Cannabis & Racism: A History of Injustice
Published on Jun 4, 2020
We have been thinking a lot about the tragic and senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other people of color. We've struggled with what to say in these terrible times. How do you grapple with a system that's built on oppression? How do you console all of those who have lost family members and friends to racist violence? We're still not quite sure we know the right words to say, but we do know that education is very important in these times.
So many people are uninformed about the systematic racism and the oppression black Americans face every day, and we want to do our part to change that. Racism is sadly extremely prevalent when it comes to cannabis and has been for over a hundred years. In this article, we'll explore the racist origins of marijuana prohibition, the current state of racially-charged cannabis arrests, and movements paving the way to make a change.
The Racist History of Marijuana Prohibition
While many might believe that marijuana became illegal due to its psychoactive side-effects and expansive recreational use, there is much more to the story. Let's step back in time to the late 1800s, when cannabis was legal and positively regarded. During these days, hemp was widely used to make clothes and paper from its fiber, and cannabis was prescribed for medicinal purposes. However, when Mexican immigrants entered the U.S. after the revolution in the early 1900s, things started to change. The word "marijuana" is actually a Spanish word for cannabis and the recreational use of it by the new immigrants soon spread across the country.
A key figure in the early stigmatization of marijuana was Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau for more than 30 years, which was the precursor to the DEA. After alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, Anslinger fully turned his attention toward cannabis and essentially created the drug war. Films like "Reefer Madness" were shown to the public, showing the "dangers" of marijuana use. Tough drug laws and unnecessarily long prison sentences were key aspects of Anslinger's tenure and would lay the groundwork for the future of the DEA.
Unfortunately, Anslinger's policies were deeply rooted in racism. He believed that the jazz music that was popular in the black community at the time was a result of cannabis use. He's quoted saying, "reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men" and even stated that "there are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers...This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others." Additionally, Anslinger pushed the idea that marijuana caused violent crimes and was a danger to white women and children in the US.
In 1937, Harry Anslinger helped pass the Marihuana Tax Act which would essentially make cannabis illegal. Throughout the rest of his career, Anslinger would continually go after minorities and would often target the black community specifically. He eventually helped pass the Boggs Act of 1951, which required mandatory sentencing for marijuana convictions and would legally combine marijuana with serious narcotics for the first time. Although he would eventually retire, Harry Anslinger's policies and ideals would remain.
Current State of Racism and Cannabis
Sadly, not much has changed and racism runs rampant in cannabis-associated arrests. Did you know that black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people despite similar usage? In some states, that figure is as high as 9.6 times more likely for a person of color to be arrested. This is all from data reported in 2020 ,which hasn't changed much since similar data was collected seven years ago. The ACLU notes that in 31 states, racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests actually worsened since 2010. Local and state police are given grants based on the number of stops, citations and arrests performed which encourage unjust actions, often toward the black community. Although decriminalization of cannabis and legalization has helped reduce the rates of arrests, there is still a consistent racial disparity in arrests being made.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As you can tell, there is a deep-seated history of racism in cannabis laws and prosecution. With all of the current protests for change, we can't forget reform in the cannabis world. As more states legalize, there must be a push for resentencing of past sentences which affects the black population disproportionately in jail. Furthermore, there needs to be reform in police targeting marijuana. The incentive of funding for increased citations and arrests only leads to unnecessary actions taken by police. Grants should not be given toward punitive measures but rather go toward community programs and health services. These are just a few of the actions recommended by the ACLU, and we're hopeful that further legalization and reform can help erase the racial disparity currently seen. We know that this will not fully remove racism from our society, but will be a small step in making a lasting change.