In the wake of the ongoing protests regarding racial injustice in the US, it’s time for those of us within the cannabis industry to ask ourselves some difficult questions about our contribution to race relations worldwide, and to recognise our massive responsibility to enact change. After all, we’re dealing with a product that has been weaponised by governments for over a century in order to decimate Black, Hispanic and other minority communities, so the end of prohibition represents a vital opportunity to start undoing some of that damage.
Yet the legitimisation of cannabis can just as easily be transformed into yet another means of upholding racial injustice and reinforcing White privilege, as is already becoming apparent. Fortunately we are still at an early stage of this process, which means there’s still time to reshape the cannabis reform movement. To understand how we can build a brighter future, though, we first need to understand our past.
Cannabis policies have ALWAYS been about race
The War on Drugs has never been anything other than a thinly-veiled war on racial minorities, and gathered pace when large numbers of displaced Mexicans arrived in the US following the Mexican Revolution of 1910. These immigrants were the first to introduce cannabis to places like Texas, prompting a local senator to declare that “all Mexicans are crazy, and this [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.[i]” This type of racist nonsense soon became enshrined in law when, in 1914, El Paso became the first city to ban cannabis as part of a wider programme of anti-Hispanic discrimination.
Around the same time, marijuana began to gain popularity in New Orleans, where it soon became associated with Black jazz musicians. Given the establishment’s general hostility to Black people and opposition to jazz, it isn’t surprising that it redoubled its efforts to demonise cannabis. Henry Anslinger, who acted as the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, was the main instigator of this campaign, vomiting out statements like: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.”[ii]
The War on Drugs then went into overdrive when Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, officially branding cannabis a Schedule 1 Substance. Years later, Nixon’s advisor John Erlichman admitted that:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the 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.”[iii]
The effectiveness of this policy can’t be disputed, with federal prisons becoming clogged up with Black and Hispanic people serving long sentences for minor drug offenses. Even today, Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Whites, despite the fact that the rate of cannabis use is roughly equal for both groups[iv]. Aside from being incarcerated, People of Colour are regularly deported, denied benefits or even stripped of custody of their children as a result of petty marijuana charges, while being a drug felon also considerably reduces a person’s employment prospects.
Of course, the problem isn’t limited to the US. In the UK, for instance, Black individuals are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than White people, and 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession[v].
Cannabis reform isn’t addressing this
If the prohibition of cannabis has always been a racial issue then, logically speaking, efforts to decriminalise or legalise the plant should also be tied in with race. Yet it’s telling that the arguments used by cannabis reform advocates very rarely include the undoing of decades of racial injustice. Instead, these debates tend to focus on the plant’s medicinal benefits and the potential revenues that can be gained by taxing marijuana sales. While these are obviously completely valid points to make, it’s shocking how little mention is given to the need to overturn the prejudice that created prohibitionist laws in the first place, or the damage this has done to certain communities.
It’s sad to say, but many campaigners for legalisation believe that arguments about racial justice simply won’t gain enough support, and instead choose to highlight the benefits that policy reform will have for the White majority.
Worse still, there are numerous cases of cannabis reform actually being implemented in order to uphold White privilege. As marijuana became increasingly popular among White people during the 1960s, campaigns to reduce the penalties for these new users began to gather pace, resulting in Congress finally downgrading cannabis possession from a “felony” to a “misdemeanour” in 1970 – a move that has been labelled the “whitening of [the] marijuana use dilemma.” In other words, the need to reform cannabis laws was only acknowledged once White people started getting high.
Even after legalisation, the system remains skewed against minorities
After so many years of relentless discrimination and systemic racism, the marijuana playing field has been left catastrophically uneven. The persistent social inequality attached to this history continues to count against Black, Hispanic and other minority communities, with the result being that they are often excluded from the benefits of decriminalisation or legalisation.
For example, even in US states where weed is legal, smoking in rented accommodation or in public spaces is still not permitted. Given that minorities are far less likely to own their own homes than Whites, many have literally nowhere to go if they want to smoke.
Such restrictions, combined with ongoing racial profiling by police, mean that Black people are still 1.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people – and that’s in states where weed is completely legal.
Historical racism continues to shape the cannabis industry
With the legal and medical cannabis industries now worth billions of dollars, policymakers have had to perform some pretty impressive racial acrobatics in order to readjust their position on marijuana without going soft on discrimination. In the US, for instance, most states have chosen to ban anyone previously convicted of cannabis possession from participating in the legal marijuana market, which obviously excludes many more Black and Hispanic people from this lucrative industry than it does Whites. Apart from Oregon, no state has taken the logical step of expunging all prior convictions after legalising weed, meaning the historical discrimination of minority communities ensures that the White population has first dibs on the legal marijuana market.
Then, of course, there’s the astronomical cost of setting up a cannabis company, with the price of applying for a license and meeting all industry regulations often running into the millions of dollars. With banks still largely unable to help finance these costs because of the fact that cannabis remains illegal at the federal level in the US, it is generally only the very wealthy that can afford to get started – and it’s no secret that racial minorities tend to be far less well-off than White people in America[vi].
As a result of all this, in 2017 only 4.3 percent of people involved in the legal cannabis industry at an ownership or stakeholder level were Black[vii].
The story is no better outside of the US. In Jamaica, for example, the British colonial authorities outlawed cannabis and spent decades harassing the local Rastafari population for their religious use of the plant. Today, many of those who were once at the forefront of prohibition earn huge sums of money through their connections to medical marijuana companies that grow their produce in Jamaica. Meanwhile, small local farmers who can’t afford a license to grow the plant are not only excluded from the country’s highly lucrative medical cannabis industry, but are still prosecuted for cultivating their cannabis illegally.[viii]
What needs to change?
Clearly, legalising or decriminalising cannabis won’t automatically even up the racial playing field, and many of the policies that have been implemented so far have only served to uphold White privilege.
Where marijuana remains illegal, though, legalisation is still obviously the first step towards delivering racial justice, as this will at least bring an end to police harassment of racial minorities. However, it’s essential that this includes the expungement of all prior cannabis convictions, so that people are not haunted by historical discrimination. No one should be denied employment, financial aid or access to the legal marijuana industry as a result of the obscenely racist War on Drugs.
Only once this has been achieved will we be able to start thinking about righting some of the wrongs of the past. No amount of reparations will ever make up for the injustice suffered by certain communities, though using some of the money raised in taxes from legal marijuana sales to bolster these same communities would at least allow the healing process to begin. Residents of the Chicago suburb of Evanston, for example, recently voted to use cannabis tax revenues to support Black members of their community whose lives have been directly hindered by the War on Drugs.
Elsewhere, the city of Oakland has launched a cannabis dispensary equity programme in order to “address past disparities in the cannabis industry by prioritizing victims of the war on drugs and minimizing barriers of entry into the industry.”[ix] This scheme supports underprivileged residents who wish to establish themselves within the legal cannabis market, thereby ensuring that it isn’t just the wealthy who benefit from the end of prohibition.
All in all, there is clearly a lot of work still to be done before the cannabis industry can be deemed racially just. Yet understanding the issues and acknowledging that the entire system is heavily weighted in favour of Whites is an essential first step, and those of us who benefit from this privilege have a responsibility to accept that fact and take the lead in instigating change.