A New Reckoning: Cannabis and Black History

War on Drugs

The War on Drugs era ushered in unfair law enforcement towards people of color who were using or carrying cannabis. Intentional bias, such as this, is something that we all understand is harmful and we have a responsibility to root out injustices to help repair the past harm against Black men and women. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that in the United States, "A Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.” Today we celebrate Black History Month by standing up to say, no more.


Black History Month is an extension of Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week, first introduced in 1925. Negro History Week became recognized by the US as Black (African-American) History Month in 1976 to coincide with its bicentennial. And, while both subjects – Black History Month and cannabis – are usually discussed separately, we’d be remiss not to take a look further back to their intersection.


Looking at the history of cannabis in the US, we know that the plant made its way here by way of Africa and the African Diaspora and that it was also an important crop during colonial times, even used as a currency. For instance, Virginia legislation required hemp growth on every farm of the colony in 1619.


In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created with Harry Anslenger assigned as the first commissioner - a position he held until 1962. His racist rhetoric negatively associated cannabis with people of color and eventually lead to its prohibition in 1937. Anslenger’s standards and practices for drug enforcement became the blueprint for the agency and carried over into President Nixon’s War on Drugs in the 1970s with the Controlled Substance Act.


Each year since 1976, American presidents have designated a specific theme for Black History Month. The 2021 theme is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity”. It is crucial to note cannabis advocates are fighting for social equity and diversity within the industry. The prohibition of cannabis and the subsequent War on Drugs era have torn Black families apart. All communities should represent the identity, or face, of cannabis. Although the past harms of cannabis prohibition have disproportionately affected the Black family and community, we are at the point of rewriting history.


Together we have an opportunity to shift the future back to the original place of impact.


Together we must fight to change antiquated prohibition policy.


Together we must petition lawmakers to write policy releasing individuals from past convictions and current incarceration.


Together we must work to repair past harms.


Together we must create equitable economic entry points for Black men and women.


Today we stand united when we say, “Cannabis is American history. Black history is American history. Together we are making American history.”