A Brief History Of The Racialization of Cannabis

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The relationship the United States has with the cannabis plant has undergone several iterations since the plant was introduced to American society in 1606 in the form of hemp. This volatile relationship has become a powerful pressure gauge for conversations on racial and criminal justice reform across the country.

Let’s leap back in time—to way before the catastrophic War on Drugs—to see how cannabis and anti-Black racism became so intrinsically linked. Understanding the racist history of cannabis in the United States is imperative—because not only is it crucial to shine a light on the current injustices facing PoC cannabis users—it’s also important that we’re intimately acquainted with cannabis-related oppression, punishment, and exclusion. Lest we continue to repeat it.

Hemp Farming and Slavery

Prominent US forefathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were two of the biggest investors in slavery and in the country’s flourishing hemp industry. Jefferson was even quoted saying, "Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of this country." And indeed, hemp was a necessary tool during the first half of the 17th century as the first American colonies were being established.

Eventually in 1619, the state of Virginia would pass a law making it a requirement for all colonies to grow hemp. As the United States began to become more established, states like New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania tried to establish similar laws to make hemp a requirement to grow. Those measures never passed, and a large portion of hemp production remained in the Southern states simply because there were more slaves.

Hemp was Kentucky's biggest cash crop during the 1800's. Kentucky's rich soil and bountiful rainfall created the perfect environment to grow hemp. Rows of luscious hemp resembled a green sea rolling across the Kentucky landscape. The crop was bountiful and beautiful, but harvesting and creating products from them was a very laborious task.

White farmers believed that African Americans were better equipped to handle the hard work that harvesting required. So under threat of violence and without a choice, African American men and women became experts at harvesting and creating materials—like rope, sailcloth, and industrial bags—from the hemp plant.

In his book, A History Of The Hemp Industry in Kentucky, historian James F. Hopkins writes, "Without hemp, slavery might not have flourished in Kentucky, since other agricultural products of the state were not conducive to the extensive use of bondsmen. On the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of Negro slaves, and it is a significant fact that the heaviest concentration of slavery was in the hemp producing area."

In 1850, it was reported that Kentucky's hemp industry produced 40,000 tons of hemp worth $5 million dollars. The state’s hemp industry flourished purely because of slave labor. To produce hemp, extensive manual labor was required on farms and in factories. Compared to the labor needed to pick cotton, hemp farms and factories required less slaves but they were still subject to working 16+ hour days while handling the rough fibers produced by the plant.

How History Is Being Rectified

Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana is a nationwide organization that offers programming in various states, like the recent Florida Hemp Farming Education Tour hosted by founder Roz McCarthy. The organization creates opportunities for interested minorities to become experts in harvesting hemp for their own economic gain and financial freedom. McCarthy also hosts a series of webinars such as “Sow The Land” that teach minorities how to start hemp businesses.

The End of the Civil War and Marijuana Menace

During the Civil War—and with the abolition of slavery—there was a great decline in American hemp production. Freed African Americans faced a number of struggles, including being scammed into sharecropping and the introduction of the Jim Crow laws. And, by the end of the 19th century and into the early parts of the 20th century, cannabis was being used for its medicinal properties.

And, it began to pop-up across the South and on the East Coast: the end of the Mexican Revolution brought more Mexican immigrants into the US and they brought “marijuana” with them. In his article, Reefer Madness, Eric Scholosser details how cannabis propaganda began to expand in the US at this time:

“The political upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Revolution of 1910 led to a wave of Mexican immigration to states throughout the American Southwest. The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking 'marijuana.' Police officers in Texas claimed that cannabis incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”

He continues: “Sailors and West Indian immigrants brought the practice of smoking cannabis to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans, newspaper articles began to associate the drug with African American jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites. ‘The Marijuana Menace,’ as sketched by anti-drug campaigners, was personified by inferior races and social deviants.”

How History Is Being Rectified

Florida A&M University’s Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) creates and provides Florida’s large Caribbean and Latin immigrant population with educational materials on cannabis in Haitian Creole, French, and Spanish. They are able to share their podcast, MMERI Forum Radio, on local radio stations that target Spanish speaking audiences. Currently, they are reaching 1.2M minorities across the state, especially in high immigrant areas like Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, and Tampa-St.Petersburg.

The Jazz Era and Cannabis Imprisonment

Prohibition of cannabis began in the South, particularly in Louisiana. Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the Louisiana State Board of Health, began to spread his anti-cannabis sentiments in August of 1920, telling Governor John M. Parker about the "powerful narcotic, causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucinations."

In 1920, The Volstead Act was passed, raising the price of alcohol across the country and making cannabis more attractive. “Tea Pads"—social spaces where individuals could purchase cannabis for as cheap as 25 cents—began to pop up across the US. Popular in cities like New York and New Orleans, they were also places where a lot of Black jazz artists were known to hang out.

“It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro,” states Louis Armstrong in his biography. “It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.”

But Harry Anslinger, the country’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was pushing hard to make cannabis illegal. After the abolition of slavery, the US government couldn't risk having popular culture be influenced by Black Americans in any way. Jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday became targets.

As did Mexican immigrants. During the Great Depression, there was a growing fear of them as “others,” which only encouraged even more propaganda to spread; “Marijuana” became more associated with poor Black and Brown people who came from communities full of crime and violence.

In 1937, The Marijuana Stamp Act was passed. The arguments Anslinger and his team used to justify the new prohibition were not based on scientific fact, but steeped in racial hate. They perpetrated lies that Black men would use cannabis to seduce and rape white women, and that it would encourage Mexicans to kill their neighbors.

Cannabis use among minorities was a form of creative expression and a kind of therapy to help make the realities of this country easier to deal with. But Anslinger's cannabis prohibition made it all the more easier for Nixon's future War on Drugs to succeed: It normalized the association between cannabis use and Black and Brown people so much that once law enforcement began locking up millions for non-violent drug crimes, the rest of the country largely stood by and watched. Families and homes become broken, and more and more Black and Brown men and women were ultimately locked behind bars or dead.

How History Is Being Rectified

Groups like Cannaclusive, headed by Mary Pryor, are focused on creating a space where minority owned businesses can be seen and be heard in today’s white-washed cannabis industry. They offer a pack of stock images that cannabis businesses can use in their advertising to show more diversity and a database of minority-owned businesses. And, via their Instagram, they showcase how people are working to create change for minorities in the cannabis industry.

*This article was originally published in February 2020 and was updated in June 2020 to reflect the current programming of the organizations featured.

Lyneisha Watson is the High Folks columnist for High Times Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Blavity, and Black Girl in Om.