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The History of Cannabis and Racism
February 2, 2021

The History of Cannabis and Racism

A message from our Founder, Matt

Cannabis and Racism History

Racism sucks. It is the judgment of people based on something we don’t control, and something that has absolutely no relation to who we are; the color of our skin.

My childhood (and later, my prison time for cannabis) was spent in the South. From the stark difference in how kids were treated at school, to the difference in opportunities for young adults, and all the way through the criminal justice system, racism existed at every corner. It never did, or has it ever made any sense to me.

In recent years, and especially in the aftermath of incesant police brutality of black men in 2020, the plight of African Americans in the United States has been highlighted for the systematic oppression that has existed for centuries. This oppression is just presently being exposed by mobile phone cameras, smartwatches, and anything else that can take a picture. The Black Lives Matter movement saw millions of people of all races demanding that African Americans be treated equally in all aspects of society. While at times it seems like this, it is tempting to think that equality has momentum, there is far too much disparity in the reality to relax our attention.

We will not change the world into one where we all are treated equally by the words we say in public or the way we present our views to the world. It will take each of us to make sure that equality exists in our hearts, minds, spirit and therefore in the world we create around us in order for meaningful change to happen.

During Black History Month (and frankly, every month), it is very important that we look at Cannabis’ place in the history of racism, as well as what still must be done to combat the inequality that fatigues our modern day.


The plant I love and call cannabis has been referenced to many terms in our time: pot, weed, grass, ganja, dope, reefer, mary jane, chronic, and most recently, “fire” or “gas”. However, over the history of cannabis in the United States, it has mostly been called Marijuana, and for a very specific reason.

Prior to the Great Depression, cannabis wasn’t very well known in the United States and was used solely for hemp production. Since the colonial era, farmers had grown cannabis for hemp. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both had hemp farms. (1)

Cannabis was popular in Latin America, including Mexico, since early ancient times. In the United States, Cannabis was only used as a medicine, and could be found in most American homes in the forms of tinctures and pill medications, prescribed by doctors for a variety of ailments. (2)

In the early 1900s, tens of thousands of people fleeing the Mexican Civil War immigrated to the Southwest portions of the United States, and a large portion of them settled in current day states of Texas and Louisiana. This influx of immigration escalated anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment, and a campaign of “reefer madness” among white Americans inflated. This campaign was largely initiated by the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time, Harry Anslinger. (3)

Anslinger’s propaganda campaign included racist narratives, alike to, ‘those who smoke marijuana are of an inferior race, much more likely to engage in sexual promiscuity, and resort to violence and stealing.’ New Orleans’ news articles consistently associated the “drug” with “African-Americans, violence, jazz music and prostitution. (3)

After World War 1, Caribbean immigrants introduced cannabis to the increasingly enfranchised Black communities of Southern port cities, such as New Orleans. Cannabis’s tendency to help with creativity in music and art, relax the mind, and enhance social experiences made it very popular amongst these communities. During the period of American alcohol prohibition, it was also much easier and more cost effective to get cannabis than alcohol. This made cannabis even more popular. (4)

White America was already concerned about African American’s expanding economic, social, and voting power, threatening the region’s long-standing social order. This was not something White Americans were ready to accept. Cannabis was utilized by Anslinger to create a propaganda campaign that oppressed entire races, ruined countless families and lives, and withheld medical opportunities for millions. Sadly, this information was accepted as truth by many people for many years. (4)

Instead of referring to the plant as “Cannabis,” prohibition activists referred to it as “Marijuana” or “Marihuana” in order to make the plant sound more “Mexican”, successfully connecting the use of marijuana to brown and black people as dangerous, and fabricated side effects of the drug. (5)

This propaganda campaign, combined with its use by Mexican immigrants, quickly convinced Americans that Cannabis was a dangerous drug used by only the degenerates of society. States began to make possession of even a small amount of cannabis illegal, banning cannabis based on racism. By 1937, all states had passed laws making Cannabis illegal when the federal government effectively completely banned all cultivation, sale, and possession of cannabis. The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 criminalized cannabis in any form. (5)

This Act required anyone who hoped to sell cannabis to pay a tax and get a license. However it was designed so that it was practically impossible to do so. It created a highly punitive situation, whereas having cannabis without a license was treated as tax evasion and could draw a substantial prison sentence. In truth, it was designed to oppress African and Mexican American people. During the year following the Marihauna Tax Stamp Act, African Americans were arrested for cannabis 3x as much, and Mexican Americans being arrested at a 9X higher rate than white counterparts. (6)

During the 1960s, young adults and teenagers of all races began using Cannabis as part of the “hippie revolution”. They looked at Cannabis as something that created peace among people and shared joints of Cannabis on the streets of San Francisco and the West Coast, yet still in the closets of their home in the Southern part of the United States. In 1969, Cannabis was almost made legal when the Supreme Court tossed out the Marihuana act, stating it violated the constitution by forcing people to incriminate themselves when asking for a tax stamp. (7)

