It's easier than ever to see the ways in which weed can be a positive force. To many, it's medicine. To others, it's a source of income. What's harder to see are the ways weed has been used as a political device.
For more than a century, white supremacists have used marijuana as a tool to advance anti-Black, anti-minority agendas. Why are so many people in jail for possession while others idly shop for Blue Dream and grow backyard plants? How did it get this way?
In the United States, cannabis was designed to be political. It remains that way to this day.
Those of us who consume weed, work in the industry, or benefit from the plant in any way have a responsibility to know its place in American history. Knowing how politicians have used marijuana to divide us is the first step in fighting for a more just future.
Below you'll find a brief overview of the three acts that weaponized weed against Black Americans and other ethnic minorities and what we can do to repair the damage that's been done.
Act I: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937
The roots of America's racist drug policies can be traced back to a railroad police captain named Harry Anslinger. In 1930, he was appointed the first commissioner of the newly founded Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In a classic case of nepotism, he was appointed by his wife's uncle, Andrew Mellon. According to historian Isaac Campos, racist attitudes were already circulating around marijuana at the time, but it was Anslinger who codified them into law. He did this by enlisting the help of William Randolph Hearst's media empire, which published yellow journalism (the original fake news) and racist propaganda films like “Reefer Madness.”
Today's policies attempt to obscure racist agendas with distorted health claims (we'll get to that in a minute). But back then, Anslinger was blatant in his mission to demonize Black Americans and other minorities. According to several sources, he frequently went on the radio to make inflammatory statements, claiming, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.”
In another instance, “Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men.”
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the legal culmination of his hateful campaign. Before the act was passed, pharmacists could legally sell cannabis products so long as they were properly labeled. Afterward, cannabis was so heavily taxed that no one could afford to sell it. If they did and failed to pay those exorbitant fees, the Tax Act made it legal to incarcerate them.
Act II: The Controlled Substances Act of 1970
Over the next few decades, white supremacist leaders would ramp up anti-drug efforts as a means of subduing the anti-war and civil rights movements. The term “war on drugs” first caught on in 1971 when then-president Richard Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one.” But the war formally began in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. This act categorized individual drugs into the five “schedules” we still hear referenced all the time today. The DEA defines Schedule I drugs as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” and are subsequently the most criminalized.
Cannabis got a Schedule I designation along with heroin and psychedelics like psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, and LSD. While extremely illogical, this designation wasn't accidental. It was intentionally designed to cripple Black communities and progressive organizers.
As Nixon's advisor, John Ehrlichman, admitted to journalist Dan Baum in 1994,
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
There was some pushback during the Jimmy Carter presidency, but in 1981, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy picked up right where Nixon left off. The Reagan administration wasted one billion dollars on the infamously ineffective “Just Say No” campaign, implemented a slew of zero-tolerance policies, and effectively ushered in a new wave of anti-drug hysteria. Adding insult to injury, they implemented tax cuts that increased incomes for the wealthiest 1% and stagnated wages for those in the bottom 50% of the income scale. As if that wasn't enough, Reagan also stepped up civil forfeiture efforts, enabling officers to seize assets and property during drug arrests and keep those assets whether or not the suspect is in fact guilty of a crime.
Act III: The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994
Criminalizing cannabis and other drugs as a means of oppression isn't limited to Nixon and Reagan — or even conservative politicians. “In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton vowed that he would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he,” Michele Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow. Two years later, Clinton signed a law that created a slew of new federal crimes, mandatory life sentences for three-time offenders, and greatly expanded police forces and state prisons.
This law helped make it possible to sentence people like Bernard Noble to 13 years in prison for two joints found in his pocket. It's why Michael Thompson is still in jail today for selling weed in 1994, and Take Fate Winslow got life without parole after selling $20 worth of weed to an undercover officer in 2008.
But the new punishments extended far beyond the prison cell. Alexander writes that “Clinton also made it easier for federally-assisted public housing projects to exclude anyone with a criminal history — an extraordinarily harsh step in the midst of a drug war aimed at racial and ethnic minorities.”
Contradictory state and federal laws make it nearly impossible for low-income Americans who intend or have used marijuana to secure housing. So even today, even if you live in Illinois where cannabis was recently legalized, you can have no criminal history and still be evicted from your Section 8 housing because cannabis use violates federal law.
