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Reflect on the Racist History of Cannabis

Updated: Apr 13

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 ask