If you know your history, you may already know that the prohibition against cannabis in the United States has been rooted in racial propaganda from the beginning, especially toward black Americans. Marijuana was labeled as a “black drug” profiling cannabis as a vice limited to the black American population starting from the early 1900s. From the mid-1800s “marihuana” was known as an upper-class white recreational drug.
And then the narrative changed. Mexican and Caribbean black families began to immigrate to the United States. The Latin name “cannabis” was replaced with the Spanish word “marijuana” in an attempt to put a negative and racial profile on the healing herb, linking it directly to the concern and distrust white Americans felt for immigrants—particularly, visible minorities.
The Era of Terror: Racial Prejudice About Cannabis Began With Harry Anslinger
When Harry Anslinger became the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA), racial prejudice was used to fuel an anti-marijuana campaign in the United States. The wheels of propaganda started turning during Anslinger’s 30-year regulatory reign, including a 1936 film called “Reefer Madness.” The Marijuana Tax Act was implemented shortly afterward, in 1937.
During the earliest days of the American “War on Drugs” Mexican residents were nine times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white Americans. And black Americans were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis.
Harry Anslinger himself was an unrepentant racist against black Americans. He famously stated that cannabis made black people “forget their place in society.” He also developed a hatred for the Jazz community, which was predominantly composed of black vocal artists. Anslinger took a personal and punitive position against jazz performer Billie Holiday.
In 1947, Billie Holiday had reached commercial success, having earned an average of $250,000 per year since 1944 as a vocalist. However, on May 16th Holiday was arrested for personal possession of narcotics (not cannabis) in her New York home. In the court case, “The United States of America vs. Billie Holiday,” the singer was abandoned by her lawyer at the last minute and appeared without representation in court. Holiday plead guilty to recreational drug use and served just under one year in at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia before being released on March 16, 1948. Less than two weeks later, Holiday played to a sold-out crowd on March 27, 1948.
Holiday continued to live in fear for years afterward, with relentless threats from Anslinger and persistent police harassment from 1939 to 1959. She developed health problems and was hospitalized on May 31, 1959. Harry Anslinger had her hospital room raided and there was a constant police presence until she died at the age of 44 years on July 17, 1959.
The American “War on Drugs” continued with President Nixon and President Regan, who penned new anti-drug regulations in support of First Lady Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. An interesting side note is that Edward Weidenfeld, a successful Washington lawyer and senior adviser to 6 U.S. Presidents, now owns a cannabis farm called Phyto Management. The farm supplies dispensaries in Washington State.
Weidenfeld developed Parkinson’s Disease and changed his mind about cannabis after he began using it successfully to treat unmanaged muscular tremors. But it is Edward Weidenfeld’s change in understanding and opinion about medical cannabis that reflects the true nature of the “War on Drugs” political campaigns.
“I respected Mrs. Reagan and the ‘Just Say No’ program, but the more I learned about the war on drugs, the more I learned it was really a war selectively fought against minorities in the country.”
— Edward Weidenfeld, Founder of Phyto Management
Since the early 1900s, cannabis has been the subject of propaganda and a tool for racial profiling of visible minorities in the United States. The “bad guys” in mainstream media lean toward a black antagonist. Criminal or malicious activities are inaccurately and wrongfully attributed to black communities. The “bad influence” in a group of friends on TV (most likely to be the one with drugs) was portrayed by black actors. The subtle and sometimes overt association between drugs and black Americans has prevailed for over 120 years.
Today, mainstream acceptance of marijuana is happening quickly. This is thanks in part to the legalization of medical cannabis for all qualified patients in doctor-supervised programs. Louisiana, for example, has made the process of getting a medical marijuana card a simple process for both doctors and patients. With this unilateral acceptance, however, comes new awareness and intolerance for racial arrest bias.
How Could Cannabis Legal Form Create a Positive Impact for Black Americans?
States like Oklahoma (which has the largest annual incarceration rate in the country) are already using legislative reform to reduce the number of citizens incarcerated on charges of marijuana possession for personal use.
Recent statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report that black Americans are still (on average) four times more likely to be arrested on a personal-use cannabis charge than white citizens. Furthermore, the arrest rates and racial disparity in cannabis possession charges are declining in states that have legalized recreational use, medical cannabis, or both. Prohibition states are seeing an acceleration of marijuana arrest rates and arresting black Americans up to ten times more often. The issue of racism is still a reality.
Here are six ways that cannabis legal form in the United States will benefit black Americans:
1. Decriminalization of Personal Possession of Marijuana
In the eyes of many state lawmakers, marijuana is the lesser of all evils which it comes to controlled substances for recreational use. One of the biggest concerns about state-sanctioned medical cannabis programs is that it can increase black market competition, therefore increasing criminal violence. However, those instances are separate from the average marijuana user, who is non-violent and uses cannabis for recreation anxiety, or chronic symptom relief.
Should any amount of marijuana in your possession result in a criminal record or incarceration? Let us compare two polar opposites ends of the regulatory spectrum. In Texas, possession of >2 ounces of cannabis carries a Class B misdemeanor charge, a $2000 fine, and up to 180 days in jail. However, there are signs that things may be changing in Texas, as an internal memo from the Texas Department of Public Safety was leaked. This memo directed officers to issue citations, rather than conduct arrests, for small personal-use amounts.
