Reflect on the Racist History of Cannabis

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

With the House of Representatives decriminalizing cannabis and the new Biden-Harris administration taking office, the Cannabis industry is ever more hopeful about a near future legalization bill at the federal level. Celebrities need not wait to jump into the game: Mike Tyson building a cannabis resort and Seth Rogen launching his new cannabis brand Houseplant. States that recently legalized marijuana such as New Jersey and New York are hurrying to implement cannabis legislations. While these movements in the Cannabis market are incredibly exciting, it’s worth a moment to take a step back and understand the history of cannabis – one that is deeply divided and racist.

Early History

Cannabis has not always been illegal. Around the US, states began to criminalize marijuana in the early 1900s. Interestingly, California was the first to do so. Cannabis’ racist root started around the 1930s during the great depression when the unemployment rate was sky high and people were concerned about Mexican immigrants taking jobs away (sounds familiar?). It was commonly believed then that “the Mexicans brought the marijuana” and as such, this Spanish term was used in a derogatory way.

Some of us might remember Reefer Madness,” a propaganda film sponsored by a church group to tell a cautionary tale about the dangers of using cannabis. Considered by many as one of the worst films ever made (seriously 39% on Rotten Tomatoes and 3.8 on IMDb), the movie painted cannabis as a substance that drove people to rape, kill others, or throw themselves off the bridge.

Cannabis was painted in an insidious way by both businesses and politicians alike. The Dupont Company had recently patented nylon, saw hemp as a direct competitor, and advocated for banning the plant. Harry J. Anslinger, then the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA), publicly characterized cannabis as brown and black people’s drugs and that it caused people to like jazz, made white women have sex with black men, and led Latino and black men to forget their place in society.

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

As Nixon sought to get reelected in the 1972 election, he had two big concerns: the “hippies” and African Americans. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s then Counsel for Domestic Affairs and Watergate co-conspirator, helped spearhead the effort to list cannabis, alongside illicit drugs like heroin and LSD, as a Schedule I drug. They convinced Congress to pass the Controlled Substances Act despite the American Medical Association’s opposition). In an interview with Dan Baum in 1994, Ehrlichman admitted to lying to Congress and his racism agenda:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. 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.”

— Dan Baum, Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs, Harper's Magazine (April 2016)

Long-Term Racial Disparity Consequences

The War on Drugs has led to the war on people of color. Here are some staggering statistics from the ACLU (between 2001-2010) demonstrating its consequences:

  • 52% of all drug arrests in 2010 were for marijuana

  • Over 7 million people were busted for cannabis possession in 2010 - that’s one bust every 37 seconds!

  • African Americans are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In states like Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, this rate can be as high as 7.5 to 8.5 times

  • States spent about $3.7 billion on marijuana arrests every year

What the Future Holds

As the cannabis industry continues to mature, it’s imperative that states and businesses alike put social equity front and center of their agenda. The State of Illinois has been leading the charge by expunging almost 500,000 cannabis-related arrest records as of 2020. Similarly, the city of Cambridge implemented an ordinance that includes a two-year moratorium allowing only economic empowerment businesses to receive a permit for a recreational store. Unfortunately, there is still a very long road ahead to make up for communities of color, especially African Americans disproportionally harmed by the war on drugs. Our long-term vision at munchy is to grow a social equity brand that not only supports but also employs qualified individuals regardless of their past marijuana arrest records.