The History of Cannabis and Racism

 A message from our Founder, Matt

 

Racism.

It’s alive. It’s dangerous. And it continues to cost millions of lives each day. It is the vile judgment and treatment of people based on something we cannot control: the color of our skin.

My childhood (and later, my prison time for cannabis) was spent in the South. There were stark differences in how kids were treated in school, fewer opportunities for young Black and Brown adults, and harsher punishments in the criminal justice system. Racism exists at every corner and it has never made sense to me.

In recent years and especially in the aftermath of police shootings of Black men and women in 2020, the plight of Black Americans in the United States has been highlighted by the systematic oppression that has existed for so long.

This oppression is being exposed by mobile phone cameras, smartwatches, and anything else that can document police brutality and citizen harassment. These videos and images have spawned protests for equality in all major US cities during the previous years.

The Black Lives Matter movement saw millions of people of all races demanding that Black Americans be treated equally in all aspects of society. While at times it is tempting to think that equality is gaining momentum, there is far too much inequality for us 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 acknowledge the history of racism in cannabis as well as what we can all do to combat the inequality that still exists as a result.

 

The Origins of ‘Marijuana’ 

The plant I love and call cannabis has many nicknames: 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.

Before the Great Depression, little was known about cannabis in the United States and the plant was used solely for hemp production. Since the colonial era, farmers had grown cannabis for hemp. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both owned hemp farms.

Cannabis has been popular in Latin America, including Mexico, since ancient times.

In the early United States, cannabis was only used as a medicine and could be found in most American homes in the form of the countless tinctures and pills 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, a large portion of them settling in Texas and Louisiana. This influx of immigration escalated anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment and a campaign of “reefer madness” among white Americans.

This campaign was largely initiated by the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger’s propaganda campaign included racist narratives, referring to those who smoke marijuana as an “inferior race” who are much more likely to engage in sexual promiscuity, violence, and stealing. As cannabis use amongst Black Americans increased, this rhetoric ratcheted up already-deep racism against Black Americans.

New Orleans’ news articles consistently associated the “drug” with Black Americans, violence, jazz music, and prostitution. 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, relaxing the mind, and enhancing social experiences made it very popular amongst these communities.

During the period of American alcohol prohibition, it was also much easier and cheaper to get cannabis than alcohol. This made cannabis even more popular.

White America was already concerned about Black 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 countless millions. Sadly, this information was accepted as truth by many people for many years.

Instead of referring to the plant as cannabis, as it had been commonly referred to in the United States and was an ingredient in most medicine cabinets, prohibitionists referred to it as Marijuana or Marihuana. This made the plant sound more “Mexican”, successfully connecting the use of marijuana by brown and black people to dangerous and fabricated side effects of the drug.

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 pass laws making cannabis illegal when the federal government effectively completely banned all cultivation, sale, and possession of cannabis.

 

Anti-Cannabis Laws in the United States

The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 criminalized cannabis in any form. The act required anyone who hoped to sell cannabis to pay a tax and get a license. This made it 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 Black and Mexican American people.

During the year following the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act, Black Americans were arrested for cannabis 3 times more than their White counterparts while Mexican Americans were arrested at the stunning rate of 9 times higher.

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 homes in the Southern part of the United States.

In 1969, cannabis was ALMOST made legal when the Supreme Court tossed out the Marihuana act, saying it violated the constitution by forcing people to incriminate themselves when asking for a tax stamp. That following year, 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 of how dangerous, addictive, and medically useless they considered them to be. While there have been continuous 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.

 

Cannabis Today

In November 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. This 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.

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, Black and Mexican Americans are now 8 and 5 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts for cannabis, respectively. These numbers are still jarring despite extensive research showing that cannabis consumption among races is relatively equal.

As cannabis gains increasing acceptance in our society, it is necessary for our industry to recognize the struggles that were experienced by people of color for us to enjoy the plant that benefits our lives so much. It is paramount that we ensure that Black and Mexican Americans have equal access to the legal cannabis market with 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 world.

As the industry matures, we see large hedge funds – comprised mostly of people with no knowledge or positive feelings about cannabis and the people it serves – swooping into the industry to profit off of the plant that many others struggled and sacrificed incredibly to get acceptance for. Not to mention the laws excluding people with any criminal background from participating in the industry, the high licensing and operational cost, and the unjust arrest and oppression that stem from systemic racism.

This will only serve to increase the inequalities placed upon Black and Mexican Americans.

 

Our Commitment

Purple Lotus has remained a private family-owned cannabis 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 my wife and I opened our doors with 1 lb. of cannabis, our goal has always been to unite ALL people through cannabis excellence.

We are honored and excited to continue making progress. As Emma Lazarus stated, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

This remains true in so many ways, but especially in the ever-growing cannabis industry.

 

Cannabis and Social Equity

In a sign of progress, most states with regulated cannabis laws have created Cannabis Social Equity programs that encourage and require participation from historically disadvantaged groups, including Black Americans. While this is a large step in acknowledging what must be done, it is not enough.

It will require business services to consider equally when they make decisions that affect people of color. It will require consumers to shop, not stigmas surrounding cannabis, but with a mindful approach and solid reverence for equality.

Purple Lotus is firmly committed to combatting inequality in the cannabis industry through our hiring practices, employee educational opportunities, community involvement, investments into groups representing Black and Mexican Americans as well as other marginalized groups.

Being from the South, my family was marginalized due to race, sexuality, and religion. At a young age, I spent 5 years in prison for cannabis arrests (including a 15-month stint in solitary confinement)

For weed!

From my cell, I never in a million years would I think that I would have the opportunity to provide the blessing and benefits of cannabis to so many people.

Over the last 10 years that the Purple Lotus has provided cannabis, I wake up every morning excited and extremely grateful at the opportunity to change lives through cannabis. My heart is filled with joy, gratitude, and pride for what the Purple Lotus stands for and provides.

My hope is that all people have the opportunity to experience these feelings, regardless of race, sex, religion, or anything else. Like all opportunities, some people will take advantage of them while others won’t pursue them. No matter the preference, we all deserve an equal chance.

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

 

Matt

Purple Lotus

 

P.S. VERY IMPORTANT

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 cannabis.

This was a significant success and the movement to free Michael 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 took place 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 www.thelastprisonerproject.com.

 

Michael Thompson Michigan Release

 

SOURCES:

(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