Crazed Mexicans, Marijhuana Addicted Children and More Reefer Madness from the New York Times Archives

August 1, 2014 | Amy K. Nelson

On Sunday, the New York Times publicly endorsed the legalization of weed and this week, it followed up that op-ed with numerous articles supporting its position. The paper addressed some of the xenophobic and medically inaccurate myths surrounding the plant in the past, so we decided to take a took a look back at its archives to see how the Paper of Record reported on “marijuana/marihuana” issues back in the day. While all of the articles appeared in the pages of the Times, some are from wire services. See some of the highlights below. (Full articles uploaded here for your perusal.)

“DOCTORS OF ANCIENT MEXICO,” JANUARY 6, 1901: While the “primitive Mexicans” were advanced in the field of medicine, they also were habitually known to use marihuana, “which sends its victims running amuck when awaken from the long, deathlike sleep it produces.” The indians’ innocent looks belied their tomfoolery, baffling the government when they brought weed into prison. Usually, “weak friends manage to secretly convey it to friends in the big prison of Harlem, or wherever they be, and woe be to the luckless guards first to meet the crazy victim of the harmless-looking plant.”

“MEXICAN, CRAZED MARIJUANA, RUNS AMOK WITH KITCHEN KNIFE,” FEBRUARY 21, 1925: It happened in Sonora, Mexico, at a local hospital. That’s when 27-year-old Escrado Valle became so crazed after smoking marihuana, he took a knife from the kitchen, stabbed the cook and another attendant then ran into a ward and stabbed four more. All six died. Valle was eventually taken down by another hospital employee and once he got to his cell, he denied all knowledge of what the marihuana allegedly made him do.

“MEXICO BANS MARIJUANA,” DECEMBER 29, 1925: Over a decade before the U.S. enacted legislation to ban weed, Mexico took steps to criminalize the “drug plant which crazes its addicts.” Far from a benign plant, it was fuel for murderers: “Marihuana leaves, smoked in cigarettes, produce murderous delirium. Its addicts often become insane. Scientists say its effects are more terrible than those of any intoxicant or drug.” 

“MARIJUANA SMOKING IS REPORTED SAFE,” NOVEMBER 21, 1926: Hamilton Main was an American seaman who had the misfortune of getting caught in Panama with marijuana cigarettes. He was both smoking them and in possession of them, which got him a year in a Panamanian jail. This underscored the larger story which is that a panel comprised of experts concluded that marijuana “which is the Latin American name for hemp and is probably a combination of the names Mary and Jane in Spanish, Maria y Juana” concluded that there was no medical evidence that use of the drug led to insanity, which had previously been reported.

“ADOLPH SPRECKLES HELD,” DECEMBER 13, 1933: Adolph Spreckles, a man whose wealth was due to being part of a sugar family from New York and San Francisco, was in Mexico when, due to his own curiosity, he purchased some marihuana cigarettes. When Spreckles later traveled to Cuba, he carried them into the country. Customs agents were not happy with this discovery and once they told him that bringing the drug into their country was a crime, Spreckles “took the suspected package out of his luggage and threw the cigarettes in the bay.” The agents were able to recover enough to charge Spreckles, and a court date was set in Havana for the following week. 

“USE OF MARIJUANA SPREADING WEST,” SEPTEMBER 16, 1934: Perhaps it’s because of the large Spanish-American population out west, but whatever the case, in Denver and all of Colorado, “the consumption of marijuana appears to be proceeding, virtually unchecked.” Its use is most associated with Latin Americans, but all classes are thought to be catching on quick. Pool halls and beer gardens are where you can find “the poisonous weed which maddens the senses and emaciates the body of the user.” There is also concern for school children and their increased use of it, and humans are not alone in its destructive, toxic war path. When marijuana is mixed with hay, it causes death to the horses who eat it.

