Women in Cannabis: Billie Holiday

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we wanted to take a look back at some of the women throughout history that informed cannabis culture through the arts, science, politics and activism. These are but a few examples of trailblazing women whose influence reverberates through canna-culture today.


Women in Cannabis: Billie Holiday


To kick-off our Women in Cannabis series, we are highlighting the life and historical significance of the immensely talented: Billie Holliday.  


As mentioned in our blog, ‘The Racist Roots of Cannabis Prohibition,” the first-ever head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, used the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 to terrorize minority communities. Anslinger famously targeted the black jazz community with law enforcement after cannabis-use and possession was prohibited by law.


Billie Holliday was known to smoke cannabis between her sets.


Unfortunately for Anslinger, the jazz community was very tight-knit and resistant to talking to the Feds. Anslinger’s efforts to imprison the jazz community on pot charges waned, as it proved to be more difficult than originally thought. Determined to make villains of black jazz artists in the public eye, Anslinger narrowed his focus and began a campaign of Federal investigations targeting jazz singer Billie Holliday.


Billie Holiday


Billie Holliday was born in 1915, and became famous in the 1930’s for her emotional vocal performances. Holliday’s childhood was extremely traumatic and she treated the pain of near constant sexual abuse later in life with drugs and alcohol. Billie Holliday, was known to smoke cannabis between her sets, but it was heroin and alcohol that caused her death from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-four.    


Anslinger hated jazz, believing it to be the music of drug-crazed degenerates and was an overtly racist individual. After Anslinger heard Holliday’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit,’ an early civil rights protest anthem adapted from a poem. Holliday sang, “Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees,” with an unnervingly emotive delivery.  


The idea that a jazz artist, a black woman and someone known to struggle with addiction would confront racism was too much for Anslinger to tolerate. 
Billie Holiday


Federal agents informed Holliday that if she continued to perform the song, there would be consequences, but the threat would not stop Holliday. Angered by the act of defiance, Anslinger took special interest in having Holliday locked up.  


Anslinger enlisted the help of a black undercover narcotics agent to befriend Billie Holliday, earn her trust and follow her around. Though the two would become close, the agent would eventually have her busted in a sting operation which led to a prison one year prison sentence in 1947. During the trial Holliday pleaded with the judge to be treated and rehabilitated rather than imprisoned, stating that she just wanted to find the cure for her addiction.  



Billie Holiday Quote



Once out of prison, Holliday’s license to perform in any venue which served alcohol was revoked, severely hindering her ability to work in the industry. She did, however, go one to play several sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall in New York, which many regard as her best years of performing.  


Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall


Holliday was arrested again for opium possession by Anslinger’s agents, but she was found not guilty of the charges as the evidence seemed dubious, and the arresting agent had a history of planting drugs on women.  


Holliday’s health declined from years of substance abuse and was hospitalized in intensive care for cirrhosis of the liver. By her own admission, the years of hounding by law enforcement had taken their toll to the point where Holliday thought of ending her own life.


She also thought it inhumane that addicts were punished as criminals rather than rehabilitated.  


Billie Holiday


While in hospital, federal agents raided her room to find a very minuscule amount of heroin in her room, suspiciously out of reach of Holliday, who was bedridden and gravely ill. Because they could not arrest her in her condition, they had agents posted at her door. In order to facilitate the raid and her subsequent interrogation, federal agents had Billie removed from the list of patients in critical condition. While under police supervision, Holliday’s methadone treatment was halted and she died in hospital shortly thereafter.  


Billie Holliday’s personal use of cannabis has little to do with her lasting influence in cannabis culture. Anslinger was able to weaponize drug laws with the Marihuana Tax Act to target people of colour.


The reason that we remember her as a pioneering woman in cannabis culture is the courage and defiance, she showed to use her talent to stand up for civil rights while facing government persecution due to racial prejudice. 

Thank you for taking the time to read. Look out next week for another instalment in our series, Women in Cannabis.

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  • Mar 08, 2022
  • Category: Articles
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