Updated on July 19, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
The connection between racial bias and marijuana is evident in the history of the United States. Statistics show that both black and white Americans use marijuana—medicinal or recreational—at the same rate. Black citizens, however, are 3x more likely to be charged with a marijuana offense, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
This comes as no surprise to black Americans, who have faced persistent bias in the legal system. Black Americans have higher incarceration rates in virtually every type of misdemeanor category compared to white Americans. This is particularly true with regard to marijuana use.
How does this persistent racial bias exist in a country that believes so strongly in civil liberties? The Black Lives Matter movement not only addresses unacceptably high rates of police violence against black Americans but it also blatantly exposes statistically supported bias in rates of incarceration. We want to share some of the histories of the racial bias and historical demonization of marijuana, the “War on Drugs,” and the characterization of marijuana as a “Black problem.”
Marijuana Originated in Asia and Proliferated to Africa as a Cultural Trading Import
In the early 1970s, American lawmakers began significant cultural recategorization of marijuana as a drug common among ‘dark-skinned’ or visible minorities in the United States. The stereotypes began. They painted marijuana as an illegal drug that was cultivated, used, and distributed only by black people or Mexicans.
The truth is that marijuana use did not originate in Africa or in Caribbean countries. The root of marijuana use goes back more than 4,000 years in the Hindu Kush Mountains, (and now you know where the Kush strain and moniker comes from!). Residents in the Kush Mountains grew a strain of Indica that was used for medical anesthesia, religious rites, and spiritual enlightenment.
The Kush Mountain Hindu communities created resins (Charas), used smokable flower, and consumed edibles called “Bhang.” Bhang was essentially a healthy smoothie used for wellness benefits including relaxation, fertility, and relief of pain and inflammation. The Hindi name for marijuana is “Ganja”.
Marijuana plants, propagation, and the consumption of marijuana proliferated into Africa from Asian countries. While the most popular method of consuming marijuana in Asia was through edibles, Africans preferred smoking. While edibles do produce a variety of symptom relief benefits, Africans learned that smoking marijuana produced a faster and stronger effect. It was called different names and commonly referred to as “Hashish,” originating from the 2,000-year-old Egyptian name that translates to “The Herb.”
Marijuana became a popularized medicinal and recreational drug in Europe in the early 1800s. Not all Europeans were keen on marijuana, however. This is where racial bias begins. As British colonialists exploited Africa and sparked the abduction and sale of African slaves (along with French and Portuguese traders), the prejudice against black slaves was linked forever to the rejection of marijuana by polite (white) society.
English colonialists referred to marijuana as tobacco or “African Tobacco.” It was also called “Angolan Tobacco” and “Congo Tobacco”. Essentially, any location where Caucasians were capturing and forcing black people into slavery, the regional tobacco was regarded as an intoxicating evil. It quickly became categorized as a “weakness” among black people, further supporting the violation of their human rights as a lesser race.
Black slaves from Brazil and Portugal referred to marijuana as “fumo” which translates to “smoke.” This word was used to disguise marijuana for fear of punishment by white slave owners. It was also used to help marijuana smokers to universally recognize each other safely.
The Negative Narrative of Marijuana Begins
Interestingly, Caucasian use of marijuana both medically and for recreational purposes was higher than consumption rates for indigenous black communities. Although, it was not socially acceptable and hidden quite well. The development of the stigma regarding marijuana use (for white people) had already begun.
In 1843, one of the first medical journal mentions of marijuana was written, which accurately reported marijuana as a cultural import from India.
“The resin of the cannabis Indica is in general use as an intoxicating agent from the furthermost confines of India to Algiers. If this resin be swallowed, almost invariably the inebriation is of the most cheerful kind, causing the person to sing and dance, to eat food with great relish, and to seek aphrodisiac enjoyment. The intoxication lasts about three hours when sleep supervenes; it is not followed by nausea or sickness, nor by any symptoms, except slight giddiness, worth recording.”
— Source: “The Indian Hemp,” The Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, May 1843.
Most of the references to marijuana in the 1800s pertained to medical use such as pain and symptom relief. However, by the mid-1900s, the narrative about medical marijuana took a sharp politically-motivated turn. Thus began the demonization of marijuana. Considering that America experienced a large influx of immigrants from Asia at that time, marijuana was relegated as a minority and racial legal problem. Minority populations that used marijuana were considered a threat to white American society.
Asian and Mexican immigrants also bore the brunt of racism regarding marijuana use. As more Mexican immigrants began to migrate North to America, references to marijuana as a dangerous drug—that could result in violent behaviors—began immerging in the American press. This article in the New York Times, circa 1925, is an example.
The narrative in the early 1900s clearly blamed ethnic minorities and dark-skinned immigrants for the proliferation of the drug. It was only a “white person” problem if they were ‘tragically’ influenced through exposure to Mexicans, people from India, or Blacks.
The Progression of Propaganda About Marijuana in America
If anyone needed a heavy-hitting public relations expert, it was marijuana. It was first worshiped as a revered herb with valuable medicinal properties, then eventually labeled as the “Devil’s Lettuce.” America began a very deliberate demonization of recreational and medical marijuana by implicating the dangers of use that were not supported by clinical research.
