There might not seem like an obvious link between Black history and cannabis, but the two are intrinsically connected. In fact, West African enslaved peoples worked in hemp fields — particularly in Kentucky — shortly after the crop was brought to the American colonies, as early as the 1600s, until demand fell sharply after the Civil war in 1861. Less than 70 years later, the crop — which was not differentiated between its psychoactive cousin — was outlawed by the U.S. government.
Harry Ainslinger’s Legacy
The way in which cannabis entered prohibition also has its roots in Black history. Harry Anslinger, America’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), turned the nation against cannabis through his bigoted rhetoric. In one particularly inflammatory statement, Anslinger said, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.” This type of language led to the eventual prohibition of cannabis through the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
War on Drugs or War on the People?
By 1971, Nixon had launched his infamous War on Drugs. Cannabis-related arrests skyrocketed, specifically impacting communities of color, as they continue to do today. This, like Anslinger’s promotion of prohibition, was not done accidentally. Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, admitted in a 1994 edition of Harper’s Magazine, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… 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.”
Though it’s been more than 50 years since the inception of the War on Drugs, cannabis-related arrests continue to disproportionately impact Black communities. A 2010 ACLU study found that more than half of all drug arrests in the United States were from cannabis possession, and, even though equal numbers of black and white Americans consume cannabis, Black people were nearly four times more likely to be arrested. Currently, with nearly 700,000 cannabis-related arrests each year (a number that was over 800,000 just a few years ago), these policies affect an enormous number of Americans. Additionally, enforcing marijuana laws costs about $3.6 billion a year, yet has failed to decrease the use or availability of marijuana.
While the industry and our government still has a long way to go to correct the negative impact cannabis criminalization has had on Black communities, we are committed here at Pure Options to providing equal opportunities for employment and advancement. We hire those who have been convicted of low-level cannabis offenses (where legally allowed), and specifically seek to hire staff from communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, as outlined by the Marijuana Regulatory Agency. We recognize, value, and celebrate our Black staff members, and understand that Black history is inherently connected with our industry and what we do every day, not just in the month of February.
—Written by Maggie Farrell-Poshedly, PG Group