BHM: The Racist History Behind The Criminalization of Cannabis

BARBARI Brand, Mindfulness, Thoughts

To this day, in 2021, there is still a state that allows parents to “opt out” of their children learning about Black History Month….(I’m looking at you, Utah). 

After receiving major backlash, Utah reversed said decision. However, that this could still happen in the first place shows there are still many Americans that are not willing to take on the work of recognizing and understanding our racist past and present. 

As a cannabis brand, we needed to take a beat, and recognize how cannabis has been weaponized to criminalize Black and brown Americans over the last century, and the impact that has had on the community today. If you enjoy or benefit from cannabis, it’s important to know it’s history. We know it’s not a sexy read, but it’s a necessary one and we ask that you don’t opt-out of this one. Cannabis hasn’t always been the plant we know and love today, widely available to most Americans. To fully appreciate the plant, it’s important to really know the intersection between Black history and cannabis. 

How Weed Became Illegal

It’s a misconception to think that weed has always been illegal in America. In fact, it only became nationally prohibited in 1937 through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. For centuries before the legalization of Marijuana, it was commonly available to people all across the globe. In the late 19th century, Americans and Europeans could use cannabis to fight stomach aches, insomnia, migraines and nausea. Both ancient and modern researchers found an abundance of benefits to the herb like decreasing seizures and alleviating pain without causing physical dependence. 

So what exactly caused this drug to suddenly become illegal after proving over and over again that it is essentially harmless to a developed brain?

You guessed it. Racism.

With an increase of Mexican immigration during the 1910s also came a rise in American prejudices. Mexicans were known to engage in smoking cannabis as part of their ritualistic and recreational routines. The Jazz Renaissance was also blooming at this time. Jazz houses became a common meeting place for Black and brown Americans, and a place where cannabis was shared. The easiest way for racist ideological groups (such as the KKK, White Nationalists and Neo Nazis) to target Black and brown people was to implement the fear tactic, stating that smoking weed will make Mexicans “thirst for blood”.

“Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.” – Schlosser, 1994

It was a winning tactic for racist politicians. They began jailing Mexicans and African Americans on the basis of fear while simultaneously appeasing their own self-interests and racist peers. In fact, laws only began to loosen in the mid 1970s, when wealthy white privileged teens began smoking weed too. – Little, 2018. Then, during Nixon’s presidency, his cabinet added more fuel to the fire with an agenda to break apart his opposing political parties. The following is an actual quote from the very real Domestic Chief Policy Officer of Nixon, John Ehrlichman:

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the 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.” 

The irony that his last name means “honest man” in German. But I digress again.

So How About Now?

Things haven’t really gotten much better since. Yes, some states have legalized or decriminalized cannabis. But between 2010 and 2018, Black people were still getting arrested at an average of 4 times the rate of white people for the same offense, despite studies showing over and over again that Black and white people smoke cannabis at the same rate. Some states like Montana and Kentucky arrest Black people at a whopping 10 times the rate of white people. For a full list of States Ranked By Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests, click here. Look carefully, there is not a single state that arrests white and Black people at a 1:1 rate. Marijuana still accounts for roughly half the drug arrests made. 

But naturally it doesn’t end there. 

Black people receive much harsher sentences for the same crimes than their white counterparts, with heftier marks left on their records and less support for reentering society. I encourage you to watch and rewatch The 13th by Ava DuVernay on Netflix to get a deeper understanding of how racism is used to feed our prison-based economy. 

You might be catching on now that there is a huge racist agenda in the American policing system. That’s because for decades, white supremacists have been infiltrating law enforcement, and the government did absolutely nada about it. For centuries, racists have been creating systems of power to protect their own. For more dirty details on this, click here.  

As laws around cannabis began to loosen, the key that ultimately won California over on legalization was the promise of cannabis tax money going back into the Police system. Ironic, innit. You can imagine the fury that came from people who have been very literally hunted down, dehumanized, and thrown into jail for holding a joint, now watching the bullies getting rewarded off of cannabis taxes. 

In Portland, Oregon, home of BARBARI HQ, there is a special 3 percent city tax on cannabis, which purpose was to help jump start minority owned cannabis businesses. This was later revealed to have landed in the police budget instead. In fact, Oregon charges 17% taxes on cannabis businesses – 15% of which revenue goes back to the police force.  – Roberts, 2020 

But instead of learning any of this, we got an entirely ineffective Nancy Regan, D.A.R.E., and commercials of celebrities frying eggs. We get a version of history where in every scenario, white people are the innocent and the saviors. Anything that can’t be avoided from teaching (like the slaughtering of Native Americans) had to be done “for the greater good of America”  (- an actual thing someone from my high school history class said that no person objected to). It is a Eurocentric way of teaching that minimizes and dismisses the contributions of Black achievements. Here’s another example: Rosa Parks wasn’t sitting in the front of the bus because she was tired, y’all. She was an activist. This is just another instance of history devaluing and deprioritizing Black American heros. We know we’re giving you a whole syllabus of content to watch, but we can’t stop won’t stop. Watch this Ted Talk of David Ikard who gives us the real history of Rosa Parks, and how our education system continues to miseducate Black history. 

In a white system, with majority white citizens, white people in power, and a history of racist practices, if you think our school system is the only place where suddenly there is zero bias and you are taught an honest and equal history, you have been duped once again. 

Black History Month was created because we are not taught Black History. Black people literally had to take it upon themselves to learn this history, and try to spread this knowledge to America. So for anybody that suddenly gets uncomfortable at the mention of “racism” or “Black History Month”, it is time to SNAP OUT OF IT. It is harmful and disruptive in the process towards equality, which we are still, so very far from. 

Take off your rose colored glasses and learn Black History, because truthfully, that is American history woven into every system and structure that we enjoy today.

Next week, we’ll be profiling heros of today that are making radical changes for Black Americans by rectifying these racist cannabis policies, and to heal the damaging legacy they have left behind. 

Featured image via Cannaclusive Stock Photos

About the author:
Bianca is the Marketing Coordinator at BARBARI and has been with the company for a year and a half now. She’s recently also begun her career in writing, and is now a contributing writer for the Cosmopolitan. Having grown up in three different cultures, she’s always held a unique perspective of the world and how it operates. Check out her personal blog at and follow her on Instagram at @biancabiancak