Quickly, in 1970, the beginning of President Nixon’s War on Drugs was kicked off by the passing of the Controlled Substances Act. The Controlled Substances Act organized various legally controlled substances into “schedules” based on their opinions on how dangerous, addictive, and medically useless they considered them to be. While there have, and continue to be, many efforts to deschedule Cannabis, it has always been a schedule 1 drug, the most highly restricted category. Heroin and cocaine are also classified as Schedule 1 controlled substances. (7)

In November of 1996, California passed the world’s first Medical Marijuana Program, establishing the use of Cannabis as effective for conditions such as nausea, pain, anxiety, and glaucoma. This was the beginning of public acceptance of the Cannabis plant in the United States. This was followed by more states creating medical marijuana programs, and in 2012, both the states of Colorado and Washington legalized Cannabis for recreational use. As more US states passed medical and recreational Cannabis laws allowing the consumption of Cannabis, even entire countries, like Uruguay and Canada, fully legalized Cannabis for recreational use. (8)

Cannabis Today

Currently, there are only six states in the US that have not legalized or decriminalized Cannabis for either recreational or medical use. Still, the problem of racial disparity with Cannabis greatly exists. For example, in New York City, African Americans are now 8x more likely, and Mexican Americans are 5x more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts for Cannabis. These numbers are despite extensive research showing that Cannabis consumption among races is relatively equal. (8)

As Cannabis gains increasing acceptance in our society, it is necessary for our industry to recognize the struggles that were gone through in order for us to enjoy the plant that helps our lives so much. It is paramount that we ensure that African Americans and Mexican Americans have opportunities in the legal cannabis market, not only opportunities to participate but the ability to help shape the industry.


As a private family-owned legal cannabis dispensary in San Jose, we are one of the oldest and most recognized dispensaries in the nation and perhaps the world. As the industry matures, we see continue to see large hedge funds (comprised mostly of people with no knowledge or feelings about the plant and the people it serves – in many cases, they have no feelings towards much besides money) swooping into the industry to profit off of a plant that many others have struggled and sacrificed to get acceptance for. 

Purple Lotus has remained a private family-owned company primarily because we want to stand up tall to effect social change, and we won’t take a chance on investors stealing the soul of our mission. Our mission from the first day we opened our doors. With 1 lb of Cannabis, my wife and I’s goal have always been to “unite all people through cannabis excellence.” After 10 years of service, we remain humbled and excited about the progress we have made amongst our community.

“None of us are free until all of us are free” is true in so many, many ways.

In a sign of progress, most cities and states that regulate Cannabis have created Cannabis Social Equity programs that encourage and require participation from historically disadvantaged groups, including mostly African Americans. While this is a large step in acknowledging what must be done, it is not enough. It will require business services to look at everyone equally when they make decisions, consumers to shop, not with the old conditioned thoughts in their mind, but with a mindful approach and solid reverence for equality.

Purple Lotus is firmly committed to combating inequality in the Cannabis industry through our hiring practices, employee educational opportunities, community involvement, investments into groups representing African Americans and other marginalized groups.

In close, with me being from the South, my family was marginalized due to race, sexuality, and religion. And at a very young age, spent 5 years in prison for cannabis related arrest (which included a 15-month stint in solitary confinement). From my cell, I never in a million years would I think that I would have the opportunity to provide the blessing of Cannabis to so many people these past 10 years. I wake up every morning excited and extremely grateful at the opportunity to change lives through cannabis. My hope is that all people have the opportunity to experience these feelings of hope, healing and wellness through Cannabis, regardless of race, sex, religion, or geography. Like all opportunities, some people will take advantage of them, and some will be happy to not pursue them. That is each individual’s decision, however we all deserve the same, fair chance.

Let’s take good care of each other; we deserve it.

Matt, Founder of Purple Lotus

Purple Lotus will donate a portion of our proceeds from the entire month of February to The Last Prisoner Project, an organization devoted to ensuring all people incarcerated for Cannabis are freed. As of this writing, they have just secured the release of Michael Thompson, a man who served 25 years in prison for 3 lbs of marijuana. This was a significant success, the movement to free Micheal was assisted by Kim Kardashian’s recommendation, who “didn’t think weed should be a reason people are in jail”, several district attorneys, and a worldwide #freemichaelthompson hashtag campaign on social media. The past year has found Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat with many posts containing #FreemichaelThompson. You can support their work at Michael Thompson was a huge step, but there are many, many, many more. We can’t stop until they are all home.

Michael Thompson Michigan Release


(1) The Complicated History of Cannabis in the US

(2) Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting

(3) The racist origins of marijuana prohibition

(4) The Racist Origins of Marijuana Prohibition

(5) The Science behind the DEA’s Long War on Marijuana

(6) Marijuana or cannabis? How racism, immigration shaped the history of the drug war in N.Y., U.S.

(7) Legal history of cannabis in the United States