Botanical Empress
Cannabis Law

The Racist History Behind Cannabis Being Illegal

Cannabis has been used for centuries in many countries around the world for its variety of beneficial properties. In these countries, it has been legal and remains so to this day as Cannabis is seen as both harmless and as a natural medicine to countless people and is even integral to some traditions, spiritualities, and faiths. In India, the god known as Lord Shiva has a tale in which he consumed Cannabis leaves in order to calm himself after a fight with his family.

The use of Cannabis in India can be dated all the way back to 2000 BC. It can relieve anxiety, nausea, stimulate the appetite, relieves pain and epilepsy, and help treat glaucoma. So how did it end up illegal in the U.S. in the first place, especially since it wasn’t always illegal? The real reason has to do with racism and fear-mongering.

The racist history of why Cannabis is illegal in the U.S. has multiple layers to it. First, the idea of smoking Cannabis recreationally in the U.S. caught on thanks to Mexicans bringing it and introducing it to Americans, which immediately caught on in the Black community as well.

As both groups are minorities in the U.S. and easy targets of hate, racism was used to dehumanize both groups. It was nicknamed “marijuana” to scare racist Americans into thinking this was some new, “scary” Mexican drug since the name was unfamiliar and Spanish. And the propaganda movie Reefer Madness was used to convince racists that Black people would get high and turn into dumb, violent people behaving like animals.

While all of these claims are untrue, the ignorance surrounding Cannabis at the time and the rampant racism of the era allowed the movie to go almost unquestioned in the minds of the American public.

None of these claims could possibly be believed by anyone who isn’t vehemently racist. Each claim can easily be disproved with facts and common sense. However, Cannabis still remains illegal in some states and has not been legalized or decriminalized federally.

The only lasting reason is that Cannabis and hemp have the capability to disrupt industries from cotton to paper to pharmaceuticals. For this reason, many are still being arrested merely for possession of Cannabis, with a particular focus on Black and Hispanic users. Minor Cannabis offenses accounted for up to 40% of the arrests made of all drug offenses. 

The history of Cannabis being illegal in the U.S. is a long and racist one, but let’s first go back to when Cannabis began to be used in the U.S. in the first place. This takes us all the way back to European settlers first coming to the U.S. in droves.

Origin Of Cannabis In The U.S.

In the U.S., starting in the 1600s as settlers from Europe first came to the U.S., Cannabis plants were grown for hemp so that they could be used to create ropes, clothing, paper, and other cloth items such as sails. At the time, hemp was one of the most popular crops that was being grown across the nation.

These settlers were not using Cannabis for any recreational activities, as they grew it for hemp strictly for the industry. The Virginia Assembly then passed a law that would require every farmer to grow hemp back in 1619. This was because at the time imports were scarce and local hemp production was needed to fuel the industry. The country was heavily dependent on the local production of hemp.

Later, as more imports began to crowd out hemp for cloth, paper, and rope, the U.S. was no longer so dependent on local hemp. At this point, in the 19th century, Cannabis was being used in medicine by doctors to treat various illnesses and symptoms. This is because the general public was already aware of the medicinal effects and it was still legal in the 19th century.

In fact, it wouldn’t even have to be labeled as Cannabis until 1906 for anything that is over the counter. After 1910, following the end of the Mexican Revolution, Mexican immigrants came to the U.S. in significant numbers and introduced Americans to smoking Cannabis recreationally for the first time. 

The Illegalization Of Cannabis In The U.S.

Racists were concerned about the number of Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S., as well as them bringing their language and culture into the U.S. even though Texas was once part of Mexico. They needed to find an excuse to be able to crack down on Mexican immigrants, keep them from “taking their jobs” and prevent the spread of Mexican culture.

They decided to go after their recreational Cannabis habit. Since Americans were used to Cannabis, they’d have a hard time convincing them to outlaw what was widely used and prescribed by their doctors. So instead, they decided to take aim at “marijuana” by presenting it as a new and dangerous drug from “scary” Mexican immigrants.

Unfortunately, this weaponized xenophobia worked. But Mexicans were not the only group stereotyped and dehumanized in this effort. The next target would be another marginalized group: the Black community.

Racists would then intertwine racist stereotypes of Black people, especially Black men, to Cannabis usage in order to push the narrative that Cannabis needs to be outlawed. The best way to do this was to categorize Cannabis alongside hardcore drugs in which users could result in death. 

Reefer Madness

After immigrating to the U.S., Mexican immigrants quickly introduced many Americans, including the Black community, to smoking Cannabis recreationally. By this time, Cannabis had come to be known as Marijuana and reefer.

