For Black History Month, we’ve decided to take a deeper look at the ways that African American history connects to the history of cannabis in the United States. The War on Drugs might be your first thought, with millions incarcerated and Black people and other minorities at an exponentially higher rate.
But the story really starts hundreds of years before the criminalization of cannabis. Long before the common recreational use of cannabis in the U.S., when the country itself was still fighting for freedom from the Britain Empire.
African People Grew Most of the Hemp in Early America
Did you know there was a point in time where it was illegal not to grow hemp?
In 1619, Virginia was the first to pass such a law with Massachusetts and Connecticut soon doing the same. Even in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, New England and both North and South Carolina, where it was not mandated to grow hemp, subsidies were used to encourage cultivation of the crop.
When we learned about the American Colonies we were taught about the necessity of crops like tobacco, sugar, flax, and cotton but hemp is often excluded from that list. At the time, 80 percent of clothing was made from hemp and it was used, among other things, in the making of canvas sails, crucial to the Empire’s power because they relied heavily on their dominance at sea.
Of course, most of you see where this is going… It was enslaved African people who worked most of those fields, growing those crops for the white colonists from Europe.
Interestingly, working the hemp fields was a "preferred" job for enslaved African people as they occasionally had the chance to be paid if they exceeded their daily quotas and were often left unsupervised.
Slavery went on long past mandated hemp cultivation, but racism has found its way into the story of cannabis in the United States again and again.
The Reefer Madness Era Focused on People of Color
Fast forward a few hundred years to the 1800s and there are no federal restrictions on cannabis. Hemp fiber is still being used to make common everyday things like clothes, paper and ropes. You could find cannabis listed as an ingredient on many over-the-counter medicines like cough syrup (an early nod to the medicinal properties of the plant).
Jump ahead another hundred years, to the early 1900s when Mexican immigrants first started fleeing to the U.S., bringing with them the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally. It didn’t take long for the American people to catch on and find enjoyment in this new use for the plant and the Spanish name marihuana started being used more commonly.
Then the 1936 release of the propaganda film Reefer Madness incited panic in the American people. It was here that the inaccurate depictions of marijuana really began as the film showed first-time consumers in situations including hallucinations, attempted rape and even murder.
Only a year later, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, taxing cannabis sales for the first time. The man behind the Marihuana Tax Act, Harry Anslinger, was one of the first to "connect" supposed violent marijuana induced crimes to Black and Hispanic people.
"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
Racism Fueled Prohibition and the War on Drugs
As we all know, the Marihuana Tax Act was not the end of the American government’s fight against marijuana or their using the plant against people of color and opposing views. Jumping through time a few more decades to 1971 and the Nixon Administration, the Tax Act was repealed and replaced with the Controlled Substances Act, beginning the War on Drugs.
"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." – Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, Harper’s Magazine, 1994
The years that followed shifted the view on marijuana from a dangerous drug that incited violence to one that was stereotyped as making you lazy and unmotivated, as a gateway drug that would lead to harder drug use. This image of cannabis and those who consume it is something that stuck, unfortunately, as the War on Drugs took hold in the U.S.
The Fight for Freedom and Change Is Not Over Yet
In the decades since the criminalization and prohibition of cannabis and its classification as a Schedule I drug arrests over the plant have swept the nation. Studies have found that even now, when medical and recreational marijuana is legal in so much of the U.S., people of color are still arrested for marijuana related "crimes" at almost twice the rate that white people are. Our country has a problem with mass incarceration and systemic racism within the criminal justice system.
Cannabis is now legal in most of the United States for medicinal purposes and is recreationally available in a handful of states that continues to grow each year. People of color, who have been most impacted by the ongoing War on Drugs, are finding success and helping to shape the legal cannabis industry. One of the best ways to protect yourself legally and ensure you are complying with state legislation is to always carry your medical marijuana card.
Celebrating Black History month, we should never forget all the hardships that have gotten our country to where we are today. Cannabis and Black history have been intertwined since the Colonies, both fights are for freedom, change, and equality, and neither is over yet.