Here are some benchmark historical dates that heightened America’s smear campaign and misinformation about marijuana. This timeline shows the progression of racial bias, linking ethnic minorities (Hispanics and Blacks) with a ‘growing problem’ of marijuana use:
The 1930s brought an influx of Mexican laborers to the United States and exposed Americans to the recreational use of marijuana. Anti-drug campaigns warned against the “Marijuana Menace” perpetrated by immigrants.
The Great Depression brought anti-drug campaigns and propaganda, leading the public to fear marijuana. The campaigns also labeled marijuana use as a deviant behavior, predominantly limited to “racially inferior” citizens and underclass members of society.
In 1936, a French propaganda film called “Reefer Madness” creates a narrative about marijuana as a drug that causes lethargy, low productivity, and criminal behavior. America began to produce propaganda films, calling marijuana the “Weed from Hell” and the use of marijuana as ‘enslavement’ leading to debauchery, murder, and even suicide and insanity.
The “Marihuana Tax Act” was instituted in America in 1937. It was originally passed to levy taxes on hemp products and on the commercial sales of marijuana products
Stricter sentencing laws for marijuana possession were created from 1951 to 1956. The Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 set steep punitive criminal sentences for first offenses, at a fine of $20,000 and 2-10 years in prison.
During the 1960s, marijuana was popularized culturally by the hippie movement. President Kennedy and President Johnson conducted clinical research studies into marijuana and found that marijuana use did not conclusively lead to increased use of hard drugs or acts of violence. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was created in 1968.
In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act categorized marijuana as a Schedule I drug. This is the same classification as highly harmful recreational drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and opiates. The parent movement against drugs begins in America in the mid-1970s, with more propaganda videos demonizing marijuana use.
One of the things you will notice in some of these historical videos is the placement of black teens in the film and their roles. Often, black actors were used to demonstrate how good, white middle to upper-class teens could be lured by friends who were visible minorities.
Harry Anslinger’s Racist Attacks of Marijuana
Harry Anslinger was a heavy hand. He was not afraid to use fear tactics and racial tension to propel a negative narrative about minorities in America and marijuana use. While he managed as the top boss at the Federal Narcotics Bureau (which became the DEA), Anslinger wrote a book called “The Protectors: Narcotics Agents, Citizens and Officials Against Organized Crime.” It was a war on drugs and also a war on blacks and other visible minorities and their culture.
The impact of the negative projection on black communities made the Jazz music scene go virtually underground. Gatherings would incite an unjust raid on the juke joint and a wholescale arrest of black citizens.Anslinger referred to any Mexican, Hispanic, or Jazz music as criminal, too fast-beat, and insane to listen to. He also implied musicians were heavy drug users who created music of unrest and rebellion among the social ranks.
Harry Anslinger was an unrepentant racist. His personal beliefs proliferated into American social justice and laws for over thirty years. During that time, marijuana became strongly associated with illegal and criminal behaviors. And he was supported by many openly racists politicians across the country.
Anslinger did not stop there. He launched a powerful persistent campaign against marijuana and all recreational drug use. He looked for violent crimes across the country and implied that each violent case was the result of marijuana use. And of course, his favorite kind of tragic story to share was of a Hispanic (Mexican) or Black American.
The efforts of Anslinger sparked increased racial tension as American’s did not want to work or socialize with black families. They did not want their children going to school with black children (educational segregation begins) and it stimulated the rise of groups like the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations.
Harry Anslinger was a bully and a troll, who harassed black public figures, like jazz singer Billie Holliday. Historians believe that the stress of his constant barrage and threats against the singer contributed to her early death. After Anslinger was no longer running what is now the DEA, he continued to be a force in Washington, implementing tough laws and racist narratives.
Anslinger and his policies were an influence on the Nixon administration. After the adoption of Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign which prominently featured white American teens declining drugs from Hispanics and Blacks, the number of marijuana-related incarcerations increased by twelve times the historical average. The bias for arresting black citizens for drug-related charges is statistically apparent starting from the Regan administration.
Racism and Marijuana Bias are Still Alive and Well in America
A quotation that will go down in history, that summarizes the continued bias against black citizens in America, stereotypes, and increased incarceration rate for marijuana charges compared to white citizens is from Jeff Sessions. He stated: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” in 2016. This was shortly after he was appointed Attorney General for the United States.
The Trump administration has been marked with perpetuating xenophobic and racial prejudice, and it moved to increase the punitive laws surrounding marijuana possession charges and conviction rates. We can see a stark difference from the measures that President Obama took to decriminalize marijuana charges, reduce racial bias in arrests, and reposition marijuana as a safer alternative and possible solution to the growing opioid epidemic in America.
As states have legalized medical marijuana (and recreational use in some cases) the narrative about marijuana as a criminal drug—specific to visible minorities and blacks in America—is changing for the better. Interestingly, the opioid epidemic has impacted more white middle-class citizens who are turning to medical marijuana as an “exit drug” and an alternative for pain management and therapeutics. Racial bias in medical and recreational marijuana is slowly fading, as more white Americans rely on marijuana for wellness needs in legalized states. Furthermore, more states have considered marijuana legal reforms that will decriminalize possession for personal use. This is true even in states where medical marijuana programs are not available.
This article was originally published by The Hill.