Photo Credit: Green Camp
For all the good cannabis does, cannabis history is filled with prejudice and racism. The narrative written by white leaders regarding black people and cannabis is based on false propaganda to keep black communities and families at a constant disadvantage.
We owe everything that the cannabis industry is today to slaves and the black men and women who were and still are incarcerated for cannabis convictions. There’s no longer a reason to separate black history from cannabis history. It’s a disservice to those whose lives and families were treated unfairly and persecuted for consuming cannabis.
If we want to make the cannabis industry what it deserves to be for black entrepreneurs, it starts by educating others on the full history of the black community and their ancestor’s involvement with cannabis.
The Origins of the Cannabis Plant
We now have a much better understanding of cannabis history thanks to modern research and studies. Unsurprisingly, cannabis history also includes extreme levels of racism and hyperbolic claims that painted cannabis consumers to be lazy, sexual deviants.
Barney Warf, a professor from the University of Kansas, authored a paper outlining the historical geography and origins of cannabis. According to his research, cannabis was first cultivated in Central Asia before making its way into regions of Southeast Asia, India, and Arab countries. It would later be introduced to Africa by Arab merchants in the 13th century. Other evidence shows Indian indentured servants who lived in South Africa used cannabis for hundreds of years before making its way into Western Africa during WWII by British and French soldiers.
Cannabis Finds a New Home in the Caribbean
In the 1800s, the British military moved over a million indentured Indian servants to the Caribbean with plenty of cannabis seeds in tow. However, after slavery was abolished in Jamaica and Barbados in 1834, Indian workers moved to Jamaica, causing cannabis to garner even more popularity.
America’s Sordid and Racist History with Cannabis
Cannabis later entered the U.S. by way of Caribbean sailors and immigrants coming to New Orleans, and Mexican citizens escaping the Mexican Revolution. This also gave birth to America’s Hemp Industry where the cannabis plant was cultivated and harvested by slaves. During this time, Kentucky was the biggest hemp producer in the country, and by extension, also home to one of the largest slave populations in the nation. It was the only state that remained a key player in the industry until WWI and continued to be the leading producer of hemp seeds in America.
What some cannabis history books won’t discuss, however, is the way cannabis was used as a tool for slavery. Cannabis is shown to have been used by slave owners and traders to pacify slaves. The slave owners would encourage slaves to plant marijuana in the sugar cane fields so that they could tend to their personal hemp crop on their downtime. It was believed that periods of inactivity would promote laziness. And so, slave owners figured reducing a slave’s period of inactivity would combat this ideology.
Cannabis Prohibition in the 1930s
Photo Credit: Hope CBD
Every person well-versed in cannabis history knows the name Harry Anslinger. You really can’t associate the cannabis industry without the man who initiated cannabis prohibition.
Harry Anslinger was America’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. However, upon stepping into this new role, there wasn’t much Anslinger had to get a handle on. Alcohol prohibition was quickly coming to an end and heroin and cocaine had already been outlawed. So, how else could he keep the narcotics agency afloat? By going after cannabis instead.
Anslinger planned on turning the tides in his favor by tarnishing the reputation of the cannabis plant. From the very start, he used racism and fear-mongering to perpetuate a negative outlook on cannabis and those who smoked it, which was explicitly directed at black and brown communities. The stereotype that most black and brown people were frequent cannabis consumers helped lead the path to prohibition.
Anslinger heavily tied cannabis use to Jazz music (great insight into this can be found in the new Billie Holiday vs the United States movie on Hulu). He demonized Jazz as ‘satanic’ and that marijuana caused white women to seek sexual relations with black and brown men. Anslinger was abhorrently opposed to interracial relationships and managed to blame cannabis for his personal agenda. And who can forget about the propaganda film, Reefer Madness, which only fueled society’s false hysteria for cannabis.
Nixon’s War on Drugs
Another part of cannabis history that we are still dealing with today is the impact of Nixon’s infamous War on Drugs. Nixon launched the War on Drugs campaign in 1971. In just the first year, cannabis-related arrests skyrocketed from 100,000 to over 420,000. These arrests, once again, predominantly consisted of men and women from black and brown communities. Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor at the time, John Ehrlichman, even admitted to the racist overtones behind the War on Drugs in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine.
“By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing them both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
Social Equity Issues in the Cannabis Industry in the 21st Century
Despite massive strides in the legal cannabis industry, disparities in social equity are still rampantly present. Blacks are still four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than whites. A study presented by the ACLU found cannabis arrests made up 43% of all drug arrests in 2018. Nearly 89% of those arrests were only for possession.
The cannabis industry isn’t where it should or needs to be for BIPOC, especially for business entrepreneurs. Access to funds, banking, high license and permit fees, and the limitations from land-use laws hasn’t helped level the playing field as much as it should. The only way real change can be made is by continually educating others about the black history of cannabis, the legacy market, and offering better social equity programs for black and brown communities affected by the witch hunt that was the War on Drugs.
Where Do Activists and Leaders in the Cannabis Industry Go From Here?
Online cannabis magazines like the Traveling Vegan Cannabis Blog aim to do just that. Supporting black creators and business owners in the cannabis industry means righting the wrongs from years of discrimination and racist tactics meant to keep the black community ‘in their place.’
Since writing for this blog, I have come across many talented and dedicated black entrepreneurs, writers, and activists all fighting for the same opportunities that their ancestors never had a chance of having. The journey to building an inclusive and diverse cannabis industry is still bumpy and far-off from where many would like it to be. It’s the duty of everyone who is and hopes to work in the cannabis industry to speak on social equity issues and never let the conversations dissuade others from knowing the truth about the black history of cannabis.
“I’m Alyna, a writer from Florida and strong advocate for the mental health community. Through my writing and advocacy, I hope to add an educating voice that helps the with mood disorders learn to navigate life in a calm and self-fulfilling way. I consume Cannabis as a means to understand and connect with the world.“
Written By: Alyna Paparazzi
Edited by: Veronica Castillo
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