The Racist Roots of Cannabis Prohibition

In honour of Black History Month, we thought we'd share with you a bit of cannabis culture history to share how race and cannabis culture are interconnected inextricably.  As we celebrate Black History Month, we share this information to provide context as to how racism has been used to justify the criminalization of cannabis throughout history. In order to build a better cannabis culture for tomorrow, we must learn from the past.   


Black History Month


It is believed African populations were first introduced to cannabis sativa and hemp during the 13th century, when travelling Arab merchants brought seeds with them through the trade routes of the day. Hemp was a highly coveted crop for making textiles, clothing and rope. It was even a mandated crop for early British settlers in North America, as hemp was valuable for making superior sails and ropes to cotton - which could not withstand the harsh conditions at sea. The production of hemp was vital naval superiority and thus deemed of importance to the national security of the British empire.  


Map of Africa


As colonial populations established trade routes in the Caribbean, enslaved African people and indentured servants were brought from India to work on sugar plantations and in rubber production. These populations brought cannabis seed with them, and cannabis use as recreation developed among the displaced African field workers.  


After the British outlawed slavery in 1833, these communities began to settle in Jamaica and those who would immigrate to the American south, brought cannabis recreation with them. By the early 20th century, a wave of Mexican immigrant farm workers who used cannabis recreationally, along with the African-Caribbean immigrants of the day were villainized In North America.  


Cannabis and Hemp Seeds


In the early 20th century hemp and cannabis were not federally criminalized in the U.S. As the psychoactive element of cannabis-use became known in association with immigrant populations, demonization of cannabis use became more widespread through racist propaganda. Thus began a socio-political campaign rooted in racism to criminalize cannabis.  



The anti-cannabis rhetoric made its way into Canadian popular culture with the publication of magistrate, judge and feminist activist Emily Murphy’s, The Black Candle in 1922. The book was highly influential at the time, depicting the influence of drugs among immigrant populations as a grand conspiracy to take destroy the white race. Murphy depicted cannabis as the Mexican influence of the international conspiracy, its use leading to complete insanity. Today, Emily Murphy’s racist views are widely swept under the rug and she is remembered as a trailblazer of women’s rights in Canada.  


Because cannabis use had become popular among black jazz musicians in New Orleans and Mexican field workers, they were targeted in particular as degenerate devil worshippers who preyed upon white communities.


 The first ever commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1930), Harry Anslinger, championed racist sentiments toward Jazz, calling it an evil form of music created by degenerates under the influence of marijuana. Anslinger chose to refer to cannabis as marijuana because of its' implicitly negative association with Mexican immigrant communities. Though Anslinger himself knew his claims to be unfounded, he needed to justify the existence of the Bureau after heroin and cocaine were outlawed and alcohol prohibition ended.  



The hysterical myths about cannabis were further amplified by the release of Reefer Madness in 1936, a famously absurd film that depicts cannabis use as a gateway to madness, rape and murder.  


The sentiment in popular culture entered into law with the passing of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively banned cannabis use and cultivation through the United States. Hemp was inadvertently ensnared into this prohibitive law by wrongful association with psycho-active forms of cannabis sativa. By 1938, black people in America were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis related charged than whites. This, despite the fact that cannabis use had become popularized in white populations as well and the white population outnumbered the black population by nearly ten to one. In 1952 the Boggs Act made sentencing mandatory for all drug-related charges in the United States. 


African American Inmate


In 1968, the control of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control was given to the Justice Department under the Johnson administration. This caused drug-related prison sentences to accelerate. Because of the disparity in drug charges among white and black populations, the prison system population became disproportionately black. Many of those were incarcerated due to non-violent drug offences.  


The era of mass incarceration officially kicked off after the Nixon administration famously declared war on drugs. The 'war on drugs,' became a vehicle to justify targeting poor urban communities, predominantly of colour.   



Nixon's chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman admitted as much to Harper's magazine in 1994 when reflecting on the 1968 election, "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, 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."  


Billions of dollars were spent every year over the next decades to heavily police impoverished communities of colour and institutionalize the residents, again, despite cannabis use being proportionally equal to that of white communities. A study from the ACLU in 2010 reported that black people were still nearly four times more likely than white people to face cannabis-related arrest. 


Cannabis Legalization


Despite legalization in Canada and several U.S. states, the destruction of the war on drugs is still reflected in the prison system and communities of colour. It is important to face the racist roots of cannabis prohibition to inform the cannabis culture of today toward a brighter tomorrow. 

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    Published by Future Harvest

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  • Feb 23, 2022
  • Category: Articles
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