by: Jujuan, Dispensary Technician
Black History Month is upon us once again, and although ‘Black History’ is actually just American history, let us not forget the sacrifices and contributions Black and Latinx People have made to the cannabis industry and history as a whole. Musicians like Louis Armstrong were avid marijuana users during the Jazz era, citing marijuana as being “a thousand times better than whiskey.” Bob Marley (Happy birthday to a King) brought cultural awareness of cannabis to a broader audience, and the intersection of cannabis and hip-hop is arguably one of the pillars upon which acceptance and appreciation for cannabis were built. Black Sunday by Cypress Hill, The Chronic by Dr. Dre, and Doggystyle by Snoop Doggy Dogg (at the time) were among the first mainstream pop-culture references and exposure to cannabis experienced by a generation of teenagers. Films like “Up in Smoke” helped normalize the everyday use of marijuana and “showed how innocent marijuana really is and how much of a racial excuse it was for the cops and for the establishment. It was just an excuse to harass hippies and black people, and brown people,” as felt by Tommy Chong. One can confidently say that these few examples out of many helped usher in modern-day legalization.
In the 1930s, despite overturning prohibition on alcohol, the Prohibition Act declared that cannabis was still considered a dangerous drug and made illegal in any form in every state. How did this come to pass? Why was cannabis, a great multi-purpose plant, made illegal and considered a “dangerous drug”? A look at cannabis history reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it holds many ties to the histories of Black people and other people of color, and therefore demands our attention. This history was never taught to us and, dare I say, hidden, because America was built on the labor of slaves and institutionalized racism.
In the early 1900s, an influx of Mexican settlers came to the US escaping political turmoil. With them, they brought the practice of smoking cannabis (even though cannabis was demonized in other places as well, especially in Mexico) and it TOOK OFF. The Mexican-Spanish word for the plant, “marihuana”grew in popularity, although some speculated this was done to promote the foreignness of the drug and thus stoke xenophobia. Sensationalized headlines about the drug began to appear. In 1936 a little film called “Reefer Madness” was released and with it came the many misconceptions and deceptions of marijuana and the many different groups of people who consumed it during the time.
Around this time the media started to portray the flower as a gateway drug and compared it to very different substances, like opioids, such as morphine and heroin. This propaganda pushed congress to pass the Marijuana Stamp Act of 1937, which was written by our country’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (known today as the DEA), Harry Anslinger. Harry Anslinger is known for making unseemly comments like, “this was a drug black men used to seduce white women,” and, “the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” Anslinger managed to turn a nation against marijuana by turning it against itself through racist, alarmist rhetoric. This unnecessary bill brought the country’s first federal anti-marijuana measure.
This was only one of many racially charged prohibition policies. Fast forward to 1971, Nixon announced his War on Drugs, a policy designed to disproportionately target black communities, and it created an industrial prison complex nourished by arresting hundreds of thousands of black people for cannabis possession. A study by the ACLU found that in 2010 more than half of all U.S. drug arrests were for cannabis possession only and despite the fact that white people were consuming cannabis at the same rate as black people, black people were about four times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than white people, while Latinos were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.
Having a marijuana conviction on your record can make it difficult to secure and maintain employment, housing, or secure government assistance for the rest of your life. This is why clearing people’s records of marijuana convictions is a necessary addition to any legalization measure. If we believe that marijuana is not worthy of criminal intervention, then it is only right we stop the suffering inflicted on people by a marijuana prosecution, especially since we know this disproportionately falls on the shoulders and families of low-income communities and communities of color.
As the green rush continues to grow ever strong, one can’t help but wonder when the unfair and unjust imprisonments of POC for marijuana possession charges will be expunged from their records to once again live a normal life. Black and Brown people have sacrificed a lot for this country and deserve not only racial justice but economic justice as well.
About the Author
Jujuan Martinez has been an avid Marijuana user for over seven years and has been apart of the legal marijuana industry for approximately one year and has helped countless patients with their ailments by studying the effects of cannabis and its many uses. Jujuan –born an Afro-Latino– has faced much oppression in his life and fights for equal rights and benefits for his fellow community members, cannabis users and fellow persons of color. Martinez is also down to stare into the eyes of Social and Economic Justice!