“STATE FINDS MANY CHILDREN ARE ADDICTED TO WEED,” APRIL 14, 1935: The rise of marijuana use was so rapid, and so many school children were becoming addicted to weed, that the New Mexico state legislature passed laws banning the drug.

“MARIJUANA PATCH AT JAIL,” JULY 17, 1935: There used to be a jail on Welfare Island — later renamed Roosevelt Island — and authorities there found a “small plot planted with marijuana leaves.” It is believed that inmates were growing the crop while tending to their outdoor duties, so the warden was ordered to eradicate the garden using a method that must have delighted everyone involved: “The workmen, prisoners at the penitentiary, carefully pulled up every weed and burned it.”

“CATNIP CIGARETTES ARE SOLD IN HARLEM,” AUGUST 21, 1941: It’s unclear how or why, but 21-year-old Manuel Benite came up with an idea to sell marijuana cigarettes. Nothing about that seemed extraordinary. What set Benite apart was in place of the drug “analysis had shown [the cigarettes] really contained catnip.” An undercover officer bought six catnip cigarettes off Benite in Harlem and instead of facing a drug charge, he was slapped with a lesser petit larceny. Magistrate Michael A. Ford, expressing concern for all the cats in Harlem, said they “had better get busy, or there may be a shortage of catnip.”

“TO BURN SEIZED DRUGS,” DECEMBER 20, 1943: The furnace at 400 Broome Street got quite a lift on a December day when cops burned three thousand “units” of opium, cocaine, marijuana and “pantopan, a new commodity in the addict trade.” The value of the drugs was $75,000 and acting fifth deputy police commissioner Vincent E. Finn oversaw the drugs’ destruction.

“INQUIRY INTO BOOGIE WOOGIE,” JULY 16, 1944: As jazz music began to explode on the scene, an offshoot of the musical genre known as boogie-woogie was developed by mostly black piano players. It was popular with young people and at one point, considered one of the contributing factors to “juvenile delinquency” in the United States. But parents need not worry, it’s not nearly as harmful as drugs: “Be it known, then, that boogie boogie has nothing uncommon with marijuana or opium or any of those other things that you slip into dark dens to take a few furtive drags of.”

“19 POUNDS FOUND IN HOTEL ROOM, NEW MEXICAN DISARMED,” SEPTEMBER 22, 1955: Marvin Komoner may have lost sight in his right eye fighting in the Korean War, but that didn’t prevent him from finding work as a marijuana dealer. The 22-year-old father of two lived in New Mexico, but was busted on the west side of the city with a pound of weed. For some reason, Komoner brought detectives back to his midtown hotel room, where he had stashed 19 more pounds of it, all wrapped in cellophane. Komoner, who also worked in public relations after his stint in the Air Force, pulled a pistol out but detectives were able to wrestle it away. He later told cops that his connect was in Juarez, Mexico. The estimated value of the drugs was $25,000.

“STERILIZATION OR JAIL,” MAY 25, 1966: Nancy Hernandez was just 21 years old, had two kids and was living with an alleged heroin user and dealer. She herself said she didn’t use any drugs, but when she was caught being in the same room as marihuana smoke, it was enough to enrage judge Frank P. Kearney, who gave Ms. Hernandez two options. She could either go to jail, or be sterilized. Saying, “It seemed to me she should not have more children because of her propensity to live an immoral life.” Ms. Hernandez was convicted of a misdemeanor of “being in a place where marihuana was used.” She chose jail over sterilization.

“LEGISLATIVE PANEL RENEWS PLEA TO EASE MARIJUANA PENALTIES,” AUGUST 5, 1975: Alexander J. Menza was one of the more vociferous leaders when it came to decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. The senator — a democrat from Union County, which is home to Trenton, New Jersey — issued a report, saying “You can’t just keep on arresting a whole generation.” He also argued that the findings produced “no new overwhelming, detrimental medical and scientific evidence that marijuana was physically harmful to a user.” While Menza made clear that the commission was still discouraging its use, he argued that treatment over incarceration should be the best approach.