First-offense marijuana possession charges (averaging less than 2 or 3 ounces) in states like Mississippi, New York, and New Hampshire have been decriminalized. There are now 26 states that have full or partial decriminalization of cannabis.
Another statistical example paints the picture more clearly. In 2012, Colorado was the first state to legalize marijuana. The number of arrests on marijuana charges dropped by 52% from 2012 to 2017. However, the rate of arrests for Black Americans was 233 per 100,000, nearly double the rate that white citizens were charged in identical cannabis offenses. Even more shocking than that statistic, is the fact that Colorado’s population is approximately 80% caucasian.
2. An Increase of Employment Opportunities for Black Americans With Misdemeanor Charges
The higher than average arrest rate of black Americans means a higher than average rate of a misdemeanor and criminal record among black communities. As dispensaries continue to open in legalized states, this large number of employment opportunities may be out of reach for many black citizens who have a prior charge for marijuana possession.
In legalized states, hiring any dispensary employee that has a criminal record (misdemeanor or felony) is not allowed. The historic arrest bias now presents another kind of prejudice, disqualifying a percentage of the black community from working within the high-growth industry.
3. Redefining the Safe-Use of Medical Cannabis
As more patients explore and report wellness benefits after using medical cannabis, the myths of the ‘healing herb’ are starting to crumble. Racial profiling and assumptions about cannabis being a “Mexican” or “Black” vice, or a habit that contributes to reckless behavior or psychological problems, are being quickly debunked.
Cannabis is not exclusively for black Americans. Nor is it exclusive to white Americans. It is a clinically documented holistic option that can enhance personal wellness and reduce chronic pain. The qualifying health conditions identified by each medically sanctioned state, identify the long list of chronic diseases and symptoms that may be managed with medical marijuana.
The common factor between all the qualifying health diagnoses is that patients of all backgrounds and ethnicities have health problems that are not always managed by conventional medicine and pharmaceuticals. Cannabis legalization will bring another new therapeutic option for Americans to help manage their wellness needs, with a more natural alternative to prescription NSAIDs and opioids.
4. Legal Reform That Releases Americans from Incarceration for Personal-Use Charges
Should citizens have to carry a lifetime burden of missed opportunities because of a cannabis conviction after the state has legalized medical marijuana for personal or medicinal use? That is the question lawmakers across the country are asking right now. They are evaluating the effects of mass expungement of marijuana charges and commuted sentences, as well as the early release of citizens with marijuana personal-use convictions.
While some states are rapidly moving toward the decriminalization of marijuana and releasing citizens who have been incarcerated on cannabis-related charges, there has been no move to automatically expunge a marijuana possession charge.
It is not just the growing crisis of affordability and cost for the burgeoning incarceration problem virtually every state is contending with. It is about the long-term repercussions and human impact of a criminal record. We must rethink what that ultimately costs society—and specifically black Americans—in missed opportunities, education, and career potential.
5. Supporting Qualified Black Business Owners into the Medical Cannabis Industry
Lotteries are held for business licenses in legalized states, which attract investors for cultivation, distributorships and retail dispensaries, and transportation licenses. Medical cannabis is a high-growth market in the United States and is accelerating rapidly. That means tremendous revenue potential for investors and cannapreneurs if they can successfully meet regulatory standards, licensing restrictions, and capital investment requirements.
Medical cannabis businesses owned by black Americans make up only 4% of the industry in the United States. Did you also know that venture capital funds are infrequently provided to black entrepreneurs? Not to mention, female black-owned businesses are even less likely to receive funding when the venture capital sector itself is predominantly white.
For black entrepreneurs, it feels like the deck is stacked against them. Because until we began looking more closely at some of the prejudice and disparities (thanks to organizations like “Black Lives Matter”) we didn’t fully understand how black citizens and entrepreneurs are being effectively shut-out. And those that did realize it, were hesitant to change it.
In November 2019, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot commented on the Illinois lottery for dispensaries, revealing an awareness of the problem:
“Today’s lottery for existing dispensaries marks the first step in standing up legalized cannabis in Chicago. We’re not satisfied with the current state of equity in the cannabis industry, and we won’t stop until we see meaningful change in it.“
— Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago
The comment was made after several media outlets (and some prospective business owners) complained that the recent lottery featured almost 99% white applicants. While a social equity plan for the medical cannabis industry in Illinois is inked in legislation, it is not being practiced in the opinion of many residents. That bias or prejudice reaches into ancillary industries as well, such as licenses for transportation of cannabis products.
6. Requiring Medical Dispensaries to Provide Access for Patients in Black Communities
There is a low statistical probability that a cannabis dispensary will open in a predominantly black community. True or false? True. Again, racial bias is either a conscious or subconscious part of choosing where new dispensaries are located. Either by municipal zoning or at the cannabis corporate level. It also may be impacted by regional income demographic bias.
There are several social justice organizations that are working with lawmakers at the state level, to create more equity for Black Americans in the medical cannabis industry. One of them is Equity First (Repairing the Harms of the War on Drugs) which lobbies for minority businesses and citizens who have been impacted by prejudice on marijuana charges.
The Last Prisoner Project advocates for the release of Americans incarcerated for cannabis-related charges. This group also lobbies for mass expungement of personal marijuana possession charges. Addressing the need for black business investment resources, the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) has partnered with Merida Capital to fund minority and black-owned cannabis business enterprises.