Social conservatives, centrists, and even plenty of moderate liberals have long rallied against the legalization of cannabis consumption. Evidence is notoriously scant on the drug’s potential harm to individuals and society; in fact, most research on cannabis has found overwhelming benefit to users and their communities, both in terms of medical applications and in positive economic development. Yet, many continue to oppose unrestricted access to cannabis products — and in doing so, many are perpetuating a longstanding racism that has almost always guided America’s stance on drugs.
There are dozens of good reasons to support cannabis legalization, and ending an unnecessarily racist policy is certainly one of the most important. Here is a quick rundown of how America’s history with cannabis has always been one of unadulterated racism.
White Americans Used Cannabis for Decades Before the First Bans
Cannabis is one of the oldest domesticated plants, and it has been used for its psychoactive effects for millennia. Though white Europeans were hardly as taken by the drug as other cultures during the Age of Exploration, cannabis plants were taken to the New World; in fact, early American colonies relied on hemp crops to support local economies for centuries before the Revolutionary War. During the 17th and 18th centuries, most hemp was raised on southern plantations by African slaves, some of whom tended personal cannabis crops to practice African spiritual rites that included smoking cannabis.
Though colonial white Americans largely ignored the hemp-related rituals of their slaves, in the 19th century, hemp-based medical treatments became exceedingly popular. Queen Victoria popularized medical marijuana in the Western world when she began using cannabis tinctures to relieve the pain of her menstrual cramps. Soon after, Western economies saw an influx of cannabis cures, most of which fell under the umbrella of patent medicines. White Americans clamored for cannabis tinctures, oils, salves and other products, many of which did provide useful health effects but also almost certainly got users high.
The first cannabis bans in the U.S. occurred just after the turn of the 20th century, when the country saw an influx of non-European immigrants, to include Asians and Central and South Americans. Unlike white Americans, these immigrants tended to smoke cannabis in pipes, which is a more visible form of drug use than tinctures and oils. Though white Americans had long been benefiting from the effects of cannabis, it wasn’t until large numbers of people of color were enjoying the advantages of the drug did white Americans take offense.
Prohibition Has Always Been Used to Control Communities of Color
The very first cannabis ban in the United States was passed in California, of all places. While other states saw an influx of Latinx immigrants from the southern border, white Californians witnessed a large number of Asian immigrants, particularly those from the “Near” East — countries like Turkey, Arabia and Armenia, who cultivated cannabis for the creation of hashish. The earliest California law made possession of products made with “Indian hemp” or “loco-weed” a misdemeanor for those lacking a prescription.
Other states rapidly adopted similar regulations, largely by connecting white Americans’ inherent xenophobia and fears of immigrant violence to the cannabis consumed within immigrant communities. Ignoble politicians and researchers claimed that the drug had a more pronounced effect on people of color, who were summarily fined so severely as to limit their economic power and eventually incarcerated, removed from society entirely.
Unfortunately, restrictions on cannabis were so effective with Asian and Latinx communities that white Americans began using them to control African Americans, too. Though white Americans and Black Americans have used cannabis at roughly the same rates through the 20th and 21st centuries, Black Americans are between four and eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses.
Reversing Cannabis Regulations Isn’t Helping Communities of Color
While racial and social justice is a common rallying cry for pro-cannabis activists around the country, the truth is that legalizing cannabis medically and recreationally isn’t doing much to overcome the discrimination of more than a century of cannabis prohibition and racial persecution. Though People of Color can visit a Fort Collins dispensary to buy weed without fear of incarceration, they are largely prevented from capitalizing on the nascent cannabis industry due to restrictive regulations on dispensary licensing, zoning and more. As a result, communities of color remain economically disadvantaged from decades of drug-related oppression.
Some states are taking tentative steps to right the racial wrongs of the War on Drugs, but many social equity initiatives are falling short. The racism infecting America’s roots will continue to impact the cannabis industry — but if white Americans listen and work with BIPOC leaders, we might find a way forward for everyone.