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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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

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I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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