatives, required all physicians and druggists who did prescribe these substances to report the prescription to the Treasury Department, and allowed the government to fine and imprison those who issued prescriptions outside “the course of professional practice” such as maintenance for addicts [2].

While Mexico has a long history of drug control, it also has a large contribution to the social construction of drugs, especially of cannabis. Campos additionally identifies that Mexico was the first to like marijuana consumption with moral degeneration. This was enabled by the political power of the sanitary council. Prior to the writing of the Mexican Constitution, the sanitary council established several regulations, and required that medical suppliers only sell poisonous substances to pharmacists and druggists [3]. Poisonous drugs included opium, morphine, cocaine, hemlock, black nightshade, belladonna, and marijuana. In 1912 and 1914, the sanitary council regulated Mexico’s ports, and used this power to restrict the import of opiates and cocaine. In 1917, the head of the sanitary council argued that a powerful sanitary council should be formed in the new constitution, as it would benefit the Mexican race, on the basis that they were “infirm” and “degenerated,” and improved hygiene would alter this trend [4]. His argument was received well, and the constitution formed a strong, centralized Department of Sanitation. In 1920, the sanitary council announced legislation entitled “Dispositions on the Cultivation and Commerce of Products that Degenerate the Race,” which banned the cultivation and commerce of marijuana. In order to defend against "degeneration", the sanitary council gained unprecedented power over drug regulation in Mexico, which lead to the stigmatization and ban of marijuana.

Because marijuana was rarely used by Americans in the early 20th century, it is likely that Mexico was the first country to associate marijuana with degeneracy. However, Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, echoed this association in American society. In a statement to the Ways and Means committee regarding the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, Anslinger said “It is dangerous to the mind and body, and particularly dangerous to the criminal type, because it releases all of the inhibitions,” relating the danger of marijuana to the moral character of the user. Through his campaign against cannabis, Anslinger demonized drug use by utilizing the arguments made by the Mexican Department of Sanitation regarding the character of the drug user [5]. These arguments seem to influence even modern opinions regarding marijuana use, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated in a senate hearing in 2016 that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,"[6]. As North America has a long history of demonizing substances on the basis of personal failure, the legalization of cannabis in Canada will be closely watched by both Mexico and the United States.


[1] Isaac Campos, “Degeneration and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs,” Mexican Studies 26, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 381.

[2] Kurt Hohenstein, “Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act, the Supreme Court, and the Federal Regulation of Medical Practice, 1915–1919.” Journal of Supreme Court History 26, no. 3 (October 1, 2001): 231-233, accessed October 10, 2018,[3]Campos, “Degeneration and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs,” 383-384.

[4] Campos, “Degeneration and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs,” 386-387.

[5]"Statement of Harry J. Anslinger." The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Accessed October 11, 2018.

[6] Christopher Ingraham, “Trump’s Pick for Attorney General: ‘Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana,’” Washington Post, November 18, 2016, accessed October 11, 2018,


© 2017 by Janus. Proudly created with