American Turban

California’s early Sikh immigrants and the beginnings of the drug war

"Group of sikh immigrants, Angel Island, 1910 courtesy of California State Parks" (from: sikhfoundation.org)

"Group of sikh immigrants, Angel Island, 1910 courtesy of California State Parks" (from: sikhfoundation.org)

Via Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast, we learn that those opposed to the emerging and growing use of marijuana at the turn of the 20th century in America used the Sikh immigrants to California in 1910 as their earliest scapegoats:

In a remarkable letter to [architect of US narcotics policy Hamilton Wright], dated July 2, 1911, [California Board of Pharmacy member Henry Finger] urged that the Conference take up the cannabis issue:

“Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast…the fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit…

Cannabis indica is the scientific name of the Indian species of marijuana, which is also referred to as hashish or hasheesh. It would be somewhat surprising if it was the Sikhs who were responsible for the emerging demand for marijuana in California, since the use of intoxicants is discouraged in Sikhism (although this prohibition has not been strictly followed by many Sikhs in cases such as alcohol).

Perhaps it was the backlash towards growing Sikh and Indian immigration that was the basis for the blame:

The “Hindoos,” actually East Indian immigrant of Sikh religion and Punjabi origin, had become a popular target of anti-immigrant sentiment after several boatloads arrived in San Francisco in 1910. Their arrival sparked an uproar of protest from Asian exclusionists, who pronounced them to be even more unfit for American civilization than the Chinese. Their influx was promptly stanched by immigration authorities, leaving little more than 2,000 in the state, mostly in agricultural areas of the Central Valley. The Hindoos were widely denounced for their outlandish customs, dirty clothes, strange food, suspect morals, and especially their propensity to work for low wages. Aside from Finger, however, no one complained about their use of cannabis. To the contrary, their defenders portrayed them as hard-working and sober. “The taking of drugs as a habit scarcely exists among them,” wrote one observer.

It’s an interesting intersection between the history of Sikh immigration to the United States and the history of marijuana legalization and the drug war, which provides more evidence of the early anti-immigrant sentiments that the Sikhs had to face when they first started coming to this country.

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