The popularity of Cannabis was growing, but the fact that Black people were starting to smoke Cannabis recreationally paved the way for a new opportunity for racists to pounce on. They decided that they were going to use Mexican immigrants and Black people’s use of Cannabis to terrify the country.

There was just one problem: it led to no issues among Mexican immigrants and the Black community at large. So propaganda was needed that would strike fear into the hearts of Americans at large who didn’t know better. 

In 1936, the movie Reefer Madness was released. The movie portrayed Black men as smoking Cannabis and beginning to hallucinate, causing them to attempt to rape white women. It also depicted those who used Cannabis to be sucked into a life of crime, including grand theft auto, and murder.

The movie presents Cannabis as if it would eventually drive the users mad. It is, without a doubt, one of the most racist and inaccurate propaganda films of the era. But when people are making decisions based on emotion, fear is more powerful than the truth. The very next year, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 passed which banned Cannabis in the U.S. and gave the police every excuse to arrest, harass and search any Mexican immigrants or Black people.

This law would be taken advantage of for decades to come and is still being used to this day, from officers pulling over Black and Brown people, and claiming they “smelled marijuana” coming from the car to stop and frisk policies doing the same thing on foot.

These communities became overpoliced, despite the fact that white communities partake in Cannabis recreationally at the same rates as Black communities. This is down to police training as well, teaching officers that they should especially be on the lookout for Cannabis among Black pedestrians and drivers.

The War On Drugs

Fears of the U.S. losing its family values and of counterculture, in general, led to an expensive and self-destructive War on Drugs, which many will tell you is more accurately described as a war on drug users. President Richard Nixon declared what he called the War on Drugs in 1971.

His main target was really the Black community and counterculture movements. By associating both with each other, Cannabis, and more hardcore drugs like heroin, Nixon was hoping to beat back what he saw as threats to the American establishment. 

After Nixon came Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1986 with his Anti-drug Abuse Act. Reagan created mandatory minimum sentences for all drugs and threw in Cannabis as well just for good measure. This took power away from judges who could try to use some semblance of common sense in order to do the bare minimum and not throw someone in jail for years over a minor possession of Cannabis charge.

But Reagan and his big push to be “tough on crime” decided to throw nuance out of the window completely and drastically increase incarceration rates in Black and Brown communities.

As if the propaganda film Reefer Madness hadn’t done enough damage to the Black community, The War on Drugs is what led to the disastrous mass incarceration of the Black community. To this day, Black people remain overrepresented among prison populations as a mere 13% of the population makes up 38% of the prison population largely due to these racist and unnecessary Cannabis policies.

It is only through systemic racism, discrimination, and prejudice that a race could be overrepresented by more than 3 times its share of the population in prison. This has also led to an increase in Hispanic and Latino incarceration rates, who are more likely to go to prison than white people.

The Legacy: Current U.S. Arrests Over Cannabis Possession 

To this day, Cannabis is not legal or even decriminalized federally. And while some states have decriminalized or legalized Cannabis, there are still too many that have not stopped the criminalization of Cannabis. This in effect becomes the criminalization of Black and Brown people in every state where the laws haven’t changed, leading to arrests that are both costly to taxpayers and damaging to these communities at large.

Arrests over Cannabis account for 40% of drug arrests. That’s over half a million arrests that are completely unnecessary because the laws were changed. The same laws were changed over untrue, racist stereotypes. 

But all localities are not equal. In some places, Black people are 30 times more likely to be arrested for possession of Cannabis than white people. These wild disparities lead to communities torn apart by the system. There’s the arrest (which leads to time missed at work and potential loss of employment), the charges (which can go on record and prevent people from finding work) and then there’s the parole (another form of surveillance and control). 

The Simple Solution

Cannabis has never been given any legitimate reasons to be illegal in the first place. It was legal before its recreational use, without any issues in the U.S. back when the country was dependent on hemp. It didn’t cause any issues while being smoked in Mexico, either.

It is unconscionable to keep arresting nonviolent, and law-abiding citizens and immigrants over something that is legal or decriminalized in some states and cities. There are even places in some cities where it is decriminalized on one side of the street and illegal on the other side. Ridiculous situations like this can and should be abolished federally, preferably by legalizing Cannabis for medical and recreational use.

We have the statistics, the scientific evidence, and the successful legalization of Cannabis in other countries to guide us on this issue. There are no more excuses, the only thing left is action. Action that needs to be taken so that the War on Drugs can finally end.

And so that the criminalization of Black and Brown Americans can finally begin to end. And, with the majority of Americans finally seeing the truth and accepting Cannabis isn’t a hardcore drug, legalizing Cannabis has the support of the American majority. The only thing left standing in the way are politicians who do not serve the people.

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