Hemp History: The Interlaced Past of Incarceration and Black Americans
As a white-owned company in the cannabis space, we can’t talk about the plant’s history without acknowledging its racist past. We’ve all got to be better in recognizing the broken system we’re a part of and benefit from. Millions of people, especially those of color, have been targeted for the use of this ancient plant that, up until the last century, was used medicinally for thousands of years. Join us as we look at the history of the plant and how Black Americans have been victimized for growing, using, and selling cannabis.
Cannabis and Black History
According to historical reports, cannabis cultivation likely originated in East Asia, spreading to Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East.² With some evidence suggesting that cannabis was brought to Africa by Arab merchants in the 13th century.
During the 19th century, the British military forcibly took thousands of indentured Indian servants and enslaved Africans through the Caribbean, and with the slave trade, cannabis spread too.
In the United States, cannabis was introduced through the migration of people, including Caribbeans, Creoles, and Mexicans.
At the time, hemp began to be a significant economic driver in the U.S., with a growing hemp industry in Kentucky.³ Landowners were growing hemp for its low production cost, hardiness, and versatile use. Hemp could be used for everything from animal feed to clothing, textiles, sails, and rope. However, these hemp fields were grown and maintained entirely by enslaved labor.
Southern states widely exploited enslaved labor for mass agricultural production, with Kentucky becoming home to one of the largest populations of enslaved people.⁴ After the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, there was a decline in enslaved labor, but even so, enslavers still forced black people into hard labor, including cultivating hemp and other crops.
The Demonization of Cannabis and the Black Community
Even with the supposed liberation, a broken system was replaced with another one. Many formerly enslaved people ended up as indentured servants, where they would work for just enough money to pay back their former enslavers for a place to live and food to eat, keeping them perpetually disadvantaged.
By the 1930s, Harry Anslinger, the head of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the presidencies of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, launched a campaign to demonize cannabis, targeting black communities.⁹ Anslinger spread racist rhetoric that linked black people and culture, including cannabis and jazz music, to satanism and violence. His reign of terror ended in 1962 but eventually morphed into propaganda, misinformation, and harmful laws that have haunted black communities till today.
In 1971, the Nixon administration picked up where Anslinger left off, with an intensified persecution of cannabis users and industry with the so-called War on Drugs. John Ehrlichman, Nixon's chief domestic advisor, later revealed that the War on Drugs was designed to target black communities and disrupt them by associating marijuana with hippies and heroin.¹⁰
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. Do 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." — John Ehrlichman, 1994
This policy helped to create a massive prison industrial complex of private prisons that make money by funneling people into jail cells for cannabis possession.¹¹ Even today, when cannabis is primarily legal, and evidence suggests that a disproportionate number of people of color are still in jail for cannabis-related offenses.
In a study by the ACLU, reports suggest that more than half of the drug arrests in the U.S. were for minor cannabis possession, and even though white and black people consume cannabis at an equal rate, black people are four times more likely to be arrested.¹² Further, a study in New York found that of all the marijuana-related arrests in 2021, 94% of those arrested were black.¹³ And those aren't isolated incidents, either, as many reports have surfaced post-legalization demonstrating similar trends in Virginia, Texas, and Wisconsin.¹⁴
Racial Disparities in the Cannabis Industry
Today, cannabis is legal in some capacity in most states. ¹⁵ One of the most critical aspects of the newly emerging cannabis industry is the conscious attempt to make the cannabis industry more socially equitable for people of color. The racially motivated and ongoing war on drugs and the consequential prison industrial complex continue criminalizing people of color especially black Americans.
As new cannabis legislation is introduced nationwide, advocates are focused on addressing racial disparities by pushing for expungement and social equity programs.
In current legal markets, cannabis businesses are still predominantly white-owned.¹⁶ While there have been policies put in place in Illinois, for example, half of the licenses were delegated to people of color. But in most states, it’s difficult for people with prior drug convictions or without tens of thousands of dollars to obtain the licenses required to own and operate a cannabis business.
Restorative justice is crucial to address the historical and systemic disparities caused by cannabis criminalization. Solutions include repealing and expunging cannabis-related arrests and implementing social equity programs that provide support and opportunities for affected communities.
You can also donate money or resources to nonprofits working towards social equity and equality. For example, the Last Prisoner Project is working towards reforming cannabis criminal justice and freeing people in jail for cannabis-related offenses.¹⁷ They also work with people to expunge cannabis-related charges from public records, removing a barrier of entry for people with prior convictions.
Some nonprofits, like Supernova Women and NuProject, are working to ensure equity in the cannabis industry by allocating permits to people of color and offering professional resources to help black entrepreneurs and businesses flourish.¹⁸⁻¹⁹ While progress is slowly but surely being made, it is necessary to acknowledge the past and continue working towards equality and equity to rectify black communities' injustices.
Cannabis, Hemp, and Recognizing Privilege
Black history is American history, and it's important to recognize the contributions of black people to a space that we at Lazarus Naturals take part in and benefit from. Exploring the history of cannabis reveals its connection to institutionalized racism, stereotypes, and triumph — and we all have a lot of work to do to create a better, more equitable system.
Do you have Black-owned or minority-owned organizations in the cannabis space that you recommend supporting? Let us know in the comments below.