Marijuana (copy) (copy)

A 23-year-old Madison, Wis., resident smokes a joint in a downtown apartment on March 31, 2019.

As a Mexican American with over a decade in the hospitality industry, I have to say that the Latino community (and other communities of color) have suffered long enough from the xenophobic laws and stigmas surrounding cannabis.

Why do I call them xenophobic — and how did they get here?

To sum up a longer, but relevant story, Harry Anslinger (arguably worse than Nixon, definitely more racist) was the federal commissioner who drafted and helped pass the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937”.

This is important because up until this point, cannabis use was largely unregulated in the U.S.

Anslinger noticed that it was frequently smoked like tobacco by many of the migrant workers, jazz musicians and other groups he deplored.

In one of Anslinger’s articles, he declared, “Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men.” Using his prejudice as fuel, he created one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in American history.

Yes, that ubiquitous reefer madness “Marihuana” poster (with roots in hell) was designed to demonize cannabis by emphasizing its “strange Mexican name."

Within the act’s first year of enforcement, its bias against communities of color was blatant. African Americans were four times as likely to be arrested for the same offenses as their white counterparts, while Latinos were nearly nine times more likely. 

I’d tell you what the statistics are today, but the truth is, we don’t know. There is a severe lack of data when it comes to Latinos in the justice system. Only 15 states record ethnicity in their arrest records.  All states report on race. However, I know from experience that Latinos often get processed under “white.” This makes getting an accurate number of incarcerated Latinos presently impossible, in addition to altering the data on Caucasian incarceration.

In Wisconsin, Latinos make up just 3.6 % of the population yet account for over 5.4 % of our incarcerated population.

Reform is necessary, and it takes all of us. With two-thirds of Americans in favor of overall legalization, why aren’t we there already?

Last May, when asked about legalization, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, bluntly told Rolling Stone: "When we swear an oath to this country we swear an oath to 'liberty and justice for all.' That’s why I don’t really, frankly, excuse my language, don’t give a damn about what the politics of this are. It’s so clearly the right thing to do.” 

I’ll state it more bluntly.

We need more of our Caucasian elected officials to take a public stance in support of legalization. The moves we are seeing by the local alders here in Madison are a great first step.

Latinos make up 18.1% of the U.S. population but are grievously underrepresented, making up only 1% of all federal and local elected officials. Why don’t more Latinos run for office? That’s a dilemma we don’t have time to cover in this op-ed. (But in summary, xenophobia.)

So. Will cannabis legalization be enough to repair the damage of disproportionate arrests and incarceration? No. It won’t.

However, the positive impact it will bring to our citizens, their families and our communities as a whole is undeniable.

It’s my sincere hope to soon see all our citizens, of every race and ethnicity be granted an official pardon for cannabis-related offenses. I also look forward to living in a state where something I consider a part of my ethnic identity is finally free.

You know, a plant.

Nathan Grajeda is an executive chef in Madison. A Los Angeles native from a family of 11, he has been cooking since he was an amoeba (and in Wisconsin since 2014). His goal is to spread smiles and inspire positive change with tacos and the written word. When not behind the stove, he enjoys giving his kids piggyback rides, dates with his fiancée, and playing guitar.

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