February is right around the corner, and it marks both black history month and marijuana awareness month. Interestingly enough, you can’t have one without the other. There’s a huge story to tell surrounding the modern use of cannabis and its turbulent history within our nation, completely interlaced with the literal blood, sweat, and tears of African Americans.
Black history happens every day, and even though 400+ years of history cannot just be crammed into a 28-day month, it’s still important to take the time to honor the massive role that black people play in shaping history here in the United States. One area to explore is cannabis history, as its history in this country has been connected to institutionalized racism, stereotypes, and of course, triumph.
It all started way before the war on drugs. When you ask most people why cannabis was made illegal, they connect it immediately to the Nixon administration, or further, Nancy Reagan, though cannabis history started long before that on the backs of black and brown people.
Back in the 13th century, cannabis was first cultivated in Central Asia before spreading to Southeast Asia, India, and Arab countries. Arabic merchants in the 13th century brought cannabis, then called “dagga” to Africa where it was introduced to African people. However, historical records indicated that Indian indentured laborers and servants in South Africa had been using cannabis for hundreds of years before British and French military officers brought it to West Africa around World War 2.
This is where the history of cannabis takes a turn. It was originally used by slave owners and people who owned indentured servants to play a role in pacifying the slaves, keeping them fit for work and stagnant. In the 19th century, the British Military began moving thousands of indentured Indian laborers and African slaves to the Caribbean, and the slave trade brought cannabis with them. The slave trade in the Caribbean is responsible for the global spread and dissemination of cannabis.
From there, cannabis entered the United States via the slave trade, Caribbean sailors, Creole immigrants arriving in New Orleans, and Mexican citizens escaping the violence caused by the Mexican Revolution in their native country. Black and brown people were consuming cannabis recreationally at this point, and racist people convinced themselves that if they didn’t abstain, they weren’t upstanding members of society.
However, cannabis grown during the time of slavery was cultivated, cared for, and harvested by black slaves from West Africa. Hemp was brought to the United States, and the American Hemp Industry was born in Kentucky. Kentucky’s hemp industry was enormous and driving the economy in early America, entirely on the backs of slave labor at the hands of Virginia and Kentucky slave masters.
At the Worlds Fair in Chicago 1893, Kentucky had a huge booth where they sold pounds of hemp seeds to other farmers. In the agricultural building, a huge mural was painted, crediting hemp as a pillar in the American economy. And even though racist whites were mostly against using cannabis, they could (and many would) partake in smoking hashish at the Turkish and Chinese booths.
However, Kentucky was the largest producer of hemp, crediting it for its many uses and cheap costs to produce. It was also home to one of the largest slave populations in the country to support the crop. This was steady until the civil war, when there was a forced decline in slave labor. However, the hemp industry was still thriving because now ex-slave owners could force black people into lifelong indentured servitude to continue supporting the industry.
A broken system was in place, but that was about to change in the 1930s. In the 1920s, jazz and swing music, largely made by black people, was becoming wildly popular. Speakeasy’s and underground music scenes were huge during prohibition among all types of people, and that made archaic white people in power very uncomfortable. While they tried to push alcohol prohibition on the people in the 1920s, In the 1930s, lots of propaganda was released against cannabis. It starts with one Harry Anslinger, who was head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the presidencies of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, until 1962.
He took it upon himself to demonize cannabis use, claiming that it made black people “forget their place” in society. He turned the nation against the use of cannabis through fear-mongering propaganda and racist rhetoric. He tied Jazz and swing music, which were almost purely black American forms of music, with satanism, violence, and inter-race mixing. He made scientifically false claims that cannabis caused violence and things like rape against white women by Mexican immigrants and black Americans. He also created a strong association of terror with Mexican immigrants who helped make cannabis popular in the US in the first place.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.” – Harry Anslinger
While Anslinger was on his racist rhetoric, more propaganda began bubbling up, including films like Reefer Madness which showed teenagers who smoked marijuana hallucinating, murdering, and raping. Eventually, the country moved to make cannabis use illegal in 1937.
Fast forward to 1971, when the Nixon administration launched the War on Drugs. Cannabis arrests were skyrocketing, and this is still the case even today. Arrests made during the war on drugs are disproportionately impactful against people of color. In 2010, a study conducted by the ACLU found that more than half of the drug arrests in the US were for mere cannabis possession, and even though white people and black people consume cannabis at an equal rate, black people were still four times more likely to be arrested.
The War on Drugs was a policy specifically designed to target black communities as revealed by John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic advisor in 1994.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. Do you understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
This policy created an industrial prison complex of privatized prisons fueled solely by funneling hundreds of thousands of black and brown people into jails for cannabis possession. Even today, there are still thousands of people of color in jail for a drug that has been legalized in most US states at this point. In Colorado, for example, prohibition is over, and consumption is equal across racial lines, but black people still face arrest at a 10x higher rate than white people. Even though cannabis arrests in Colorado are down in general, there is still a distinct racial disparity that needs to be addressed.
Restorative justice is in order since criminalizing cannabis was proven to be weaponized against people of color systematically since the 1930s. When it comes to equality and equity, equity is the clear route if anything is to be done to heal these communities which have been so affected by the War on Drugs. Some solutions include repealing and expunging cannabis-related arrests to other programs that would offer these communities no-interest loans, technical assistance, and business incubation. In newer cannabis industries, many states are taking the extra step to ensure that half of all cannabis business permits go to people of color in their legislature.
The legal cannabis industry is still run predominantly by white people – even though cannabis history and black history were cultivated in the same soil. While many states are passing laws to recognize this history and the systemic disparities against people of color, many roadblocks remain. It won’t be enough to make up for centuries of injustice that destroyed entire communities and systematically oppressed people of color socially and economically. However, if we acknowledge the past and look to the future, baby steps in the right direction are still steps in the right direction.
“The best way to celebrate Black History Month is to acknowledge the plights, tribulations, and triumphs of the Black people around you, all 365 days a year,” Blunted writes. “It’s listening to us when we say we need more support, and y’all giving it. It’s hiring black people for their voices instead of taking them for free and acting like you’re doing them a favor. It’s stepping outside of your comfort zone and speaking out for our rights. Overall these are all simple examples that you can apply to your life as easily as buying black in the month of June.”
“Black history is cannabis history. Black history is the United States history. The good, the bad and the ugly are all permanently interlaced. So when we celebrate hemps’ legalization or pop fireworks on July 4th, we also need to acknowledge in the same breath that black people’s literal blood, sweat, and tears are behind those celebrations.”