The Link Between Cannabis History and Black History
Article written by
Ruth LemonVP of Operations
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
For Black History Month, we’re taking a deeper look at the way African American history connects to the history of cannabis in the United States.
The War on Drugs might be your first thought, a political campaign labeling drugs (including marijuana) “public enemy number one” by past president Richard Nixon. Of the many devastating consequences of the War on Drugs were the millions of people incarcerated for drug offenses — with Black people and other minorities arrested at an exponentially higher rate.
That said, the story actually starts hundreds of years before cannabis was criminalized in the 1930s and when the country itself was still fighting for freedom from the British Empire. Let’s look back in time to see the impact and connection Black culture has had on the growth of this powerful medicinal plant.
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Enslaved African People Grew Most of the Hemp in Early America
Did you know there was a point in time when it was illegal not to grow hemp?
In 1619, Virginia was the first to pass such a law, with Massachusetts and Connecticut quickly following suit. Even in states like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, New England, and the Carolinas, where it wasn’t mandated to grow hemp, government subsidies were used to encourage cultivating cannabis crops.
If you learned about the 13 Colonies that settled in America in the 18th century growing up, you might remember being taught about the necessity of crops like tobacco, sugar, flax, and cotton. Hemp is often excluded from that list, even though 80 percent of clothing was made from hemp at the time.
Hemp is a type of cannabis plant but doesn’t have the same psychoactive properties as marijuana crops with more than 0.3% THC. Along with clothes, hemp was used to make canvas sails, which were crucial to vessels at sea.
Of course, people were needed to cultivate hemp. Enslaved African people were the ones who worked in fields, growing crops for white European colonists. Interestingly, working the hemp fields was said to be a “preferred” job by enslaved workers as it often left them unsupervised and occasionally offered the chance to be paid – usually only if they exceeded their daily quotas.
As history shows, slavery continued long past the times of mandated hemp cultivation, and racism would continue to find its way into the story of cannabis again and again.
The ‘Reefer Madness’ Era Focused on People of Color
Fast forward to the 1800s, and there are now no federal restrictions on marijuana. Hemp fiber is still being used to make common everyday things like clothes, paper, textiles, and rope. Cannabis was listed as an ingredient in many over-the-counter medicines like cough syrup — an early nod to the medicinal properties of the plant.
In the early 1900s, Mexican immigrants started fleeing to the United States and introduced the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally. It didn’t take long for everyone to catch on and find enjoyment in this new use of marijuana. But the release of a film called Reefer Madness in 1936 snuffed out harmony around the plant and incited panic in America. It showcased inaccurate depictions of first-time marijuana users plagued by hallucinations and being triggered to commit violent acts like rape and even murder.
A year later, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, taxing cannabis sales for the first time. The man behind the law was Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of what was formerly known as the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was one of the first to “connect” supposed violent marijuana-induced crimes to African Americans and Hispanic people. It was a farce fueled by racism, and unfortunately, it helped cement racist ideals around cannabis use and people of color that still persist to this day.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., 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 know, the Marihuana Tax Act was not the end of the U.S. government’s fight against the “evils” of marijuana and targeting people of color. Jumping forward a few more decades to 1971, the Nixon administration was hell-bent on eradicating cannabis use altogether.
The Marihuana Tax Act was repealed and replaced with the Controlled Substances Act, which began Nixon’s infamous War on Drugs.
“The Nixon campaign 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.” – John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic advisor
The years that followed shifted views on marijuana from a dangerous drug that incited violence to a different stereotype. Parents and police warned that cannabis use would make you lazy and unmotivated, and was popularly called a “gateway drug” that leads to harder drug use. This negative image of cannabis and those who used it (even for medicinal purposes) was something that sadly stuck, and to this day, the War on Drugs is one of the longest-standing battles in U.S. history.
The Fight for Freedom and Change Continues
In the decades since cannabis prohibition and its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, arrests and incarcerations have swept the nation.
Studies have found that even though medical and recreational marijuana is legal in much of the country, people of color are still arrested for marijuana-related offenses at almost twice the rate of white people. The U.S. has had — and continues to have — a major problem with mass incarceration and systemic racism within the criminal justice system.
Even now, more than 40,000 Americans are in prison over cannabis, the majority of them minorities and young adults. As of 2018, marijuana arrests accounted for 40% of all drug arrests that year. One of the best ways to protect yourself legally and ensure you’re complying with state laws is to always carry your medical marijuana card.
Cannabis is now legal in most of the U.S. for medicinal purposes and is available for recreational use in a handful of states. We want to reflect on the past to see how far we’ve come — how far we still need to go — and celebrate entrepreneurs and Black-owned businesses finding success in the cannabis industry.
Celebrating Black History Month, we should never forget all the hardships that this country was founded on. Black history and cannabis history have been intertwined for centuries; while the fight for freedom, change, and equality isn’t over yet, Black communities are coming together to find common growth and pave the way for a better future.
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