The Role of Marijuana During Prohibition – Tour Questions Answered!

Folks always get excited when we talk about the Prohibition Era of entertainment history on our Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour. Of course, we talk about jazz music and gangsters, but we also talk about the legal loopholes to Prohibition like sacramental wine and, my personal favorite, medicinal whiskey. That last one often elicits questions about our current discussions of drug legalization and the role of marijuana back in the 1920s. So I decided to dig into the legalities of marijuana during Prohibition in Chicago.  

Marijuana Exploitation Films like this one all characterize the drug as evil, but not all of them have such scandalous artwork! Photo via Wikimedia

Street Slang and Moral Panic

First, I had to make sure I had the lingo right. The official names marijuana or hashish are pretty rare in newspapers of the time. Often marijuana is referred to as loco-weed, muta or muggie in slang. I have also heard jazz cigarette and, of course, reefer.

The cult-classic Reefer Madness, whose trailer is above, was released in 1936, just a few years after the end of Prohibition. Seemingly learning nothing from the myriad failures of Prohibitions, the film does not present a progressive or even enlightened view of the drug, or even of society at the time.

Instead, marijuana is a “giggle tobacco” that leads to immoral behavior and eventual madness. Jazz is the gateway connecting some otherwise wholesome teenagers to the “burning weed with its roots in hell.” 

marijuana warning ad Inter-state narcotic association
Public Service Announcements like this one ran on buses and trains warning that a dealer might sneak weed into your teapot! Image via WikiMedia

This poster shows a sentiment similar to Reefer Madness coming out of Chicago around that time from the Inter-State Narcotic Association, who happen to have been based out of our office building at the Monadnock!

Marijuana was Legal During Prohibition

So that gives us some social bearings of the time, but what were the legalities? During Prohibition, the Federal Government was busy policing bootleggers and hard narcotics.  So it mostly left legislation of marijuana up to the states. State legislators faced a choice. Was marijuana a medicine to be prescribed, cigarettes to be taxed, or narcotics to be banned?

Illinois didn’t ban marijuana until 1931. Which means, yes, marijuana was legal in Chicago during most of Prohibition. Throughout the 1920s it was legal to get high, but not drunk, in Chicago.

Why Marijuana Was Eventually Banned

Now let’s ask ourselves the big question, why outlaw marijuana back then? The campaign against marijuana is very much a campaign against Mexican immigrants. A large number of Mexican emigrants fled to the US in the ’10s and ’20s to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Like almost all immigrants back then, they settled in and started acclimating, including in Chicago. Business owners, as they had for a century already, recruited them en masse as a new source of cheap labor. Then the Great Depression savaged the American job market. This led to a spike in xenophobia, with Mexican immigrants being particularly easy scapegoats. Banning a recreational drug associated with Mexican immigrants was an extension of this fear and anger.

Anti-German sentiments during WWI paved the way for the passage of Prohibition in 1919. So, it makes a sad amount of sense that racial tensions played a similar role in the prohibition of marijuana as well over a decade later.  

I had not realized how directly today’s debate on the legalization of marijuana connects back to Prohibition’s ban of alcohol. Thanks for asking great questions on our walking tours.  Keep ’em coming!

– Elizabeth Tieri, Lead Tour Guide

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