Henry Rollins Traces the Racist Origins of Marijuana Prohibition

The singer has resumed trawling history for facts about weed, the American flag and more for the H2 series '10 Things You Don't Know About'

Henry Rollins
Peter Pakvis/Redferns
Henry Rollins
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"If we legalize marijuana, then you're legalizing a 'brown person's drug,'" Henry Rollins says with a sarcastic tone. "And we don't really let the brown people do what that want in this country, if you look at the history. If marijuana is legal, then your kids will be imbibing in what those 'jazz jigaboos' used to get up to." According to Rollins, the racist agenda behind the drug's ban is more curious than the current perceptions of marijuana prohibition. 

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It's just one of the topics the former Black Flag and Rollins Band howler will explore in the next season of 10 Things You Didn't Know About, a series he hosts on TV network H2 in which he goes on a fact-finding mission to uncover forgotten facts about a particular subject. This season, which premieres with an episode about the American flag on Saturday at 10 p.m. EST, will feature episodes about the Hoover Dam, Texas and the civil rights movement, among others.

"America's connection with hemp is interesting," Rollins tells Rolling Stone. "Harry Anslinger, the guy who said your children will stab you in your sleep if they smoke this stuff [leading to its prohibition in the Thirties], was basically promoting racism and bigotry coming on as good Christian moral ethics. 'Save America from this thing.' Really, you should save America from illiteracy and pigheaded ignorance like racism and misogyny and homophobia. That's your danger; not the weed that Louis Armstrong apparently smoked, like, every day – though he seemed to play a pretty mean horn as far as my record collection tells me."

While working on the marijuana episode, Rollins – who underscores he has no interest in smoking weed himself – discovered that colonial Americans were urged to grow hemp for rope, clothing and sails and that hemp oil was so common it could be purchased from the Sears, Roebuck catalog. He visited the Cannabis Cup in Denver for the episode, and got inside the government-funded grow house in Ole Miss, Mississippi, the only one in America. "The visuals are insane," he says. "It's like a Walmart-sized building of hydroponically grown pot. Buckets of hash oil. Duffel bags of weed."

Beyond marijuana, Rollins delved deep into the civil rights movement this season to shine a light on Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old African-American girl who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person nine months before Rosa Parks. "She was just being a good 10th grader," Rollins says. "But she wasn't ready for primetime – she's a minor – so Rosa Parks was ready for primetime. Civil rights activists saw that this could be a good vehicle to get this discussion going, as far as equality and discrimination, and they were right and Rosa Parks did get the buses desegregated."

The singer had some of the most fun of the season looking into the history of the American flag, which he discovered originally had two extra stripes and uncovered a peculiarity behind the Pledge of Allegiance. Although there were two pledges early on, the one Americans say today was originally accompanied not by placing the right hand over one's heart but stretching out his or her arm, palm down, in a "Roman" salute. "Unfortunately, that gesture was picking up some speed in a certain part of the European continent and they went, 'Whoa. No,'" Rollins says, referring to the start of the Second World War.

For the show, Rollins and his crew visited a high school and asked the students to recreate the pledge with the original Nazi-style salute – and he was very happy with the results. "Everyone's arm hesitated," Rollins says gleefully. "And one kid, he stopped. He stopped with his arm at a 90-degree angle. And I had to say, 'No, no, no, finish.' Because everything in you goes, 'No, no, I don't want to do that.'

"It's like when someone says the N-word literally and to quote that person, some people will just do it and other people would say, 'You know...that word,'" he continues. "They just don't want to go there. And how can you blame anyone for not wanting to go there? I don't want to go there. But you have this whole classroom doing this thing that used to be done in America. It meant no harm. It was a hand gesture and it got popular elsewhere under really awful circumstances. To film a bunch of wonderful, fantastic young Americans doing it with historical context, this is fascinating stuff."

Rollins' other favorite moment from the flag episode was enforcing a largely forgotten aspect of the Flag Code. While filming in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July, the singer and his crew found several violations of section eight, point D, "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel."

"Everyone had their American flag sunglasses on, their T-shirts, their American flag pants on," he says. "So we gathered all of these people together, and I was having fun. Like, 'Did you know that you're in violation?' I'm like, 'Violation, violation, violation.' And then we point to my boots that I wear on the show, which have a little 'Made in America' flag sewn to the side. That is in violation. So they put a camera on me, and I'm like, 'Oh.'"

Ultimately, Rollins' main goal for 10 Things You Don't Know About is to "pitch and promote" history in a way that's more interesting than the core curriculum in high school. It's a project that the singer – whose acting credits include Jack Frost and Bad Boys II, says he's happy to be associated with. "I've done a lot of TV and film I wasn't proud of," he says. "And I'll be the first to admit it. But this show, I'm so happy about."

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