The politics of the past paved the way for present-day inequality
In 2018, there were 1,654,282 arrests for drug law violations, the vast majority of which were for possession only. Even though Black and white Americans have roughly the same rates of marijuana consumption, a 2020 ACLU analysis found that Black Americans are roughly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses. And that's just the national average. In Montana, Black Americans are nearly 10 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana offenses.
Once they're arrested for a drug offense, Black Americans are 10 times as likely as whites to go to prison. Again, that is just a national average. According to data the Human Rights Watch gathered in 2003, “a black man was twice as likely as a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges in Missouri and 46 times as likely in Wisconsin.”
As a result, Black Americans bear the brunt of the damage when it comes to:
- Arrest-related expenses: According to the ACLU, marijuana possession enforcement cost taxpayers more than 3.6 billion dollars in 2010. But the cost to defendants is much higher. Depending on the charges and local laws, a defendant can expect to pay thousands of dollars in bail, court, and lawyer fees. As Insider reports, “the ACLU reported a figure of about $4,000 per marijuana case on the enforcement side, [but] the impact directly to the person arrested is anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000.” Take note that even in fully legalized California, you can still be fined up to $500 and incarcerated for up to six months if you're caught possessing more than 28.5 grams of weed.
- Jobs: One drug possession misdemeanor can result in a lifelong criminal record, and criminal records have a huge impact on job prospects. The Prison Policy Initiative looked at data compiled in the 2008 National Former Prisoner Survey and found that formerly incarcerated Black men and women are much more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. Once employed, Black employees are more likely than whites to be fired or reprimanded after a positive drug test (according to a survey by Detox.net).
- Housing: Because cannabis is federally illegal, landlords can prohibit consumption even in legal states, and federally-backed mortgage lenders can deny loans to those who work in the cannabis industry. As mentioned above, Section 8 and other types of federally subsidized public housing can be denied as well.
- Education: According to the U.S. Department of Education, drug convictions severely limit eligibility for federal student loans. And even if you do secure a loan, the Brookings Institution found that private and public colleges run more extensive background checks than many employers, which can have a chilling effect on applications and admissions.
- Entering the cannabis industry: A 2017 Marijuana Business Daily survey found that just 4% of cannabis business owners are Black. Equity programs designed to solve this disparity have failed. This is partly due to the fact that having a misdemeanor for possessing marijuana on your record means, in many states, that you can't apply for a cannabis license. Even without a criminal record, racist practices like redlining have made it nearly impossible for many Black Americans to acquire the kind of generational wealth necessary to start a cannabis business.
What you can do
These horrific outcomes aren't accidental, they are the result of targeted, racist policies. But before we sink into a pit of despair, it's worth remembering that laws are written by people. What was designed to oppress can be redesigned to repair — but only if we actively work to right these wrongs on a sustained basis. Do research on what it means to be anti-racist. Register to vote and research down-ballot candidates. Contact your local representatives and demand the decriminalization of cannabis.
Being a cannabis consumer is a privilege. To be able to consume it without fear of being imprisoned comes with a responsibility to reverse the injustices associated with the plant. Below are a few organizations that can help you start.
- The Last Prisoner Project: The Last Prisoner Project focuses on releasing incarcerated cannabis prisoners and helping them rebuild their lives. The volunteer opportunities range from donating to participating in letter-writing campaigns and in-person events.
- The Drug Policy Alliance: The Drug Policy Alliance is dedicated to dismantling harmful drug policies and advancing regulations that are grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights. In addition to donating, they provide tools to help you advocate in your community and contact your elected officials.
- Code For America: Code For America works to make government services simple, effective, and easy to use in the digital age. Their Clear My Record initiative helps individuals and government databases clear criminal records so the formerly incarcerated can successfully re-enter society after serving time. If you're a coder, there are several ways to get involved. If you're not, you can support their efforts by donating and volunteering.
TIME: “The Surprising Link Between U.S. Marijuana Law and the History of Immigration”
Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research: “Racism and Its Effect on Cannabis Research”
Timeline: “How a racist hate-monger masterminded America's War on Drugs”
ACLU: “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform”
Human Rights Watch: “Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States”
Harper's Magazine: “Legalize It All”
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy: “Full Text of the Marihuana Tax Act as passed in 1937”
Pew Research Center: “Four-in-ten U.S. drug arrests in 2018 were for marijuana offenses – mostly possession”
Curbed: “Public housing tenants still face stiff penalties for pot, even in states where it's legal”
The New York Times: “The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests”
The Intercept: “In a World of Legal Weed, Michael Thompson Languishes in Prison for Selling it in 1994”
NORML: “State Laws”