Cannabis prohibition and legislation is an inconvenience for most people, but it’s more than that for marginalized communities. A quick review of the prison industrial complex makes it apparent that these drug laws have also been some of the most influential tools of oppression in this country’s history. Since its origins, marijuana prohibition has systematically targeted people of color in the name of bigotry, ignorance, and greed.
Xenophobia and the Birth of Cannabis Legislation
Cannabis has a long history in the United States. Before the American Revolution, the British-controlled colonies that would eventually make up this country grew hemp, the non-psychoactive member of the Cannabis Sativa family. Hemp contains no more than .3% THC, so you’re more likely to get a headache from smoking it than a high. Colonists and the early Americans primarily used hemp for industrial purposes: to make rope, fishnets, textiles, etc. The American hatred for cannabis coincided with the arrival of Mexican immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century. The use of cannabis as an intoxicant was an entrenched Mexican sub-culture, so the use of cannabis as a narcotic pervaded American life. That was when the recreational use of cannabis began to sound the alarms. Americans resented the assimilation of people with a different language, different customs, and different skin, and quickly channeled all of that frustration into anti-marijuana propaganda. Law enforcement officers and prohibitionists claimed that “The Marijuana Menace” gave its consumers superhuman strength, a lust for blood, and a tendency to go insane. Of course, there was and remains no facts to these claims, but the momentum galvanized by such incendiary remarks laid the foundation for federal cannabis prohibition.
Drug Legislation Targeting People of Color
The fear of immigrants “taking our jobs” is not unique to those who want to “Make America Great Again.” It’s an unfortunately persistent trope for a nation founded by immigrants. In the 1930’s, the Great Depression’s initial decline gained momentum. The economic anxiety coupled with the steadily growing resentment of Mexican immigrants and their marijuana turned the latter into scapegoats for American paranoia. Cannabis use had also become associated with a musical genre gaining traction in popular culture: jazz. Pot smoking jazz musicians referred to themselves as vipers, a nickname that came from the sound of smoking a joint. The plant inspired creativity and a sense of comradery in a way that alcohol did not. While alcohol magnified the negative feelings jazz musicians (primarily poor, black folk) lived within the early twentieth century due to overt and institutionalized racism, cannabis lifted them up and made them feel better without leaving behind a nasty hangover. Jazz music, black people, immigrants, and cannabis were all tied up at this momentous time in American history and became the decades-long target of Harry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the organization that would become the FBI. Anslinger did nothing to hide his racism. If you think Trump puts his foot in his mouth on a regular basis, check out these two statements Anslinger made: In congressional testimony, Anslinger said,
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind […] Most marijuana smokers are negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage."
In another statement, the director stated,
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men… the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
The difference between Anslinger and Trump is that the former lived in an era when his statements reflected the spirit of the time. The latter seems to want to resurrect those antiquated and horrifically ignorant sympathies. Anslinger’s campaign against cannabis culminated in the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This law imposed extremely high taxes on anyone who participated in the commercialization of cannabis. While the outright federal criminalization of cannabis occurred under the Nixon administration’s Controlled Substances Act (CSA), this law fortified the uninformed fear of cannabis—including the non-psychoactive hemp variety—at the national level. The CSA was signed into law by President Nixon on October 27, 1970.
This law created a drug schedule, or a method of categorization based on the danger and medical efficacy of a given substance. Cannabis, along with heroin and LSD, was labeled as a Schedule I drug, or a substance with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Schedule I substances are considered the worst of the worst, which is why cannabis’ placement is stupefying.
Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid responsible for the enormous rise in deaths by overdose in the United States, and crystal methamphetamine, the drug made infamous by its tendency to turn users into zombies, are classified as Schedule II drugs, or substances slightly safer than Schedule I substances. You read that right. Fentanyl and crystal meth are, according to the Justice Department, safer than cannabis. The ludicrousness of cannabis federal law was mildly acknowledged by the government itself. A report conducted by the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (AKA the Shafer Commission) two years after the CSA’s passage, found that cannabis was more of a social dilemma than an actual danger. The subtext of that message was this: cannabis is basically fine, but the people of color who use it aren’t, and they need to be monitored. While the report did recommend changing federal law to be slightly more lenient toward cannabis, it maintained the attitude held by those in power at that time that drugs were a problem in marginalized communities, and the solution for the wealthy and white was to keep those communities in the margins.
Nothing Has Changed
That strategy has worked for the past several decades. In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report outlining the staggering racial bias underpinning marijuana legislation. According to the ACLU’s findings, Blacks are almost 4 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites even though cannabis use between the two races is comparable. The impacts of these laws are severe.
First, let’s talk money
Enforcing cannabis laws costs the federal government $3.6 billion dollars annually, but does not actually stop people from consuming the plant. That is an investment catastrophe of astronomical proportions, especially when it is clear that there are places in the USFG’s budget that could benefit from additional funds such as those dealing in education, infrastructure, veteran assistance, or the country’s immense debt conservatives love to gripe about.
Now let’s talk lives
The United States comprises roughly five percent of the world population, but approximately 25 percent of its prison population. The majority of Americans behind bars are nonviolent offenders, and most of those offenses are drug-related. Each of those inmates represents a life that will forever be altered by everything but a rehabilitative prison system.
Ex-convicts face enormous hurdles reintegrating into mainstream society, and one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in this regard is employment
Once that prison sentence is added to a resume, that resume becomes very unappealing to most businesses. The irony is that this is uniquely true in the cannabis industry. Ex-cons with drug-related felonies are, in most cases, barred from working at dispensaries in states with legal cannabis. And which demographic is most affected by the negative impacts of a prison-industrial complex bolstered by marijuana-related convictions? The demographic disproportionately targeted by the legislation to begin with: people of color.
Talks of removing monuments upholding racist ideals have pervaded media outlets, especially since the egregious demonstration of bigotry held in Charlottesville, VA. Such dialogue occurring is a good thing. But while taking down statues carries great symbolic significance, reforming if not eliminating laws built on racism carries pragmatic weight as well. Cannabis prohibition is more than an inconvenience; it’s an injustice. The continued existence of prohibitive cannabis laws enshrines a history of willful ignorance and systemic oppression. It’s time to take those laws down.