Social Justice and Cannabis
Social Justice and Cannabis
Pot Mates delivers exclusively within the city limits of Portland, Oregon, where there have been nightly protests for more than several months over the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and other incidents of police brutality against people of color. As a Black owned and operated business, we know from personal experience that law enforcement responds differently to different situations depending on the race of the people involved—especially where drugs are concerned. A small amount of marijuana can be overlooked during a routine traffic stop, or it can carry a mandatory minimum sentence of up to a year—that all depends on the individual officer’s perspective.
What’s worse, this has been the case for centuries. Ever since cannabis came to North America, it has been used to enrich wealthy white landowners while impoverishing and imprisoning slaves and people of color. Progress requires incremental change, and change can only be brought about with awareness. Let’s look at the history of cannabis in this country to see how systemic racism turned it into a powerful weapon of oppression.
Back in the 1700s, the British Empire had colonies everywhere, growing all sorts of crops for their own use and for export to other colonies across the world. Rice, tobacco, sugar cane and hemp were staple crops that thrived in North America’s temperate climate. Some people might think there’s a genetic difference between marijuana and hemp, but there’s really not. The term hemp refers to the cannabis plant, although it describes a non-psychoactive variety that is cultivated primarily for its strong fiber. Think of “hemp” as a strain, like “Jack Herer” or “Whoa-Si-Whoas”—it’s still marijuana, it’s just bred for different traits. And the early American colonists grew fields of it.
Even George Washington grew cannabis, acres and acres of it, and it wasn’t entirely for making rope and textiles. Washington’s journal specifically identifies times he needed to separate the females from the males to make them produce the sticky THC resin that makes cannabis psychoactive. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington used to exchange gifts of marijuana from their own home-grown crops to compare.
This fact is a favorite among legalization enthusiasts, but it’s not really true that Washington grew marijuana, is it? At least, he didn’t grow marijuana any more than he grew cotton or corn. It was actually George Washington’s slaves who worked the fields, nurtured the plants, and harvested the yield. Industrial cannabis production was dependent on slave labor and would not have been viable without early American farmers exploiting them. It was there that the historical experience of cannabis began to diverge for people of color and white people.
Cannabis and Marihuana
By the turn of the twentieth century, cannabis had become a popular ingredient in many over-the-counter drugs found in the United States, on sale in pharmacies for white people. It often appeared as a tincture, using high proof alcohol to extract the active chemical compounds. The result was marketed as a treatment for alcoholism, menstrual cramps, and insanity.
Cannabis flower was particularly popular with Pancho Villa’s guerrilla army during the Mexican Revolution. Soldiers would smoke it to endure long marches or to celebrate victory after a battle, leading to songs like “La Cucaracha” or “The Cockroach.”
La cucaracha, la cucaracha
Ya no puede caminar
Porque no tiene, porque no tiene
Marijuana que fumar
The cockroach, the cockroach
Is unable to walk
Because he doesn’t have, because he doesn’t have
Any marijuana to smoke”
Songs and jokes aside, the Mexican Revolution was a decade-long struggle between different factions trying to overthrow the thirty-year dictatorship in Mexico. It was a bloody, omnipresent conflict that forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to the American Southwest searching for asylum, shelter, and work. These Mexican refugees settled in border towns in the United States and brought their practice of smoking what they called marihuana with them. In June 1915, El Paso, Texas became the first city in the United States to ban possession and sale of marijuana, with the El Paso Times claiming, “marihuana is known to create a lust for human blood in the users and some of the most atrocious crimes committed in the city and elsewhere have been attributed to these fiends.” Many other cities followed suit, acting out of fear and hostility toward these perceived intruders. Criminalizing cannabis gave them an easy way to hide their motives.
After the prohibition of alcohol ended in 1933, Harry J. Anslinger brought all the force of the Federal Narcotics Bureau to bear on the task of demonizing cannabis. He started by drawing direct lines between America’s fear of Mexican immigrants and their use of marijuana. He relied on fear-mongering, racism, and propaganda to effect sweeping changes to national drug policy. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 made the cannabis plant illegal to sell without certain tax documentation and enabled both citizens and immigrants to be arrested for its possession.
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.
From 1930 until 1962, Anslinger sought to enforce his worldview that only sick, depraved, inhuman people smoked cannabis or drank alcohol, and it just so happened that all the people he pointed the finger at were people of color. He was so successful in his endeavor to persuade the world of the evils of marijuana that his work directly precipitated the doomed War on Drugs.
War on Peace
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law calling for the regulation and restriction of specific drugs and other substances. The Controlled Substances Act classified drugs into five “schedules” based on their potential medical benefits and their potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous—high addiction potential with little benefit—and Schedule V are the least dangerous. Thanks to Anslinger’s fear-mongering and President Nixon’s political goals, marijuana, LSD, heroin and MDMA were among the drugs classified as Schedule I.
One of Nixon’s domestic policy advisors was a man named John Ehrlichman, who went on record to describe why it was so important to the Nixon campaign that these drugs be so strictly classified:
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 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.
President Nixon officially declared “war” on drugs in June 1971, increasing federal funding for drug-control agencies to create both the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The war on drugs became a way to dedicate special attention to disrupting communities of color without cause, under false suspicion of being involved with drugs.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan expanded many of these policies. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for possession of cannabis and disproportionate sentences for different preparations of cocaine, among other things. As a result, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses rose from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997, and by 2014, almost half of all people in federal prisons were there for drug-related charges. Black youth were five times as likely to be arrested as white youth for cannabis.
Many states, including Oregon, have passed legislature decriminalizing the possession and sale of cannabis, but the reality of this legalization is that the prison population has remained pretty stable. According to one study, legalization may be paradoxically leading to increased prosecution: “In the years preceding legalization, cannabis infractions had been declining, but this trend ceased entirely after adult possession was permitted. The rate of alleged cannabis infractions actually increased by about 30% after 2014, even though underage use decreased post-legalization.”
Oregon’s prison population has been increasing since 2007, and this trend did not stop with the legalization of recreational cannabis in 2014. In many cases, legislation to legalize cannabis focuses only on the production and sale of the drug—rarely is there an effort to expunge prior convictions, release people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, or devote any social resources to addressing the underlying causes of cannabis abuse. How can we say that cannabis is legal when there are still people serving jail time for the possession of it?
Fortunately, progress is still coming—at least here in Oregon. In June 2019, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 420 into law, which establishes procedures for people serving sentences for low-level marijuana offenses to file a court motion to have their conviction expunged. In other words, people who are in jail for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana will have a clear path forward to leaving the prison system, hopefully for good. It’s not automatic expungement, —people still have to file their own motions, —but it’s a step.
If you’d like to help our country take more steps in the direction of sensible drug policies, the first thing to do would be registering to vote. While we still have the power to make our voice be heard, it’s important to use it responsibly. There are a number of opportunities to take legislative action, like supporting the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act or the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. As long as marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, it continues to make the enforcement of federal drug law a matter of individual discretion, and that disproportionately disadvantages people of color.
 Lee, Martin A. “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific.”